CPAC Communications Director Ian Walters raised eyebrows at this year’s conference after telling an audience Friday evening that former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele only got the job because he was “black.”
“We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he’s a black guy; that was the wrong thing to do,” Walters said at the event’s exclusive Ronald Reagan dinner. Many dinner attendees greeted the comments with gasps.
The remarks were first reported by Jon Levine at TheWrap on Twitter.
Walters’ statement drew swift backlash on Twitter, where he faced bipartisan condemnation. Steele had been mingling throughout CPAC on Friday and was just outside the dinner hall at the time Walters spoke.
Steele told TheWrap Saturday that he first became aware of the comments while recording a radio spot that evening and that it showed how much work his party had to do about courting minority voters.
Former RNC chairman Michael Steele
Former RNC chairman Michael Steele
Former RNC chairman Michael Steele smiles during the "Politicon" convention in Pasadena, California, U.S. June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele departs a back-room meeting where he decided to bow out of the voting as the RNC moves on to elect his successor at their winter meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, January 14, 2011. Embattled Steele abandoned his bid for a new term as Republican National Committee chairman on Friday when it became clear that he did not have enough support to win. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 03: (L-R) Former RNC chair Michael Steele appears on SiriusXM's Joe Madison show on Urban View, A Roundtable Of Veteran Journalists, Politicians & Political Commentators, to discuss President Trump's First 100 Days, at SiriusXM DC Performance Space on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) -- Rachel Maddow, Anchor, MSNBC's 'The Rachel Maddow Show', Michael Steele, Former RNC Chair; NBC News Political Analyst appear on 'Meet the Press' in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday July 24, 2016. (Photo by: Bill McCay/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Former RNC Chair Michael Steele, The Wall Street Journal?s Kimberley Strassel appear on'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday Jan 29, 2017. (Photo by: Paul Morigi/NBC News Wire/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), speaks to the media during day two of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. Democratic officials have moved President Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech tomorrow night to the Time Warner Cable Arena from the larger, outdoor Bank of America Stadium because of the possibility of severe weather. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14: Incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (C) leaves the room after the fifth round of votes for RNC chairmanship the Republican National Committee (RNC) Winter Meeting January 14, 2011 in National Harbor, Maryland. After six ballots, Wisconsin state party chairman Priebus leads the field of four candidates for the chairmanship of the RNC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES Ã JANUARY 3: Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks during the RNC Chairmanship Debate at the National Press Club on MOnday, January 3, 2011. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)
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The story was picked up by MSNBC — where Steele works as a contributor. On a call with host Joy Reid, Friday, he expanded further on his feelings about the moment.
“Very disappointed, surprised that people still in the party feel this way and look at the contributions that anyone would make to the party through the prism of race. It’s unfortunate. It’s stupid. It’s immature,” he said. “I hope it is not a reflection of the leadership of CPAC.”
Steele phoned in to “A.M. Joy” Saturday morning, where host Joy Reid asked him, “Do you think the Republican party has a racism problem?”
“Yes, they do, and I think we need to be honest and acknowledge it,” Steele said. “People sit here now and say that this has nothing to do with race. Yeah, it does when you stand on a podium and blatantly speak to race the way Ian did. And that’s fine. Let’s acknowledge that. I’m not saying you are racist; I’m saying you’re having a problem talking about and making expressions around race that often times come off not just as insensitive, but downright racist. And the party is not that way.”
The moment puts a cloud over a fiery but mostly smooth 2018 CPAC, which has seen speeches from both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. In a tweeted response, Walters said he spoke with Steele and apologized.
“I spoke with Mike Steele and apologized because the words I used do not capture my heart,” he said, though Steele told Reid that the apology was not enough.
“I just said you know, that’s not acceptable it’s not enough,” Steele told TheWrap.
It is unclear whether Walters will face any consequences for the snafu.