Steele tells young Republicans ‘Your time is now’

RNC Chair Steele leads ?Big Tent? revival

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Headlining the “Blueprint for Tomorrow” dinner on the eve of the state GOP’s leadership election, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was on a mission to ramp up enthusiasm, reawaken conservative fiscal values and revamp the party’s “small tent” image.

House Minority Leader Mike May, former Congressman Bob Beauprez and RNC Chairman Michael Steele visit Friday night.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Steele became head of the National Republican Party in January, emerging from a field of five candidates.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd of 750 Republicans in a hotel ballroom at the Denver Marriott South in Douglas County, Steele flung open the tent flaps to welcome all Republicans — particularly young adults.

The first black RNC chair asked the young Republicans to stand. About half the people in the room stood, including nearly a hundred who were clearly middle-aged or older.

The audience roared with laughter. Steele repeated the call — this time specifying “young” as those between the ages of 16 and 40.

“Do not accept the notion that you are the future — because you are NOT the future of this party,” Steele told the 200 or so young Republicans who remained standing. “You are the present. You are the here and now of this party.”

Steele recalled attending his first Republican Party dinner in Maryland’s Prince George’s County when he was in his 20s. He waited for someone to talk to him — and no one did.

“When I left that dinner, a lot of my friends told me to walk away from this party because it doesn’t like young people. It doesn’t like blacks. It doesn’t give a damn about you,” Steele recalled.

“I had two choices. One was to wipe the dust of this party from my feet. The other was to really take people on,” said Steele. “Three years later, I was the chairman of the Prince George’s County Republican Party.”

Steele was elected chair of the Maryland GOP in 2000, lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2002 and chair of GOPAC in 2007.

“This year, I stand before you as the chairman of the Republican National Committee,” said Steele, to resounding applause.

“I’m charging you, this night, to get involved. Take ownership of this party,” he urged.

Steele is aware that young voters are crucial to the future success of the Republican Party. Of an estimated 23 million voters under the age of 30 who cast votes last November, 66 percent voted for President Barack Obama, compared with 32 percent who voted for Republican Arizona Senator John McCain.

More than 52 percent of young voters cast ballots in the 2008 general election — the highest turnout since 1982, when 55.4 percent voted. According to data published by Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, young voter turnout has steadily increased since the 2000 presidential election.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele addresses Colorado Republicans Friday night, telling them that now is the time "to leanr from our mistakes. I want us to be ready to reclaim our future."
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Steele also hopes to attract unaffiliated voters and reclaim disenchanted Republicans. He said the GOP embraces voters who hold a wide spectrum of beliefs while adhering to core conservative values.

“The problem isn’t that Americans have become less conservative,” Steele said. “It’s that the Republican
Party’s credibility as the reliable conservative choice is flawed. It’s not working.”

“We started drinking from that wonderful Potomac River, and we got the Potomac fever. And we lost our minds,” he mused. “We actually thought we were Democrats, and we started acting like them.”

The party, he said, “needs a new attitude. We gotta check that attitude.”

The GOP will regain its stature on the basis of “time-honored, conservative values,” said Steele. He defined those values as “freedom, individual liberty, respect for life — born and unborn — and a commitment to economic growth and prosperity for every enterprising American.”

Now is the time “to learn from our mistakes,” Steele said. “I want us to be ready to reclaim our future.”

The 2008 election delivered a bruising blow to Republicans. Democrats gained the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress. Colorado Republicans got a double whammy. Democrats maintained control in the Legislature, and State Attorney General John Suthers, who wasn’t up for re-election, became the only Republican holding statewide office — a position he constantly bemoans as “lonely.”

It’s a reversal of fortune when you consider that Republicans dominated Democrats in Colorado’s congressional delegation in 2003. Then, the party boasted of U.S. Senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and Congressmen Bob Beauprez, Joel Hefley, Scott McInnis, Bob Schaffer and Tom Tancredo.

Today, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, of the 5th Congressional District, and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, of the 6th Congressional District, are the lone Republicans in the state’s nine-person congressional delegation.

Steele recognized a number of Republican elected officials, and especially thanked Lamborn and Coffman for holding the conservative line on Capitol Hill.

The crowd became more boisterous — hissing and booing — when Steele mentioned Democratic Party leaders House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Harry Reid.

Pelosi and Reid are pushing tax plans, bailouts and stimulus packages that amount to “wealth redistribution,” said Steele, warning that “redistribution of wealth will mire the county in debt, despair and desolation.”

“When there are more people moving down the ladder of prosperity than up — this is not the America we want,” said Steele. “This is not the America we want!”

Steele was raised in the District of Columbia’s Petworth neighborhood by his widowed mother, Maebell Steele, the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper.

He recalled his mother grappling with a strapped budget — figuring out how to pay for schooling, groceries, clothing and other necessities.

“If a sharecropper’s daughter with a 5th grade education can balance her books and live within her means, then why can’t the federal government do the same?” asked Steele.

Steele said his mother made sure that he and his half-sister, Monica Turner, “knew the value of hard work at home and in the workplace... On Sundays, she made sure our behinds were in church. And on Monday mornings, our noses were in the school books.”

Steele said that there are “Maebells” throughout the country.

“They’re the ones, who make this country what it is — through wars, Depression, good times and tough times. The good thing about the Republican Party is that we know that … we celebrate that.”

After graduating from the Archbishop Carroll Roman Catholic High School, Steele earned a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He devoted three years as a seminarian in the Order of St. Augustine, but left before taking the vows of priesthood. Steele earned a Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1991.

Steele called on Republicans to unite and work toward building a consensus of new ideas.

“I’m tired of same old, same old. I’m tired of Republicans whining and complaining about every little thing,” said Steele. “I’m tired of Republicans picking on each other rather than picking on Democrats.”

Applause and cheers exploded in the room.

Steele said the Republican Party’s mission since 1856, has been to empower people so they can create opportunities and be self-reliant.

“It’s the people who make a difference between success and failure,” he said. “It’s the people — not the government.”

Steele said he hasn’t found one person who is working a minimum wage job and says, “this is the most money that I want to make in my life … I haven’t found one person yet who says to the federal government, ‘Limit how much I can earn’ … ‘Tax me as much as you want.’”

“I haven’t found that person. If you do — lock them up!” he declared.

Before and after his speech, Steele was engulfed by enthusiastic Republicans. He solicited their concerns and ideas as he shook hands and doled out hugs.

Steele said that, according to media reports, “there’s no life in this party.”

“This room, tonight, tells me that’s a lie … We’re ready to lead; to a kick a little you-know-what!”

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com