LARGO – Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele kicked off his long-anticipated campaign for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, saying he would bridge the rift between the two political parties in Washington and build “consensus on things that matter to families in their everyday lives.”
“I believe that even though there is dissension in the halls of Congress, there is consensus in the halls of our churches, our schools, and our workplaces,” Steele said. “This consensus on things that matter to families in their everyday lives is where we should focus America’s attention.”
Steele, the first African American elected to statewide office when he became lieutenant governor in 2002, now wants to become Maryland’s first black senator and the first Republican senator in 20 years. He is running to replace Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., who will not seek re-election next year.
The grandson of a sharecropper and the son of a laundress, Steele was the first in his family to go to college and the first to attend law school, he said.
“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” Steele said.
The state Republican Party had been dropping broad hints of support for Steele’s candidacy the last several weeks, and his exploratory committee raised more than $418,000 in the latest reporting period with the Federal Election Commission.
Although widely regarded as a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, Steele has raised far less than the $2.1 million collected by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, who is leaving his seat in the 3rd Congressional District to run for the Senate.
Cardin, however, faces at least five other Democrats for his party’s nomination. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, the former head of the NAACP, is the only other African-American candidate beside Steele.
Poll results released Tuesday show in a head-to-head match-up between Cardin and Steele, Cardin would get 47 percent to Steele’s 38 percent, with 15 percent of voters undecided, according Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
If the match-up was between Mfume and Steele, the vote would be more evenly split, with Steele winning 42 percent to Mfume’s 40 percent, with 18 percent undecided, according to the poll.
Steele, who lives in Largo, chose Prince George’s Community College for his announcement. Thundering drum beats from a 15-piece marching band from Steele’s alma mater, Washington’s Archbishop Carroll High School, filled the college’s basketball arena as supporters gathered for Steele’s speech.
Some wore gray T-shirts stamped with “Women of Steele,” while others waved signs printed with “Bridge of Steele,” referring to his promise to bridge partisan rifts.
Others held hand-lettered signs that simply read, “We Like Mike.”
While waiting for Steele to appear, the crowd chanted “We Like Mike!” That somehow turned into “Four More Years!” A few people looked confused but obligingly went along until an exasperated voice called out, “SIX More Years” — the length of a Senate term.
Steele referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his speech, pointing out that the day he took office was the civil rights leader’s birthday.
“As a young man I realized that the front lines in the new civil rights struggle would be different,” Steele said. “Instead of the right to sit at the lunch counter… the new civil rights struggle would be a struggle for the right to own the diner.”
Steele called for lowering barriers to small business ownership, making health care more affordable, strengthening crime-fighting tools and improving failing schools.
About 300 supporters attended the announcement.
“I think Mr. Steele’s a very fine man,” said John Rowe, a member of the Southern Prince George’s Republican Club, as he sat in the bleachers. “He’s smart, he’s attractive, he might grab some African-American votes that routinely would go to Democratic candidates.”
Like a vote from Garland Williamson.
“I think he transcends party labels, frankly,” said Williamson, an African-American Democrat who owns his own IT firm and who has pledged to support Steele.
“When I think of Michael Steele, I don’t think of Democrats and Republicans,” Williamson said. “I think of a man . . . who wants to make a great state greater. He wants to make sure that all Marylanders have fair and equal opportunity and we’re all pulling in the same direction.”
Steele will face Thomas Hampton of Severna Park and Corrogan Vaughn of Baltimore in next year’s primary. Neither Hampton nor Vaughn have held public office. Hampton has raised $5,000, none in the latest reporting period, and Vaughn has not returned calls about his finances.