The political milestones for people of color continue.

Michael Steele, former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, has been selected as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. According to the AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Steele was elected Republican National Committee chairman on Friday, defeating the incumbent party chief and three other challengers over six rounds of voting to become the first black to lead the GOP.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor takes over a beleaguered GOP as Republicans seek to rebound from back-to-back defeats in national elections that gave Democrats control of Congress and the White House.

“As a little boy growing up in this town, this is awesome,” said Steele, the most moderate candidate in the field and considered an outsider because he’s not a committee member.

In a brief acceptance speech, the new GOP chairman struck a tone of inclusiveness.

“We’re going to say to friend and foe alike: We want you to be a part of us, we want you to with be with us, and for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over,” Steele said.

He won 91 votes out of a possible 168 in the sixth round. A simple majority of 85 was needed, but it took six rounds for Steele to win.

This move was not only another step in the right direction for the country, but it was notably significant for Republicans.  For starters, this puts the GOP in a much better position to recapture moderate voters who have slowly moved away from the party. While much of the attention typically falls on the Democrats and their inability to dent Republican electoral strongholds in the South, the 2008 election was more of a referendum on the GOP. No two ways about it: they were  flat-out embarrassed in just about every part of the country. Voters who should have been all but secured found themselves on Team Obama during the general election. Additonally, Republicans were losing House and Senate seats all over the South, clearly an indication that their ability to connect with moderates was severely compromised. However, having someone like Steele – who, by the way, has hinted at adopting a 50-state strategy – should make things interesting in future elections. 

Also, I think Michael Steele will bring a new and objective definition to a decidedly one-faced party. I appreciated when he essentially cosigned with Colin Powell’s earth-shattering sentiments on MTP; when he emphasized the “image problem” facing his party.  For much too long, the party has been co-opted by a lone group of idealogues who promote certain things which are in direct contradiction to ideologies of the more  sensible conservatives and moderates out there.  With Steele, the GOP could transform into the party who would rather provide healthcare than bomb other countries, who would commit themselves to defending the lives of living as much as the lives of the unborn, who could devote more to aiding the needy and less to aiding the greedy.

Finally, this was an important move toward more diversity in politics. While Colin and Condi were some of the most important faces in the Bush Adminstration, that was not enough to quell the doubts that Republicans had the potential for diversity. It will take the Republicans a while to shake the images of all-white rallies and racist comments from the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and – most recently – former RNC chair candidate, Chip Saltsman. But having a person like Steele as the face of the RNC is a certainly a step in the right direction. It’s not likely that an entire wave of black people will break ranks with the Democrats in favor of Steele and his GOP friends. Recall this year’s Republican National Convention where less than 2% of the delegates were black. But for people who were looking for the Republicans to embrace diversity, Steele’s selection could not have come at a better time. 

President Obama managed to secure a staggering 95% of the black electorate. With black people generally subscribing to the Democratic Party, that level of support was to be expected. But it was still approximately 3 points higher than what Gore received in 2000 and closer to 7 points more than John Kerry. Add to that, the fact that black people turned out in record numbers. Quite frankly, black people became a group the GOP can no longer afford to ignore.   

Admittedly, there was something enjoyable about watching the GOP crash and burn during the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 general election. But I also recognize that multiple parties are necessary for a healthy democracy to flourish. That said, I’m interested to see if the appointment of Michael Steele will do anything to help the GOP reclaim the political authority they recently boasted.

I guess we’ll find out in 2010.