The Gop Embraces Identity Politics

by Eve Fairbanks | January 30, 2009

Let's take a moment to enjoy the astonishing fact that both of our major political parties are led by African-Americans. Hallelujah.

It's also more than a little astonishing to see the party that turns its nose up at identity politics have its RNC chair choice come down to race. The lament of the Katon Dawson supporter I overheard -- the one who complained that candidate Ken Blackwell, an African-American, "made this about race" when he endorsed fellow African-American Michael Steele -- isn't totally unjustified.

Before Blackwell dropped out after the fourth ballot, everyone in that packed Capital Hilton ballroom was buzzing about how regional, committee-vs-non-committee, or money politics would decide the suspenseful campaign: Northeasterners might break for Marylander Michael Steele. Committee men -- those who think it's crucial to tap a sitting state chairman as RNC head -- might go in for Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis or South Carolina GOP CHair Katon Dawson. People angsty about the GOP's money woes might select incumbent Mike Duncan. All that turned out to be wrong. The candidates' fortunes were turning on a dime, and everything changed when Blackwell -- the candidate, ironically, who got the fewest votes and who doesn't wield much power in his own party -- strode up to the stage, grinning, to withdraw his name. 

Blackwell's forceful endorsement of Steele quoted Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to suggest that choosing Steele would rebaptize the Republican Party into its original faith and reanimate the "promise of the party of Lincoln." The black Republicans in the room were shocked. "I'm very, very surprised [Blackwell endorsed Steele]," Elroy Sailor, J.C. Watts's deputy at JC Watts Companies, told me, even though -- as a Steele supporter -- this was Sailor's dream outcome. Sailor said the bitter divide between hard-core black Republicans like Blackwell (who model themselves after Ward Connerly) and more moderate ones (like Steele or, say, Colin Powell) made him and his friends assume Blackwell would probably back a conservative like Dawson. But as the Washington Independent's fantastic Dave Weigel witnessed, Blackwell and Steele conferred man-to-man in the halls of the Hilton (instead of sending emissaries from their camps, as per the usual tradition), and Sailor -- who had some knowledge of the inside negotiations -- said they essentially agreed that "one of us has to lead this party." The desire to replicate the Obama magic is so powerful.

Not all the black Republicans in the Hilton's ballroom were overjoyed by Steele's victory. Among the complaints I heard: Steele never adequately apologized for busing in homeless people from Philadelphia to distribute fliers in black Maryland neighborhoods during his '06 senatorial campaign. Jabriel Ballentine, of the District, worried that the white party chairmen who had supported Dawson might not accept Steele. And Brian Summers, another young African-American GOPer from D.C. who spent the afternoon prowling the Hilton ballroom sporting a big, red "Katon!" sticker, regaled his buddies with some sarcasm: "I guess it's not about the content of your character, it's about the color of your skin."

As Steele's win was announced from the podium and his RNC supporters screamed and hugged each other, Summers scanned the room moodily and shook his head. "I've never seen so many white people in one place yearning to be free."

--Eve Fairbanks

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