ANNAPOLIS – If Michael Steele runs for governor sometime in the future, don’t vote for him because he’s black.
That’s not what he wants.
“That would cheapen it,” said Steele, who will become Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor on Jan. 15. “Don’t give it to me just because I’m a black man.”
The color of Steele’s skin is hardly his most notable feature. The 6-foot- plus former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party towers over his colleagues, reporters and constituents.
However, just because Steele stands out in the crowd for other reasons than skin color doesn’t mean he’s not in touch with Maryland’s African-American community.
When African-American voters asked the Rev. John Heath about Steele during the gubernatorial race, he gave them a signal.
“I told them he’s a brother,” said Heath, community affairs liaison at Coppin State College and former black Republican candidate for House of Delegates. “In my community, that’s a code word for `he understands the black community.'”
“I know the issues that are important to black people in the state. I bring that voice to those people,” Steele said. “What African-American has had direct influence on Gov. Parris Glendening in the past eight years?”
Gov.-Elect Bob Ehrlich and Steele’s victory, however, is not a victory for the state’s black population in terms of issues, said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.
“It’s less important that he made history, but rather more important what he does when it’s time to make policy,” said Paulson.
Heath knew from the time Ehrlich chose Steele as his running mate, it would have enormous implications for the state’s African-American community.
“Michael’s impact hits so many areas as a Republican and as an African- American,” said Heath. “He opens up a door that says, `Hey, we can access, we can make a difference, we can be in positions of power.'”
Steele’s new job is a sign of things to come, said Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
“It shows everyone, not just African-Americans, but all minorities, that Republicans can win in Maryland,” said Ellington. “It opens up the halls of power in Annapolis to African-Americans.”
The Prince George’s County native is no stranger to leadership. In addition to serving as chairman of the Maryland GOP from 2000-2002, Steele was chairman of the Prince George’s Republican Central Committee from 1994-2000. He also served on the board of trustees at his undergraduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, from 1981-85.
Steele has his law degree from Georgetown University.
Ehrlich’s choosing of Steele was not without criticism. The campaign of Democratic rival Kathleen Kennedy Townsend accused Ehrlich of not being in touch with Maryland’s black community. Murmurs of Ehrlich choosing Steele to “lure” black voters circulated quietly among state Democrats.
Others labeled Steele a token addition to the Ehrlich campaign. In its editorial endorsement of Townsend, The Baltimore Sun said Steele “brings little to the team but the color of his skin.”
“The thought that they could only see me as `just a black man’ was insulting,” Steele said. “It showed a failure to understand the diversity of African-Americans.”
Criticism of Steele by black Democrats echo those of black Democrats nationwide who have a tendency to turn on black Republicans, Heath said, labeling them as traitors.
“What we have now is a situation where people don’t know history,” Heath said. “It was the Democrats who kept Jim Crow laws. Every advancement African- Americans have made, a Republican had to be there to help.”
Many in the black community, Steele said, are joining the party as “progressive conservatives,” or rather people who want change but maintain traditional family values.
“If our party ever gets it together, and we will, we’ll realize the power of our message to attract blacks, Hispanics, women and other minorities,” he said.
At the candidates’ only televised debate in late September, there were reports that Townsend supporters passed out Oreo cookies to represent Steele, joking he was black on the outside but white in the middle.
Paulson denied the incident happened and said the only documented accusation came from Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick.
Steele, however, said an Oreo cookie rolled to his feet during the debate.
“Maybe it was just someone having their snack, but it was there,” Steele said. “If it happened, shame on them if they are that immature and that threatened by me.”
But issues of race weren’t the only topics for which Steele came under fire. While running on the GOP ticket, the Maryland Republican Party paid him $5,000 a month in consulting fees. However, Steele had already been doing the same work for no charge before joining Ehrlich’s campaign, and there is no salary for the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
Steele, however, said he still had a job to do just like Ehrlich and Townsend.
“The bottom line is that it was not unethical, it was not illegal and it was not immoral,” said Steele, who said he checked with the Republican Party’s lawyers before accepting the money.
The title “first black” isn’t an unfamiliar one for Steele.
He was the only African-American GOP chairman in America when elected to the position in 2000.
And he’s not worried about working with black, or any other, Democrats, even though they dominate General Assembly.
“There will be fights, and some of them will be partisan. That’s the sport,” Steele said. “But we’re willing to work together to make Maryland successful.”
Steele will focus on issues concerning blacks in Maryland such as crime, economics and development in their communities. He criticized the Glendening administration for not working hard enough to alleviate crime problems in the state’s African-American communities.
Success as a lieutenant governor, may make the concept of a black governor more of a reality, and that that black governor could be a Republican is just another sign of the progression of the party, Steele said. “It’s not an easy transition. A lot of people don’t want (black Republicans) in power. A lot of people didn’t want me to be lieutenant governor and, to be honest, there were people who didn’t want me to be head of the Maryland Republican Party,” Steele said. “I try to meet those challenges head on.” – 30 – CNS-11-22-02