Steele Pitches Gop To Naacp

Civil Rights Group Gives Chairman Polite Hearing

July 15, 2009|By Krissah Thompson | Krissah Thompson,The Washington Post

NEW YORK -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele stopped by the NAACP convention Tuesday to press the civil rights organization to consider his party an ally.

The NAACP's relationship with the GOP has been strained for many years. Steele, the first African-American to lead the Republican Party, said he wanted his presence to signal to its members that they have options beyond the Democratic Party.

Reminding people of his membership in the Prince George's County NAACP branch, Steele said he intends to depart from the "complete Republican's guide to speaking to African-Americans."

"I spent some time looking at previous remarks by Republicans before this body," he said, "and I was struck by the litany of phrases that Republicans often cut and paste into a speech to this organization. ... 'Party of Lincoln' four or five times ... oh, and one of my favorites, 'Bull Connor was a Democrat.' "

The line generated laughs and polite applause from NAACP delegates in the Hilton Hotel ballroom. A few stared expressionlessly, but most were gracious - though not bowled over.

"I'm glad that he departed from the usual script," said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.

In fact, Steele sprinkled his speech with self-effacing humor that poked fun at past Republican approaches to African-Americans, even as he proposed a different relationship.

"The GOP and NAACP have very often missed real opportunities to communicate and engage each other," he said. "Indeed, for the GOP and NAACP, outreach should mean more than a speech here and a pat on the back there.

"As the African-American middle class emerges and grows, the Republican Party wants to be a partner who works with you to put in place the tools necessary to sustain that growth and to bring out of poverty those so often left behind."

That line resonated with Willie Guest, president of the Lawton, Okla., NAACP chapter. "I'm glad he was here," Guest said. "What we know is no matter who is in the White House, we'll still be in the poor house."

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