THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
Brother From Another Party
Can a black Republican win in a blue state?
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, April 8, 2006
ANNAPOLIS, Md.--When Michael Steele was running for lieutenant governor in 2002, the Baltimore Sun endorsed the opposing ticket and opined dismissively that Mr. Steele "brings little to the team but the color of his skin." Normally this would be an invidious thing to say about a black politician, but the usual rules of racial etiquette don't seem to apply when it comes to Mr. Steele. For he is a Republican.
Maryland is heavily Democratic: Only four states gave John Kerry bigger margins of victory in 2004. Yet Mr. Steele and his running mate, then-Rep. Bob Ehrlich, captured 51.5% of the 2002 vote, making Mr. Ehrlich the Free State's first GOP governor since Spiro Agnew. Now Mr. Steele has his eye on higher office. He is the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Paul Sarbanes is vacating after 30 years. On Monday I sat down with him in his Statehouse office to discuss his political race--and the role racial prejudice and pride may play in it.
On the wall behind Lt. Gov. Steele's desk hang a pair of lithographs of Ronald Reagan, produced by a local artist, as well as photos of Reagan and both George Bushes. Plainly Mr. Steele is a proud Republican. But is he a conservative? He demurs. "I would say I find myself to be much more traditional in terms of my values, because those are the values my mother left me. . . . So I guess in one sense 'conservative' would work. But then on other issues, I know others would consider me to be much more moderate. . . . I don't know where exactly I fall on the spectrum, but I guess you'd call me sort of a traditional guy."
His desire to avoid the conservative pigeonhole is understandable. Maryland has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1980, and that was the very liberal Charles "Mac" Mathias. Mr. Steele tells me, and my research confirms, that the state has never sent a conservative Republican to the chamber. So a degree of ideological nuance is a plus, if not a necessity, for a man in Mr. Steele's position.
Still, he talks like a conservative--one who seeks to conserve not privilege but his own hard-won achievements and the freedom that made them possible. He tells me he grew up in "the 'hood," the predominately black Petworth section of Washington, D.C. His parents were both Democrats, though not especially political. His father was a troubled man, an alcoholic who died at 36 from cirrhosis of the liver. But his mother was a strong moral guide. "She always told me to be smart about the choices I made and to be aware that you're not going to be able to please everybody, so just do the right thing because it's the right thing."
He felt his first vaguely political stirrings at age 14, when a summer job turned him into something of a tax rebel. "I was working at Sterling Laundry in Washington. . . . I worked that summer making $2 an hour cleaning toilets, and I was so proud when I got that first paycheck, because I knew how hard I had to work my tail off for those 40 hours. . . . That meant a lot to me when I looked at that bad boy and I saw how much $2 times 40 hours would gross me. But then what I was bringing home--I was a little bit upset about that. So I started talking to people and started trying to figure out, well, who's going to protect my money? Who's going to allow me to keep more of my money? And, you know, this whole FICA thing. What is that all about? Who is this person? Why am I paying these people this kind of dollars?"
Three years later he realized he was a Republican. "Ronald Reagan ran for president in the Republican primary. . . . I was fascinated by Reagan, because Reagan sounded a lot like my mother in terms of speaking to values, speaking to the kind of America that recognized my individuality and my genuineness, to be able to go up there and lasso the American Dream for myself. That spoke to me, because that's what my mother always told me."
Reagan, of course, lost the nomination to Gerald Ford. Mr. Steele turned 18 in October 1976, and "ended up voting for Jimmy Carter in that election." He also worked for Democrat Marion Barry's mayoral campaign in 1978. But in 1980, "when Reagan came back on the scene, . . . it was just like, OK, Katie bar the door. . . . Man, this is what I'm talking about!" He earned a degree from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, spent a few years studying at a Catholic seminary, and eventually settled in Prince George's County, Md., where he became the local GOP chairman and later state chairman.
If Mr. Steele is a Reaganite, he is not a doctrinaire right-winger. On several issues he takes what seem to be liberal positions, though he explains them in terms that a conservative can appreciate. He opposes capital punishment, he says, "because I'm pro-life." He tells me he favors a "strong minimum wage," but only "as long as you incentivize employers. . . . They have bottom lines to keep. They have costs that they have to bear." Then he notes that most businesses pay more than the minimum anyway, so that "the idea of the minimum wage is almost a fallacy."
He also describes himself as "a very strong proponent and advocate of affirmative action." He says, "You can pretty much pick any profession, and you're not going to find a whole lot of brothers sitting around in the room making decisions. You'll find us in other jobs, but at the end of the day, we need to have the ladder extended so that it doesn't just get to a certain level and stop." He says he encountered racial prejudice in the 1980s, shortly after leaving the seminary. He was "all but given [a] job, by virtue of phone conversations and a review of my résumé . . . but then when I went to do the visit, suddenly there were no jobs available. . . . Despite . . . your own personal success story, there are still people who don't give a damn about that. What they see is a 6-foot-4 black man come to look for a job at my firm, and that ain't happening."
Thus his vision is of a meritocracy, in which success is "based on your talent, your capabilities, your skills, your ability to present yourself, to make your case. That's all people want. That's all African-Americans want in this country. We just want America to let us make our case. . . . Just give me a fair shot. You do that, and success or failure is on my shoulders, not someone else's."
As he has made his political case, Mr. Steele has again encountered racial prejudice, often from fellow blacks. When I ask him about this, he teases me: "You're hurtin' the brother here. Give the brother a break!" He then tells me about the "Oreo incident," which happened at a 2002 campaign appearance. "After the event was over, I get up out of my seat. . . . Apparently some folks in the audience thought it was humorous to toss some Oreo cookies in my direction. They landed at my feet." Oreos, of course, are a symbol for blacks who are "white inside." Mr. Steele took it in stride. "I turned to the person next to me and asked, 'Got milk?' We kind of joked about it. It's silly."
Less silly, last October, after Mr. Steele announced his Senate bid, an Angry Left blogger who is black posted a racist caricature of Mr. Steele with the caption "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the Big House."
What accounts for such hideous invective? "I think for a lot of people, someone like me is considered a threat," says Mr. Steele. A Thursday Washington Post story proves him right. Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher, according to the Post, has produced a 37-page report warning that Mr. Steele has "a clear ability to break through the Democratic stronghold among African American voters in Maryland." Mr. Belcher speculated that Mr. Steele could win as much as 44% of the black vote; by contrast, the 2002 Ehrlich-Steele ticket managed just 23% in majority-black Prince George's County. Mr. Belcher's advice to his party was to hurry up and "knock Steele down."
But the Democrats face a dilemma when they go to the polls Sept. 12 to choose an opponent for Mr. Steele. The leading candidates are Rep. Ben Cardin of Baltimore, who is white, and Kweisi Mfume, a black former congressman who left the House in 1996 to become president of the NAACP. Mr. Mfume would presumably have an easier time holding on to the black vote, but he could prove too left-wing for centrist Democrats and independents. A November Baltimore Sun poll showed Mr. Steele trailing Mr. Cardin 41% to 32%, but leading Mr. Mfume 39% to 37%. When I ask Mr. Steele which opponent he'd prefer to face, he prudently declines to answer.
The idea that blacks should be loyal to the Democratic Party and its big-government philosophy rankles Mr. Steele: "I don't buy into the status quo stereotype of what a black man should be in America. I don't think we should be sitting there waiting for the government to tell us what we can do and how far we can go and what we can achieve. It doesn't apply to anybody else. Why should it apply to me? . . . This is Jim Crow redux."
Mr. Steele is equally forthright about his own party's troubled racial history. Most analysts date the GOP's estrangement from black America to 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, was the Republican nominee for president. But Mr. Steele says the turning point came in April 1963, when Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Ala. "No one bothered for a few days to call, until [President] Kennedy called. Republicans were urged to be vocal and supportive, and their historic civil rights legacy was recounted to them. But they were in the throes of developing . . . a 'Southern strategy.' . . . When we [Republicans] so soundly ignored that civil rights call . . . blacks said, 'That relationship . . . is no more.' They were freed of that particular plantation."
To win back black voters, Mr. Steele says, Republicans must acknowledge that "this is a relationship that we blew up. We dropped the ball--we Republicans. . . . My hope is, now, that the black community responds in kind, by listening."
At least two other black Republicans have serious statewide ambitions this November. Lynn Swann, a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania governor; and Ohio's secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, is the front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination there. Do three candidates make a trend? "No," Mr. Steele says. "Call it a moment. . . . It's one of many moments that have to come together over successive races--statewide, federal races, local races--where you begin to build within the community support for the concept of Republicanism coming back home" to blacks.
How can the GOP make the most of the moment? "Be honest. For goodness' sakes, don't go in there pretending to be something you're not. Don't go in there thinking you've got to win the black vote, because you're not going to win it in that moment. This is going to be a long process."
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