By K Kaufmann and Chris Kotterman
NEW YORK- Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele called the Republican Party and President George W. Bush the true standard bearers of civil rights and better educational and economic opportunities for minorities in his primetime convention speech Tuesday night.
Characterizing the president as a man who turns hope into action, he said, Bush’s policies have had tangible results for African Americans.
“Our children are learning again,” he said, and ” . . . for the first time ever, more than half of all minority families are homeowners.”
Steele earned his primetime spot by being the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland and the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor. He’s become the most prominent Marylander at the convention, surpassing even Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who with Steele in 2002 put the GOP in charge of the state for the first time in 40 years.
Steele set a sharp tone for his speech with an opening salvo at Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat whose keynote speech at the Democratic Convention made him a national figure overnight. Obama is running for a U.S. Senate seat against former Maryland resident Alan Keyes.
“I had planned to give a moving defense of the conservative principles of the Republican Party,” Steele said, “but . . . Barak Obama gave it last month at the Democratic Convention.”
Steele refuted the historic ties between African Americans and the Democratic Party by noting that it was the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
He also recalled President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to send National Guard troops to help desegregate schools in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 and the role of Republican senators in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, the challenge for minorities today, he said, “isn’t whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter. It’s whether you can own that lunch counter in order to create legacy wealth for your children.”
The problem with Democratic nominee John Kerry’s message to minorities, Steele said, is that it offers only hope, and “hope is not a strategy.”
In contrast, he said, President Bush “knows that too many of our children are headed for the state pen instead of Penn State. He knows that the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ is today’s version of blocking the entrance to the schoolhouse door.”
Steele also criticized Kerry’s leadership skills, saying the Democrat “recently said he doesn’t want to use the word ‘war’ to describe our efforts to fight terrorism. Well, I don’t want to use the words ‘commander-in-chief’ to describe John Kerry.”
Steele also hammered at Kerry’s voting record in Congress, criticizing his support of an amendment that would have slashed intelligence funding in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As he ticked off other bipartisan measures passed in the Senate that Kerry had opposed, the audience joined in his refrain of “But not John Kerry!”
Steele ended the speech with a tribute to his mother, Maebelle Turner, who he described as the daughter of sharecroppers who had to quit school in fifth grade and who worked a minimum-wage job in a laundromat for 45 years.
Noting she was a lifelong Democrat, he said, “she once asked me how I could become such a strong Republican; I simply replied ‘Mom, you raised me well.'”
Standing among other Maryland delegates, Gov. Ehrlich was the first to praise Steele’s speech.
“Mike is an American success story and he’s black,” he said. “We’re trying to break down this notion that because you’re black you have to be a liberal Democrat. We reject that notion.”
Victor Clark Jr., an African American delegate from Baltimore, also focused on Steele’s impact as a role model.
“People stood still and learned a lot about the American dream,” he said. “Anybody that starts at the bottom can lift themselves to the top through their own efforts.”
State Republican Party Chairman John Kane summed up Steele’s performance as “a big win for Maryland, a big win for Michael Steele, and a big win for African Americans. . . . Bottom line: Obama who?”