Washington - Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele survived a five-hour ballot marathon to win election yesterday as the first African-American chairman of the Republican Party.
Steele was regarded as an outsider and an underdog in the five-way leadership contest. The other top contenders were all sitting members of the Republican National Committee, which had not reached outside its membership for a chairman in a contested election in more than 30 years.
"This is a remarkable moment," Steele told a post-election news conference. "Some say it's historic, but it's just one more step, one more bold step, that the party of Lincoln has taken since its founding."
He was asked about his comment, during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate run in Maryland, that campaigning as a Republican that year was like wearing "a scarlet letter," a remark that stirred anger in party circles.
"This is a new moment for our party," responded Steele. "We can take that scarlet badge off and wear a very proud 'R' on our chest."
The 50-year-old lawyer assumes the chairmanship of a national party that received just 4 percent of the African-American vote in the last election and is at its lowest ebb in recent decades. The RNC is equally lacking in diversity, with just three black members out of 168.
Race was not an overt factor in yesterday's contest, and there was another African-American candidate, Ohio conservative Ken Blackwell, who finished in last place. Blackwell withdrew before the fourth ballot and endorsed Steele, though it wasn't possible to determine what difference, if any, that made in the outcome.
Steele's supporters at the meeting said that his was the best face for the Republican Party to put forward, now that the first African-American president, Democrat Barack Obama, is in the White House.
One state party chairman said Steele did benefit, at the end, from a desire by some committee members not to award the top job to Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman, whose former membership in an all-white country club was prominently featured in news coverage and threatened to reinforce the party's already negative image in the eyes of many Americans.
The sixth and final ballot came down to a choice between Dawson and Steele, who prevailed by a 91-77 margin.
"It is time for something completely different, and we're going to bring it to them," Steele said to applause from RNC members in a downtown Washington hotel ballroom.
His victory was the result of an extensive, and expensive, high-tech campaign led by many of the party's top political consultants. But Steele did not appear to have remarks prepared when he took the podium to thank the committee members for electing him.
"As a little boy growing up in this town," he said, then paused, "this is awesome."
Born at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, he was reared in the District of Columbia, where his mother was a laundry worker. Among those on hand to celebrate was his sister, Monica, who captured the scene with a point-and-shoot digital camera.
Steele, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, earned a law degree from Georgetown University, though he sported a buff-and-blue school tie yesterday from crosstown rival George Washington University, which he also attended.
He got his start in politics as a party activist in Prince George's County, finished third in the 1998 Republican primary for state comptroller and became Maryland party chairman in 2000. His selection as Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 running mate made him the state's first black lieutenant governor, but yesterday's election was the first major contest he won on his own.
Ehrlich, who did not attend the RNC meeting, said in an interview that Steele had been "sweating this out because he was always behind," but he "just continued to pick up steam."
Steele "loves the party. He loves bringing people together. He loves building coalitions. We're very excited, very happy for him," the former governor said.
Also absent was the last Maryland native to serve as RNC chairman, Ken Mehlman, a former campaign manager for President George W. Bush who was given the party job after the 2004 election.
There were tears in the eyes of some of Steele's supporters, including Georgia Republican Chairwoman Sue Everhart, who seconded Steele's nomination and denied afterward that she ever doubted he would win.
Steele himself, looking over the crowd, said, "I remember sitting on this body in 2000 and in 2002, and I never thought this day would come."
As chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, Steele served briefly on the RNC. Still, he was regarded as an outsider in the race for the committee chairmanship, which pays about $200,000 a year.
The incumbent, Mike Duncan of Kentucky, led on the first ballot but dropped out after a later round, when it became clear that he couldn't win.
"Obviously the winds of change are blowing at the RNC," said Duncan, a committee member for 17 years.
Steele's reputation as a communicator, developed in part through his recent work as a Fox News commentator, was a leading asset, party leaders said.
At his post-election news conference, Steele was asked about a comment by Obama, who campaigned for Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin in the 2006 Maryland Senate race. The future president was said to have described Steele as an amiable fellow who could probably do the job of senator, despite a thin resume.
"I would say to the new president, 'Congratulations;' it's going to be an honor to spar with him," Steele responded. "And I would follow that up with, 'How do you like me now?' "
Steele was also asked to explain his warning, during his victory speech to the RNC, to "those of you who wish to obstruct. Get ready to get knocked over."
The new chairman said he was referring to "anyone who's in the way." Steele said that "this is the dawn of a new party, moving with strength and conviction, and we're not giving way."
As for how he intended to fix the party's negative image, Steele stepped out from behind the podium, motioned at his clothing for the cameras and wisecracked, "Well, I got a nice suit, and the tie is good."
He went on to acknowledge the party's image problem, but blamed it, at least in part, on Democrats and the news media, who, he said, have defined Republicans in negative terms.
Republicans have been "misidentified as a party that doesn't care, a party that's insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that's unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans. And nothing can be further from the truth," said Steele.
Former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who got his start as a Michigan party activist, said in an interview that Steele could help Republicans attract "not just African-American voters, but also those who are more moderate and feel that the party isn't diverse enough and doing enough to reach out."
Steele's liabilities in the chairman's election included questions about whether he was up to the task of running the national headquarters, which employs hundreds of people and spends hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as criticism that he was too moderate to lead a conservative party.
Steele was a co-founder of the Republican Leadership Council, a group headed by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Even though he opposes abortion, and quit the group last spring, Steele was attacked by social conservatives for his association with Whitman, a prominent supporter of abortion rights.
In the balloting, Steele ran second in the first round and briefly took the lead in the third round, only to slip behind Dawson in the fourth round.
After Blackwell's endorsement - a surprise, since his candidacy was backed by some of the party's most conservative members and was seen by some as a counter to Steele - the momentum shifted.
Steele pulled ahead by 10 votes in the fifth round, just six short of the 85 needed to win, making his victory all but inevitable.
Baltimore Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.
michael s. steele
Born: Oct. 19, 1958
Education: bachelor's degree, Johns Hopkins University, 1981; law degree, Georgetown University Law Center, 1991
Experience: chairman of Prince George's County and Maryland Republican parties; Maryland lieutenant governor, 2003-2007; chairman of GOPAC
Personal: married, two children