Embattled Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele has often turned to the subject of race in his nearly two-year tenure.
But last week, in a radio interview with Rev. Al Sharpton, Steele ratcheted up the rhetoric, appearing to agree with Sharpton that if he is not reelected as RNC chairman, it will be because the GOP is racist, making “the brother take the fall.”
Sharpton said he couldn’t believe Republicans would even think of ditching Steele as RNC chair.
“You’d be the first brother run out after doing a good job. It would be interesting to see them have a historic win, and the brother takes the fall. Usually the brother takes the fall when they lose,” Sharpton said.
“You’re right. Well, you know, that’s going to be remain to be seen,” Steele said. “I get it. There are folks who are not exactly thrilled with my style of leadership. As I said recently, ‘they’ll get used to it.’”
Sharpton, who offered to “come march for you, Brother Steele” to Steele’s laughter (“that’s an interesting idea,” he said) was still incredulous.
“I don’t understand how that [firing Steele] could even be in the air. But it is the Republicans,” Sharpton said.
“Yeah,” Steele replied, laughing.
Unfortunately for Steele, his accusations of racism do not appear to be striking fear in any of the Republican establishment’s hearts.
“I have had no members even suggest race,” said Gary Emineth, the former North Dakota Republican Party chairman, who is one of over a dozen names being mentioned to replace Steele.
“This RNC Chairman election is not about race whatsoever. It is about restoring trust, integrity, and accountability of RNC,” said Solomon Yue, a member of the RNC’s executive committee and an influential critic of Steele’s.
Yue noted that in the wake of the scandal over the RNC spending nearly $2,000 at a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex acts, Steele’s allies in the RNC had brought up Steele’s race in defending the chairman to colleagues.
Now, he said, nobody is talking about it. Except Steele, of course.
Key Republican operatives say Steele’s made far too many errors at this point for his race – and the “optics” of the GOP removing its first African-American RNC chair – to matter.
“Anyone who believes the movement to replace Steele as RNC chair is fueled by racial motivations has been living in a cave and ignoring his gross mismanagement of the RNC,” said one Republican, clearly a Steele critic.
“He has left absolutely no surplus heading into a critical presidential election, dismantled the critical 72-hour GOTV program, used the office for personal profit from speaking engagements and a book, and launched a massive bus tour as a front for his reelection campaign for chairman complete with stops in territories. Republicans won in spite of Michael Steele, not because of him; it is time for change,” the source said.
Concerns about the perception of removing Steele because of his race “went out the window with millions of dollars in debt,” a second GOP operative said.
The source expected Steele to raise the issue if he is defeated, but said it won’t matter.
“I’m sure he’ll play the race card, but it will fall on mostly deaf ears. It’s his record, not his race, that will be his downfall.”
“If there is a race issue in this election cycle – it is all on Steele’s part – it’s his perspective,” said Emineth. “I believe he is going to have to find a better reason than that for him to be reelected.”
One GOP source said that it could end up looking bad for the GOP.
“It’s not about race, although I agree that the optics of the GOP tossing out an African-American chairman doesn’t look too great for a party working on inclusion and expanding the tent,” the source said.
It’s tougher for Steele to make his pitch since accusing others of racism isn’t the GOP’s modus operandi.
“At the end of the day Republicans are about merit and performance and race should not be a factor. Playing the victim card and identity politics are what Democrats do,” the third GOP operative said.
But considering his Sharpton interview, Steele appears likely to push the issue.
He shielded himself from criticism over the bondage-themed nightclub expense in part by telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he had a “slimmer margin” as RNC chair because of his race.
“The honest answer is, yes,” he said. “Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. It’s a different role for me to play and others to play and that’s just the reality of it,” Steele said.
Though Steele has occasionally turned his racially-focused glance at Democrats – he raised the specter of racism twice when President Obama and former President Bill Clinton sought to persuade black candidates to drop out of campaigns to benefit the party’s shot at winning the race – Steele has mostly accused his own party of racial sins.
In a TV interview with comedian D.L. Hughley, Hughley claimed “the Republican National Convention, it literally look like Nazi Germany.”
Steele nodded, mute. The only verbal response he mustered was, “well, I’m here now…and you’re right.”
Steele has said he’s faced difficulties stemming from his race in his rise to the chair of the RNC.
“I’ve been in the room and they’ve been scared of me,” he said on the Roland Martin show.
Ironically, Steele’s race played a role boosting his candidacy for chairman.
Then, in the wake the 2008 electoral drubbing of Republicans, RNC members worried publicly that Steele’s rival candidates could hurt the party’s image because they were Southern and white.
After Ken Blackwell, a black conservative, dropped out of the race, backing Steele by urging the other RNC members to “make good on the promise of Lincoln,” soon only Steele and South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson were left.
Dawson had drawn criticism for his membership in an all-white country club. Steele won. “I suspect that had some impact, yes,” said New Jersey RNC member David Norcross, according to National Journal.
Steele vowed to rectify the party’s “image problem.” Quietly, GOP insiders talked of their hope Steele would become an effective foil to Obama, the nation’s first black president.
A spokesman for Steele declined to comment.