LARGO -- Turning on the charm of a salesman, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee made an appeal to a mostly African-American crowd at Prince George's Community College last night, declaring, "Give us a chance, we'll give you a choice."
It was Ken Mehlman's first foray onto a public stage in Maryland since taking his post as head of the RNC last month. The crowd of about 200 that gathered in Largo, which included local elected officials, business leaders and Republican Party representatives, greeted Mehlman with steady applause.
"Every child ought to have a first-class education in the country," Mehlman said. "If you give us a chance, we will give you a chance to own your own home and start your own small business."
Mehlman plans to hold a series of forums that he began yesterday as part of a nationwide effort to increase Republican Party membership by reaching out to people of color.
He was joined by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who also spoke as if campaigning for an upcoming election.
"We're going to knock on the doors," Steele said. "We're going to sit at the kitchen tables."
In an interview, Mehlman said Steele is "an essential and indispensable part" of the party's outreach to the minority community.
Mehlman officially took over as RNC chairman last month and immediately began pushing for a perpetual GOP campaign to build on Republican successes nationwide.
Since taking the post, Mehlman -- a 38-year-old Pikesville native who was manager of President Bush's re-election drive -- has emphasized a recruiting strategy that targets not only conservatives but also African-Americans and Hispanics as a way to increase the party's support.
That has led the Republican Party to note the successful election of Steele -- Maryland's first African-American lieutenant governor -- as an example of how the GOP's arms are open to all people.
In Maryland, the concerns of people of color increasingly have risen to the forefront of state politics, in particular because of a growing minority population.
Of the state's 5.5 million residents, almost a third are African-American and more than 8 percent are Latino or Asian.
The growth in the Latino population led to the election of the first two Hispanic delegates during the 2002 election.
Political observers attributed part of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s success in the 2002 gubernatorial election to his decision to pick Steele.
But in recent days, the Ehrlich administration has been under criticism from some minorities and women over a discussion with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer about ending the state program that is designed to increase minority participation in state work.
Angered by the discussion, lawmakers announced at a press conference that they would introduce legislation to ensure that the program continues through at least 2012. They said the state is far from reaching the goal of creating a "level playing field" for people of all races and genders to compete for state work.
Last night, Steele said: "Our administration is not backing away from, doing away with or de-emphasizing minority business enterprise."