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October 27, 2005

Michael Steele, A New Kind of Republican

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

(Editor's Note: Michael Steele made his first campaign appearance in Frederick on Wednesday, a day after announcing his candidacy.)

Recently, my General Assembly committee held a follow-up discussion on some bills that were passed two years ago. It's a refreshing departure for a legislative committee to look back and test the effectiveness of bills from past sessions.

During that rare look back, it became apparent that at least one bill I spent a lot of time on has had a significant and positive impact on Maryland policy.

That measure, which boosted the minority business contract set aside percentage, has dramatically increased the number of small, minority-owned businesses operating in Maryland, according to the Department of General Services and the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The architect of this bill, and several other bills geared towards minority business participation, was none other than Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

Two days ago Lieutenant Governor Steele told Maryland voters that he is seeking the seat in the United States Senate being vacated by the retirement of Paul Sarbanes.

The Democrat challengers are already lined up, notably Rep. Ben Cardin, of Baltimore County, and Kweisi Mfume, of Baltimore, the former U.S. Congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Representative Cardin holds a huge edge in money, endorsements, and clout. He is considered a nice guy, able to compromise, and apparently runs a good constituent service operation.

Mr. Mfume, on the other hand, has been known to shake up the establishment. He has said some pretty controversial things, but has also brought credibility to the NAACP, notwithstanding some unproven claims of sexual misconduct within that organization.

Mr. Mfume has been very critical of the Democratic Party establishment for writing him off, for giving short shrift to his fledgling campaign before it even sprouts wings.

Lately, Mr. Mfume has been sounding very bitter, blaming his inability to raise money and develop a profile on the state Democratic machine that likes Mr. Cardin's skin color better; not the normal rhetoric for a Democrat against another Democrat.

Into this fray wades Michael Steele, an eloquent, passionate, and conservative African American, who has been steadily building a diverse fan club for the last three years.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich saw his lieutenant governor's considerable political skills early on in his administration. He has assigned him a series of very high profile special projects to deal with during their term.

Lieutenant Governor Steele led an independent review of the state public education system. That commission, dubbed the Steele Commission, gathered input around the state and has produced a groundbreaking analysis of the state of public education in Maryland.

The lieutenant governor has examined public safety issues, including the death sentences for minority prisoners, the minority business enterprise issue I mentioned earlier, and helped Governor Ehrlich to build strong connections to the faith community, including inner city churches in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

Democrats across Maryland like to view the Sarbanes/Mikulski Senate seats as an impenetrable fortress, a sort of line in the sand across which Republicans will never travel.

This thinking probably would have held true prior to Bob Ehrlich's election three years ago. Today, though, Marylanders have a different view of the Ehrlich-Steele team than that concocted by the state Democratic Party.

Much to the House and Senate majority leadership's chagrin, Governor Ehrlich 's popularity among state voters remains at an unusually high level for an incumbent governor. Michael Steele's numbers are equally high, and show no sign of dropping.

Everywhere he goes around the state, Mr. Steele is warmly received. His unpretentious manner and easygoing personal style seem to really resonate whether he's in Landover or LaValle.

I know that Democrats like to say that Baltimore Mayor - and gubernatorial candidate - Martin O'Malley is a rock star. Based on the swooning crowds at his events, the perception is probably true.

Certainly Mayor O'Malley's star shines brighter than Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan's, a staid, pedestrian pol who has a lot of accomplishments but little in the way of personal pizzazz.

Governor Ehrlich can easily match Mayor O'Malley in the personality department. His visits around the state often end up in flesh-pressing marathons that require his handlers pull him away. Again, that phenomenon seems to be true whether he's in Baltimore or Hagerstown.

Michael Steele mixes that easygoing charm with a sharp political insight honed by his tenure as chairman of the state Republican Party. He knows where the votes are, and he knows how to get them.

Lieutenant Governor Steele represents the Republican Party's single best chance to elect a United States Senator since Frederick native Charles McC. Mathias retired from the U. S. Senate in January 1987, having served three terms.

He is a Christian conservative with a passion for leveling the playing field for minority businesses, for improving public education, and for opening the halls of power to all people, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.

This new kind of Republican may get elected to the U.S. Senate, and further Maryland's emergence as a two-party state.

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