Republicans choose their first African-American leader

In a gesture to African-American and Hispanic communities, members of the Republican Party elected Michael Steele as the first black chairman of the right-of-centre US party.


AFP -US Republicans elected their party's first-ever African-American leader Friday, throwing down the gauntlet to rival Democrats after bitter losses in November when Barack Obama became the first black to win the White House.

After being voted in as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), rising political star Michael Steele vowed to revitalize conservatives in a party he and others acknowledge needs a makeover in order to regain some of its lost political stature.

"To Americans who believe in the future of this country, to those who stand in difference with us, it's time for something completely different. And we're going to bring it to them," Steele said after six ballots to choose the new RNC chairman.

"This is our opportunity," Steele, 50, added. "I cannot do this by myself."

On a day of high political drama, the former lieutenant governor of the state of Maryland and candidate for US Senate in 2006 defeated several powerful GOP insiders, including South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson in the final ballot.

Steele won by a vote of 91 to 77, with 85 votes needed to win.

He is tasked with rejuventating -- and diversifying -- a party that is overwhelmingly white, and which was left licking its wounds after losing the presidency in November and seeing Democrats solidify their grip on both houses of Congress.

Steele's victory puts minority African-Americans at the pinnacle of the country's two major parties, capping a remarkable year of ascendancy for blacks in US politics, after Obama became the nation's first black president.

His win is all the more startling given the toxic atmosphere throughout stretches of the presidential campaign last year, when Republicans were accused of not-so-subtly injecting race into the campaign.

But with the drubbing they received in November, Republican leaders have acknowledged that their party suffers from an image problem.

"My concern is unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

In his brief acceptance speech Steele acknowledged the historic nature of the vote -- and the need to take the party in a new direction.

"We're going to bring this party to every corner, every board room, every neighborhood, every community. And we're going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us.

"And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."

In a statement released after the vote, the RNC said Steele was a "self-described Lincoln Republican," referring to Civil War-era president Abraham Lincoln whom Obama counts as his own political hero.

Steele's counterpart Tim Kaine, the Democratic National Committee chairman, congratulated Steele and hoped he could work with him to "put partisanship and the politics of the past aside to get our economy working again.

"The American people have sent a clear message that the challenges we face are too great for us to get bogged down by outmoded ideological divides," Kaine said in a statement.

The final RNC vote pitted Steele against Dawson, a white Southerner who was pressured to resign last year from a whites-only country club.

And another candidate for the Republican chairmanship, Chip Saltsman, triggered another bout of soul-searching for the party last month when he sent out CDs of a song about Obama titled "Barack the Magic Negro."

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