August 31, 2004,
The national GOP may soon discover something Maryland conservatives have known for years: Michael Steele is a terrible thing to waste.
At around 9 o'clock tonight, Steele who is lieutenant governor of Maryland will speak to the Republican delegates gathered at Madison Square Garden. And tomorrow night, he will appear on stage once more, in his role as deputy permanent chairman, to help preside over the roll call of the states.
"I'm going to talk about the history of the party and its importance to the civil-rights movement," says Steele of his speech this evening. "I'm also going to talk about the president's agenda and how he's putting hope into action. I have a lot to squeeze in. They've given me about ten minutes, but I hope to tweak it up a little, maybe to 15 minutes."
It isn't every lieutenant governor who gets so much as the time of day at the convention in fact, Steele's the only one listed as a speaker on the schedule. Not even his boss, Gov. Bob Ehrlich, is receiving such prime treatment.
"Governor Ehrlich is not jealous," insists Steele. "He's happy about this. We're branding Maryland, and it's nice to see our team recognized."
Indeed, it's hard not to recognize the Ehrlich-Steele team. Two years ago, they defeated a Kennedy Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of RFK in the gubernatorial race. She was lieutenant governor at the time and, for a while, was much touted as the leader of a new generation of Kennedys who would bring Camelot into the 21st century.
But Ehrlich and Steele beat her, in a state that doesn't often vote for Republicans: Gore trounced Bush for Maryland's ten electoral votes in 2000, and the GOP can't field a competitive candidate against either of the state's two Democratic senators. (There's an election this year featuring Barbara Mikulski, the incumbent Democrat, and nobody expects her to lose, or even to break a sweat in running well ahead of GOP candidate E. J. Pipkin.) The playing field for Republicans who hope to become senators is so lousy in Maryland that Alan Keyes has transplanted himself to Illinois (where the playing field may be no better but is at least different).
Steele, of course, draws additional attention because he is a rare thing: an elected black Republican. There are thousands of elected black Democrats holding various offices around the country, including several dozen members of Congress. By contrast, there are just 59 black Republicans holding any office requiring a partisan election in the United States, according to a new study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Steele is one of them and, as a lieutenant governor who must win statewide, he is, in a way, the highest ranking.
His only competition in this category would be Ohio's Jennette Bradley, who is also a black Republican lieutenant governor. Bradley, however, is a fairly liberal member of the party and she has the additional disadvantage of serving under Bob Taft, one of America's worst GOP governors. (Bradley will join Steele on stage Wednesday night for the roll call.)
Steele is a rock-ribbed conservative. How did he get that way? "My mother raised me well," he jokes, though there's also a point buried in his humor. Steele is the beneficiary of one of the human race's most extraordinary acts of compassion: He's adopted. He also had a mother who eschewed welfare and toiled away at low-paying jobs to send him to top schools.
"I grew up in an FDR-JFK-LBJ household and I was a Democrat for maybe 15 minutes," says Steele. "The first election that I could vote in was 1976. I was impressed by the peanut farmer from Georgia, but even more impressed by Ronald Reagan. He had the same values as my mother. It just clicked with me."
Other important influences, he says, include Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass. Steele, who is Catholic, also names Pope John Paul II as a figure who has inspired him.
Catholicism explains two of the issues abortion and the death penalty on which Steele has disagreed publicly with Ehrlich. Whereas the governor is pro-choice, Steele is pro-life, even to the point of having qualms about rape and incest exceptions (which is the place where all principled pro-lifers find themselves, though most pro-life politicians have cut corners in order to make their commitments more palatable to voters). And whereas Ehrlich is a death-penalty proponent, Steele has announced grave concerns over its use.
Yet the man is also a team player. He agrees with Ehrlich on just about every other key issue, most notably Ehrlich's desire to increase state revenues with slot machines.
Moreover, Steele is doing everything he can to help the GOP attract black votes. His addition to the Ehrlich ticket in Maryland did not lead to a huge exodus of black voters from the Democratic party: Exit polls suggest that the Republicans won 14 or 15 percent of the black vote, which is much better than the 9 percent George W. Bush won in 2000 but still poor in the grand scheme of things. Yet Maryland's black turnout in 2002 also seems to have been depressed Steele's presence on the GOP ticket may not have led to many conversion experiences, but it possibly led a number of black voters to decide they wouldn't vote against the Ehrlich-Steele ticket.
In a small way, that may be progress. If Bush were able to win 15 percent of the black vote nationally, his prospects in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania would improve enormously. Steele's speech tonight almost certainly won't have this effect watch for Bush to win only 8 or 9 percent of the black vote in November but it's a start.
And there may be better things to come both for Republicans in general, as well as for Steele in particular.