WASHINGTON – It is very hard not to like him. Tall and good-looking, articulate and energetic, always with a broad smile, Michael Steele is fighting to be the first black U.S. senator of the state.
It is also hard to discover that Steele is the Republican candidate — at least from his advertisements that fail to mention his party. He knows that winning the race in a Democratic state means distancing himself from any association with the unpopular Bush administration.
Steele, 48, says he is the outsider charged with bringing “real change” to Washington, D.C., because he hasn’t been in politics long. In fact, he became Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor after Gov. Robert Ehrlich picked him as his running mate in 2002, and before that he led the state Republican Party.
But he’s running against a man — Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin — with a 40-year political career, first in Maryland’s General Assembly and then in Congress.
The lieutenant governor tries to avoid getting into issues like embryonic stem cell research, saying he wants to walk around Maryland and listen to people’s worries before acting in the Senate.
“I am the product of love and hard work,” Steele said when urged by Cardin to define who he was during one debate.
He told The New York Times Magazine in March: “I’m black. I’m a Republican. I’m a father, a husband, a former seminarian.”
Steele has also worked hard to erode one of the Democratic power bases in Maryland — black voters who reliably vote Democratic. Steele gained the endorsement of several Democratic black leaders, and he has been fighting hard in his home county, Prince George’s, which is largely black and which has become one of the election’s biggest battlegrounds.
He lives in Largo with his wife, Andrea Derritt — they met at Johns Hopkins University — and his two teenaged children, Michael and Drew.
Steele was born at Andrews Air Force Base and was raised in Northwest Washington, D.C., by his mother, Maebell Turner. She worked in a laundromat to support her two children, Michael and his sister, Monica Turner, a pediatrician and ex-wife of former boxing champ Mike Tyson.
Years later, Steele asked his mother why she did not take welfare assistance, he recalled in an interview with The Johns Hopkins Magazine in April 2005. “I didn’t want the government raising my children,” she said.
Steele went to St. Gabriel’s Elementary and Archbishop Carroll High School, where he practiced theatre for several years and cultivated his Roman-Catholic faith.
In 1977, he entered the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with a partial scholarship, according to The Baltimore Sun, and got a bachelor’s degree in international relations in 1981.
During those first years at the university, he signed on for drama productions and was freshman class president. His studies suffered the consequences of his active social life, and the university asked him to leave, Steele told the Hopkins magazine.
“Well, I don’t care what you do, and I don’t care how you do it. But you will be back at Johns Hopkins come September,” answered Maebell Turner, when Steele told her the news. He enrolled in summer courses at George Washington University and got all A’s, and then returned to Hopkins.
Seeing Steele now in his sharkskin suits, pocket square and tasseled loafers, it is hard to imagine that he once wore the white tunic of the Augustinian Order. But he did while studying for the priesthood at a monastery after he finished college.
After three years at the order, he decided to leave the habit behind, although not the faith, one of the key elements in his life.
“It came down to, ‘Am I called to serve the people of God as a priest or in a business suit?'” he said to The Baltimore Sun in 2002.
Steele changed the path of his career to law. He got his degree at Georgetown in 1991. He worked for a D.C. law office and then for the Mills Corp., the real estate company.
His choice of the Republican Party was difficult for his family of Roosevelt Democrats to understand, Steel has said.
“My mom, when I told her I was Republican, asked me ‘Why?'” he told students at Howard University in May, according to Associated Press. “I researched the history of both parties. And whether you like it or not . . . the political origins of the African-American community are with the Republican Party.”
One of his most precious possessions is an autographed portrait of President Reagan.
“If you listened to the man, he made a lot of sense. He talked about the core values my mother and grandmother talked about. For me, the party was a very, very comfortable fit,” he told The Sun.
But it was not until the late 1990s that he got more involved in party activities. When Steele first joined the Prince George’s County Republicans in a dinner during 1988, the welcome was cold, Steele described in several interviews.
His determination propelled him to the chairmanship of the Prince George’s County Republican Central Committee in 1994. Four years later, Steele ran for the Republican comptroller nomination, but he finished third.
While he explored other options, in December 2000 Steele became the second black person to chair the Maryland Republican Party. He started working on one of his ambitions: expand the party across the state, especially to black voters.
Two years later, he got the chance he was waiting for when Ehrlich invited him to be his running mate. They won and Steele made history as the first black person to hold that position.
His high profile as lieutenant governor served him well, and he was encouraged and blessed by the Bush administration in his run for Senate, Steele recalled in the New York Times Magazine.
Yet, Steele does not talk about those contacts anymore or even about Bush policies. He just says that the U.S. Senate race is against him, not Bush. “I’m conservative, but I’m also moderate,” he said to The Times Magazine. “As I like to tell people, I’m a little bit hip hop and a little bit Frank Sinatra.” – 30 – CNS-11-3-06