Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

Why Is Michael Steele a Republican Candidate?

Published in The New York Times Sports Magazine
March 26, 2006

It was last spring when Karl Rove called Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, to sell him on running for the Senate, and to close the deal, Rove paused to put President Bush on the phone. As Steele recalls it, the president's adviser said, ''Here, the boss wants to talk to you.'' Steele froze, then demurred. ''I went, 'No, no thank you.' I was so stunned that he was going to hand the phone to the president. I said, 'That's all right, we'll have that call later.' I couldn't believe it.'' Other top Republicans called. Senator Elizabeth Dole. Ken Mehlman, the party chairman. One day Steele's cellphone rang, and Vice President Dick Cheney was on the other end.

Steele is the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland, which is usually one of the most reliably Democratic states in the nation. The counties bordering Washington are relentlessly liberal, as is its largest city, Baltimore. Steele lives in Prince George's County, which used to be tobacco plantations and is now the wealthiest majority-black county in the United States and normally a huge trove of Democratic votes. But to a Republican Party intent on securing its ascendancy by building a new base among America's minorities, Maryland looks like a land of opportunity. And a place where Democrats might be caught sleeping.

Open and personable, Steele had a prominent speaking role at the Republican convention in 2004, and by the following spring the Republican hierarchy was trying to coax him into the Senate race. The field was kept clear. Money was promised. It didn't matter that Steele lacked some of the attributes typical of a candidate running for high office. He was not a proven vote-getter, having ridden to victory as the running mate of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a popular congressman from outside Baltimore who became the state's first Republican governor elected in 36 years. Steele, who is 47, had no personal fortune to offer up to the cause, no campaign war chest. He had been an associate in a law firm, then left that job to open a consulting firm that struggled.

What Steele had to offer, as a candidate, was personal biography, his inspiring life story: childhood in a poor section of Washington; college at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; then three years studying for the priesthood at a monastery, where he wore the long white tunic of the Augustinian order before deciding that his call to service lay elsewhere. His mother had worked in a laundry, making the minimum wage; his stepfather drove a limo. His parents weren't educated themselves, but they valued learning and made sure the homework in their household got done. Steele's only sibling is Monica Turner, a Georgetown-educated pediatrician (as well as an ex-wife of Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champ).

The entreaties from top Republicans continued for weeks and months. Steele calculated his odds before formally jumping in. Numbers were crunched -- the 56 percent of the state's vote won by John Kerry; the well above 60 percent routinely captured by the state's Democratic senators, the four-term Barbara Mikulski and the five-term Paul Sarbanes, who is retiring. And there was another figure to consider: the estimated 28 percent of Maryland's population that is African-American. This is a greater percentage than in any state outside the Deep South, and it is what made Steele particularly attractive to his party leaders, who have made a cause of trying to chip away at the Democrats' most bedrock constituency. The G.O.P. has used so-called wedge issues -- with gay marriage leading the list -- on which churchgoing, socially conservative blacks may find affinity with Republican positions. Steele is socially conservative. And black. And Catholic. How much could he cut into the traditional Democratic vote? It might not have to be much to turn an election.

Don't be an ''outreach pawn,'' Steele's friend Curt Anderson, a political consultant, warned him. By that, Anderson, former political director of the Republican National Committee, meant, Don't get into the race just so the party can say it is fielding a black candidate or so it can appear to be softening its image. ''I have a dim view of the typical Republican outreach,'' Anderson told me. ''It's like: Yeah, look, we have a black guy. We have a Hispanic guy. Look over there, we have a Jewish guy. It's surface. It never bears fruit. I told him: Don't do it for the Republican Party. Don't do it for the president. Do it for yourself. He had to ask himself, Can I win? Everything else is silly.''

Steele, having calculated that victory was possible, made his formal announcement in October inside a community college gymnasium in Prince George's County, not far from where he lives with his wife and their two teenage sons. He talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and quoted Pope John Paul II but never mentioned George W. Bush. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had just measured President Bush's approval rating among black voters nationwide at a staggeringly low 2 percent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So it seemed, in one sense, almost laughable that any Republican, white or black, should be casting for African-American votes.

But in the weeks and months that followed, no Democrat who looked seriously at the state of Maryland could dismiss Steele. The midterm races, as always, will turn on a mix of national trends and local dynamics. And most of the in-state factors seem tilted in Steele's favor, none more so than the fact that the Democratic primary promises to be a free-for-all among more than a half-dozen candidates that will not be contested until mid-September, eight weeks before the general election. The winner could emerge battered and exhausted, with a campaign fund that will have to be replenished. Steele, meanwhile, will be fresh and ready to go -- ''just waitin' in the playground,'' as he puts it -- with millions to spend.

Joe Trippi, who is advising Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and one of the Democrats vying to oppose Steele, paints a sort of developing nightmare for his party. ''The Republicans are like the Chinese -- they think in terms of like a 50-year plan,'' Trippi, who was an architect of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, told me. ''Their goal is permanent realignment. What we have in Maryland is a national strategy against a party that is not strategizing at all.''

Steele is just one of several black Republicans running in prominent races around the nation, most in Democratic-leaning states with large African-American electorates. Lynn Swann, who had a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state in Ohio, is likely to be the G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate in his state. Keith Butler, a minister and former city councilman in Detroit, is in a competitive race for the Republican nomination for Senate.

If the Republicans can win in a state like Maryland because they pried away some of the black vote from the Democrats, Trippi said, ''It will be over.'' Over for whom? I asked. ''The Democrats,'' he responded. He didn't mean just in Maryland -- he meant in the whole country, because the electoral math for Democrats begins with an assumption of capturing something like 90 percent of the African-American vote.

On a weekday afternoon in February, about 60 African-American women, most of them business owners -- real-estate agents, insurance brokers, restaurant owners, proprietors of stores -- sat in a tea shop inside an upscale mall in Prince George's County, awaiting the arrival of Michael Steele. They sipped herbal teas out of gold-rimmed white china cups and nibbled pastries and sweets arranged on three-tiered trays. Steele, a little late, strode into the room with a wide smile and immediately began moving from table to table, lingering just long enough at each one to be polite but not so long as to get bogged down.

He is a big man, 6-foot-4, balding, gray around the temples, a little thick around the middle. His bearing is both regal and warm. He seemed to already know many of the women in the room. With them, he bent his big frame at the waist and expertly planted a kiss on the cheek. He seemed less like a powerful politician than like a young man raised in the local church, back in town and wearing a fine suit, who had made a success of himself and was now returning to tell everyone about it.

He began his remarks by saying, ''I am the luckiest man in Prince George's County right now, because I am in a room of successful African-American women, and that's a powerful place to be.'' The women nodded and applauded. He continued in the same vein: ''You're out there. You're creating wealth. Legacy wealth. Like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Oprah. Like Bob Johnson.''

The shop, called Infusions Tea Cafe, was situated to attract shoppers looking to get off their feet and moviegoers filing out of the adjacent Magic Johnson multiplex. Steele kept referring back to the shop's owner, an African-American woman, as an exemplar of what might be possible in the future. Wouldn't it be great, he said, if this beautiful tea shop expanded out across the country, to New York, Boston, Chicago, California, Europe. He paused, then added, And Africa.

Steele's speaking style is motivational. It is one reason he's good in front of students, for example. On policy, he can be maddeningly hard to pin down, which so far, at least, seems to be working as a strategy. One of his campaign's internal polls showed that moderate voters who like him think he's moderate, while his conservative backers consider him conservative.

What he certainly knew, but never mentioned, was that his audience at Infusions was overwhelmingly made up of Democrats -- some of them active and well connected. Dorothy Bailey, a Democrat who helped put the program together and introduced Steele as ''this handsome man,'' is the former chairwoman of the Prince George's County Council. At another table was Manervia Riddick, whose husband served as chief of staff to the former two-term Maryland governor Parris Glendening; not far from her was Glenda Wilson, former chief of staff to a Democratic county executive in Prince George's, which has a population of 843,000 and is the most Democratic district in Maryland. Bailey has already thrown her support to Steele, while Riddick and some of the other women said they were just listening and still undecided.

Republicans have been making two appeals to minority voters. One is on the social issues of abortion and gay marriage; the other is economic -- the contention that their conservative programs have more to offer those who want to help themselves. And never far below the surface is the emotional appeal to black voters that they have been taken for granted by the Democratic Party and by their own black elected officials. In consumer terms, the pitch is, You've shopped with them for generations, why don't you come down the street and see what we have to offer? ''We have a huge and important opportunity to offer people real choices,'' says Ken Mehlman, the G.O.P. chairman, who has made a personal cause of attracting more black voters and, as a native of Baltimore, has taken a keen interest in the Steele campaign.

I asked Bailey, a handsome woman with close-cropped graying hair and a self-assured bearing, if she had ever supported a Republican before. ''Oh, no,'' she said. ''Never.'' On at least one key point, she disagrees with Steele. She is strongly in favor of abortion rights -- as, she suspects, the vast majority of the women at the tea shop were -- and Steele is staunchly against them. ''In life or politics, you make a list of 10 things that are important,'' Bailey told me. ''If you get 8 of those things, you're ahead of the game. You never get all 10.''

In the short question-and-answer period after his remarks at the tea shop, no one asked Steele about abortion or any other potential points of conflict. He was asked about education, government loans for small businesses -- Steele has made a point of trying to direct a fair share of them to minorities -- and such traditional business concerns as permit issuance and ''red tape.''

Steele's job as lieutenant governor is small, with no constitutionally mandated responsibilities. He has spent much of his time traveling the state of 5.5 million, promoting the governor's policies and at the same time getting himself known. But his status as the first black elected to statewide office, no matter the size of the job, is a point of pride for many African-Americans. (I heard him introduced before a speech at the Reginald F. Lewis African-American museum in Baltimore as ''living history.'') Conversely, because black Marylanders overwhelmingly vote Democratic, it is a point of irritation as well that it was the Republicans who fielded him. ''It was an embarrassment because they were able to say they were the party of opportunity, that the Democrats talk a good game but don't walk the walk,'' says Ike Leggett, a professor at Howard University School of Law and the former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

And the Democrats' response to the open Senate seat has rankled. Benjamin Cardin, a studious, respected (and white) Baltimore-area congressman, quickly locked up much of the big money and most of the big endorsements -- leaving Mfume, former chairman of the Black Congressional Caucus and onetime head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to scrape for what was left. (Mfume's tenure at the N.A.A.C.P. was clouded by accusations -- which he has denied -- of favoritism toward women with whom he had relationships.) In a multicandidate race in which he is currently the only African-American, he may yet win the Democratic nomination. But if Cardin is Steele's opponent in the November election, the fact that the Republicans, not the Democrats, chose a black nominee could create a new wedge issue for the G.O.P.: resentment. Bailey told me that she might not have backed Steele if Mfume had been treated with more respect. ''Also,'' she said, ''Michael asked me for his support. Sometimes people like to be asked.''

At the tea shop, Steele kept the focus on the broad themes of achievement and empowerment. Indirectly, he framed his campaign as an extension of the civil rights movement. He said that he had been raised by ''a sharecropper's daughter with a fifth-grade education.'' He congratulated all the women in the room for being ''modern-day trailblazers,'' adding a line that got big applause: ''You are a generation that does not have to worry about sitting at the lunch counter. You get to own the whole joint.''

Steele's office in the historic Statehouse in Annapolis is the sort of high-ceilinged, grand room that inspires awe. As he ushered me in one afternoon, he related a bit of history: this was Thomas Jefferson's office in the early 1780's when the Continental Congress was meeting in Maryland. ''You know what?'' he added. ''Jefferson's probably saying, 'What's this brother doin' in my office?''' Then he let out a hearty laugh.

One of Steele's strengths is his comfort in his own skin. He doesn't change who he is depending on the audience. He does not pretend to be a Republican who just happens to be black. He will refer to a black woman as a sister -- in his pronunciation, a ''sistuh.'' At one point he said to me, ''Education and economic development -- if you get those two bad boys right, then you're somewhere.''

He said, as we talked in his office: ''I'm black. I'm a Republican. I'm a father, a husband, a former seminarian.''

Steele is at his most comfortable when mining his own past, a form of self-mythology at which good politicians excel. He tells this kind of story: as a little boy, he and his first friend, a kid from the neighborhood named Alexander, gravitated toward each other in a local store. Alexander was white. The sight of these two boys together seemed to make some in the store uncomfortable, and his friend's parents pulled him away. ''I said to my mom: 'That's my friend Alexander. He's just like me.'''

Why is he a Republican, anyway? Steele's answer is that it all goes back to his mother. (No politician ever lost votes by overreferencing his mother, who, in this case, was not made available for an interview.) In his neighborhood growing up, ''everyone -- cousins, friends and neighbors -- was always asking her why she didn't take public assistance. 'Why don't you stand in line and get a check?''' His mother, a Democrat with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and J.F.K. on the wall at home, would answer the same way every time: ''Because I don't want the government raising my kids.''

That still didn't make Steele a Republican right away. As a young man, he worked on one of Marion Barry's mayoral campaigns in Washington. But, he told me, when he first heard Ronald Reagan, he equated Reagan's message with his mother's -- both preached self-reliance. He pointed to a picture behind him: an autographed portrait of Reagan, inscribed to Steele, on the same day the 40th president left office. ''That's one of my proudest possessions,'' he said.

There was one family-related topic I wondered how Steele would handle. It's not unusual for politicians to have embarrassing relatives, but Steele's ex-brother-in-law is Mike Tyson, who served time in prison for rape and, famously, bit part of an opponent's ear off. Steele didn't at all mind talking about him. He is a man of grand themes, and one of them is family -- which in his mind Tyson still is. ''Let me tell you about Mike Tyson,'' he began when I asked what it was like being the former champ's brother-in-law. He was smiling, and it was clear that the subject genuinely delighted him. ''He is one of the most engaging and smartest guys I have ever had a chance to go toe to toe with in a debate. The first conversation I ever had with him, you know what we talked about? The philosophy of Mao Zedong.''

Steele said he and Tyson speak occasionally and are on good terms. Tyson said recently that he wanted to campaign for him, which Steele said he would ''welcome in a heartbeat. He may be divorced from my sister, but I can't cast him aside. You embrace. You love. He is the father of my nieces and nephew. I've never sat in judgment of him, and I never would.''

Senators cast votes on matters of substance and national import: up or down, yes or no. It is in this area that Steele is less comfortable -- and at his most vulnerable as a candidate. It is not always apparent if he can clearly enunciate where he stands -- or maybe he just doesn't want to. Even on some of the issues that are closest to his heart, he defaults to soft, imprecise language. Steele says that he is proudly ''pro-life'' but seemed to equivocate when I asked if he favors greater restrictions on abortion or its outright ban. ''The dance we do is, we put too much pressure and weight on one decision,'' he said, referring to Roe v. Wade. ''We have to re-evaluate that.'' He claimed that he was not advocating overturning the decision, only asking if we ''have to live with the reality of a decision that was made 33 years ago.''

Steele is personally opposed to the death penalty, but he has not publicly expressed his opinion on Governor Ehrlich's having signed orders to let two executions go forward. Nor, he said, did he privately try to dissuade Ehrlich. He did, however, volunteer to undertake a study of the fairness of the death penalty to determine, specifically, if minorities and the poor in Maryland receive a disproportionate share of death sentences. ''I went to the governor and said, 'Can I take a look at this, and I'll let you know what I find?''' Steele explained. ''And the governor said, 'Cool.''' But that was in 2003, and three years later he has still not produced a finished report.

On the day we talked in Annapolis, sectarian violence in Iraq was raging with the potential to grow into civil war. But he characterized the prospect of civil war as, more or less, just one of the possible steps to democracy. ''The birth of democracy is an ugly process,'' he said. ''It's a lot like making sausage. Now, when it's done, it's good. Fried up, it's delicious. But to make it can be pretty nasty. So I don't sit back and judge the Iraqi democratic development as somehow out of kilter or somehow unexpected. I just go back to 1860, which was how many years past 1789? In that 70-year period, we went from a band of brothers to fighting each other.''

On another occasion, when I asked Steele why most people considered him more conservative than Ehrlich, who supports abortion rights, he answered that he did not think any label could be applied to his politics. ''I'm conservative, but I'm also moderate,'' he said. ''As I like to tell people, I'm a little bit hip-hop and a little bit Frank Sinatra.''

Politically, Steele is almost literally a moving target. I accompanied him on a visit to Fruitland, a tiny town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was his 50th municipal visit. He counts them. He's up to more than 70 now. A Steele supporter would say he is doing the state's business on these stop-bys, checking in with local folks on issues related to transportation, agriculture, business development, crime and so forth. A cynic would say that he has been on a four-year taxpayer-supported campaign to enhance his visibility and prep for higher office. Either way, it is hard to imagine holding a better job for commencing a statewide campaign. As lieutenant governor, he can mostly do what he wants, and what Steele has chosen is to see as much of Maryland as possible.

In Fruitland, local elected officials and civic leaders had gathered in the wood-paneled meeting room of their town hall, seated in rows of mustard-colored plastic seats arranged on a worn-looking carpet. The room had a false ceiling and harsh lighting. A large tray of doughnuts was set out on a folding table. Greg Olinde, the president of the City Council, mentioned that his father was undergoing heart surgery at a nearby hospital but that he wanted to be there for Steele's visit because ''you don't get the lieutenant governor here every day.''

Flanked by several state officials accompanying him, Steele took a seat in the front of the room. He offered one of his stock lines: ''I've concluded that Maryland is one big Main Street.'' He took questions on a range of local issues, and then the crowd piled into a Wicomico County school bus for a tour highlighted by a stop at the town's sewage-treatment plant. (Small-town politics is largely about development, and development is largely about the capacity of the treatment plant.) The plant had just been given an honor: cleanest effluent in the state of Maryland. Steele seemed sincerely impressed. ''I'll tell you,'' he said, ''this is one of the best plants I've been to.''

He moved on that day from Fruitland to the even smaller town of Pittsville (and another sewage-treatment plant) and finally to Salisbury State University, and it was at that last stop, in front of an audience of students, that he showed yet another side of himself -- the candidate as a man under siege, attacked for daring to blaze a new trail. ''You know whatit's like to be called an Uncle Tom because you're a black Republican?'' he asked. He told them about what occurred in 2002 as he watched Ehrlich debate his Democratic opponent at Morgan State University in Baltimore. ''Folks started throwing Oreo cookies at me'' -- the Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside, being intended to slur someone who has betrayed his race.

The Oreos incident has been an off-and-on story for several years. An Ehrlich aide claimed that the cookies were ''thick in the air like locusts,'' almost certainly an exaggeration. News accounts told of the cookies being ''hurled'' and Steele being ''pelted.'' Democrats have charged Steele with inflating the episode to score political points, and some have privately hinted that maybe it never happened at all. When I asked Steele about it, he leaned over and spoke slowly and directly into my tape recorder to make his point. ''It happened. I was there. O.K.?'' He said he did not see the Oreos in the air, but when he got up, noticed them at his feet when he stepped on one and heard a crunching sound.

Other incidents are not in dispute. A liberal African-American blogger in New York posted a crude, doctored photo of Steele with the caption ''I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the Big House'' -- easily ignored except that it triggered stories in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and other papers that circulate in Maryland. Last fall, two staff members at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee resigned after it was revealed that they had obtained copies of Steele's credit report.

Steele is, of course, a big, inviting target. And fair game. There may also be a sense that he could unravel if pressed. He is sometimes careless with facts -- at Salisbury State, he told students concerned with rising tuition that he had gone to college ''in the days of 25 percent inflation'' (it actually ranged between 6.5 percent and 13.6 percent during his college years at Johns Hopkins, from 1977 to 1981) -- and he has a tendency to gravitate toward the kind of rhetorical minefields that more practiced public figures avoid. After speaking to a Jewish group in Baltimore last month, he had to apologize for seeming to draw a parallel between embryonic-stem-cell research and Nazi-era human experimentation. Two weeks later, at the tea shop in Prince George's County, he spoke about how black people do not always support black-owned businesses. ''You know how it goes,'' he said. ''Six months and it's gone. What happened to the chicken joint? The Chinese are now serving us chicken.''

He seemed to catch himself heading into dangerous territory. ''Nothing against the Chinese,'' he quickly added.

President Bush headlined a Steele fund-raiser in Baltimore in November and praised him as a ''a decent man . . . an honorable man . . . a family man'' and as someone who ''will help heal racial wounds.'' Then it was Steele's turn to speak. But as he stood at the lectern, towering over the president, he offered no specific praise for any of his policies.

Steele seemed annoyed when I asked him about this later. ''So let me get this straight, I'm going to invite him to Maryland, the bluest of the blue states, where the president on a good day has 32 percent approval, which he probably had nationally at that time, 2 percent African-American approval, and you are going to focus on the fact that I did not say, 'Thank you, Mr. President?' I think it was enough that I had the president here when everyone told me not to. The thank-you was: 'Come on in. I'll take the risk. I'll take the heat.' That's how I look at it. 'Mr. President, you're not very popular right now. So what time are you showing up? What time are you getting here?'''

With Iraq in turmoil and President Bush's approval ratings at record lows, the Democrats will try to nationalize the Maryland Senate race, as they will the entire midterm election. The Republicans, in turn, are mustering national support for Steele's race in Maryland. Rove headlined a fund-raiser for Steele last summer. Earlier this month, Steele attended a fund-raiser at the Upper East Side residence of Mallory Factor, a conservative moneyman who has been called the ''A.T.M. for Bush's America.'' Mehlman and his predecessor as party chief, Ed Gillespie, have taken a personal interest in the Steele campaign.

Steele admires the legacy of families like the Rockefellers, but his associations don't exactly mark him as a Rockefeller Republican. ''He was bullied into getting into this race by the national Republicans,'' Derek Walker, executive director for the Maryland Democratic Party, says of Steele. He adds that Steele's views are ''very conservative'' and that he is ''trying to conceal his allegiance to the Republican machinery.''

Whether Steele will become Maryland's next United States senator will depend partly on how effectively the Democrats can make those points -- and to what extent they'll even have the time and money to do so after their Sept. 12 primary. Time could work in Steele's favor in one other way: he may be able to make himself a more nimble candidate by the time the bright lights really find him.

Steele refuses to discuss political tactics, saying that his advisers have warned him off such talk. But he did acknowledge that his ties to the president will be used against him, especially with African-American voters. ''I have to deal with the fact that my opponents will try to hang George Bush around my neck and make me some kind of right-wing ideologue who's in the back pocket of Karl Rove,'' Steele told me. ''So what I'll do is show up and look them in the eye and say: 'I know what you're thinking, now let's talk. Who do you think I am and what do you think I represent to the black community, and to the future?'''

Copyright 2006 Michael Sokolove
 


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Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright 2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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