Salena Zito

Michael Steele wanted to rebuild the Republican Party after two crushing national election defeats because he has “a passion for a party I believe in.”

“When the opportunity presented itself,” Steele said in his office, just blocks from the Capitol, “I saw it as a chance to help take the elephant by the tail and turn it around in a new direction.”

That direction is not turning away from principles and values that have defined the party since 1854 but “in a direction that those principles and values can be relevant in the 21st century.”

At first, Steele, 50, might seem an unlikely figure to lead the GOP out of its political wilderness. Yet his scrappiness — in life and in politics — may be perfect for the task.

Born in Maryland, he grew up in Washington; his mother worked as a laundress, his stepfather as a truck driver, to raise him and a sister.

He majored in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, then spent three years as a seminarian at Villanova University. He left before taking vows as a priest and instead earned a law degree from Georgetown University.

The first black to win statewide office in Maryland (lieutenant governor, 2003-07), he is the first to chair the Republican Party — and only the second to head either party.

He beat five rivals in six rounds of voting in January to be the 63rd GOP chairman.

He won, he believes, by reminding committee members that he began at the party’s grassroots, as a committee chairman.

“I have knocked on doors and licked envelopes. I know what it takes to win an election from the ground up,” he said. “I also know what it is like to have a lot of those doors slammed in my face.”

He isn’t just kidding, after all, when he talks about the challenge of being a black Republican in the District of Columbia.

Parallels to a Democrat

The past four months have brought highs and lows.

Steele raised an impressive $6.7 million in March, far more than Democratic Chairman Tim Kaine — but a string of media mini-gaffes sent him into a month of self-exile.

Steele’s challenge is not unlike one that faced another Democratic chairman: When Howard Dean took over his party in early 2005, it had won no more than 16 states in the last two presidential elections; morale was rock-bottom.

Everyone questioned if the party could ever again be a national player.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.