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July 14, 2006

Endorsing Michael Steele

Roy Meachum

Let me stick my neck out. Again. Republican Michael Steele has my strong confidence, as a man and as a politician. Maryland's people would be well served if the current lieutenant governor moved on to the U.S. Senate.

But readers should be warned: I've had a lousy record at the state level backing candidates. Both Republican Ellen Sauerbrey and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's bids to be governor went down in flames I couldn't prevent.

Joe Curran may be the exception. The retiring attorney general and I have a mutual, respecting relationship; I think the same description fits in regard to Steve Sachs. He was my first venture in recommending outside people to local voters.

And Mr. Sachs didn't even make it through the Democratic primary. He fell victim to the party's machine. Reading the surveys, the bosses knew their man, Ben Cardin, was in trouble. So they dragged a reluctant William Donald Schaefer into the fray.

The legend might not be true that the longtime mayor left fingernail marks on Baltimore's City Hall. But "reluctant" is a mild word for the fussing and fretting, stewing and inevitable cussing before the longtime mayor finally agreed to go along with the power behind every Democratic throne for years: Irv Kovens.

Maryland's boss of political bosses died during Willy Don's first term in Annapolis. You can believe had he stayed around Parris Glendening might still be stuck in Prince George's County, his marriage intact and Mrs. Townsend, unfortunately, may never have become lieutenant governor.

No one has written, not that I have read, the script for the scene when Mr. Cardin agreed to step aside, for the party's good, and run for the House of Representatives. That's what happened.

In 1986, Maryland's former House of Delegates speaker was dark of hair and serious in mien; he appeared at Winchester Hall when he was still in the gubernatorial fray. That's when we met. I found the personality irresistible. He had it all, savvy and warmth and intuition. More importantly, as I didn't know at the time, he had Mr. Kovens at his back.

Steve Sachs was pretty much on his own. His A.G. record did little to endear him to his party's leadership. His prosecution of Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel, a fellow Jew, had lost him much of that formidable community.

But Mr. Sachs was a "mensch," all the community had to agree. If forced to choose, the polls said he could win out over fellow Jew, Ben Cardin. So the deal was made. Mr. Cardin stepped aside to run for the House of Representatives in Maryland's Third Congressional District. Don Schaefer brought to the State House his inimitable bag of wily tricks and sight gags. And Mr. Sachs went on to rake up lots of moolah as a Washington attorney. Not for the first time, the only losers were Maryland voters. It could happen again.

After 10 terms on Capitol Hill growing grayer and politically wiser, Representative Cardin means to move to the other side assuming the seat that belonged for years to Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

The man from Salisbury leaves office with no particular regard for this columnist. We remembered each other from Washington, when he was the new Maryland kid on the senatorial block and I had grown bald on television news. I switched one election to backing his opponent: Republican Bill Brock stands as another example of my endorsements' failure at the state level. But I felt at the time that Mr. Sarbanes had become the Hill's invisible man.

In any event, when last we met, at a Democrat rally for Del. Galen Clagett, the Hon. Mr. Sarbanes dealt with me in a manner that could hardly be described as gracious. He was on his way to retirement. It was two years ago during the time my writing was in other channels, not the columnist business.

In no way have I heard that Paul Sarbanes has designated a successor; it would be bad form, at any rate. When there are multiple candidates in a party primary, each must theoretically sink or swim, with no help from officeholders, particularly none as lofty as U.S. Senator.

By general consensus, the Democrat apparatus is known far and wide to wish for Ben Cardin in Mr. Sarbanes' almost empty chair. Not a man or woman at the party's top, where whites predominate, view with anything but alarm the possibility that their candidate might be the former head of the NAACP.

Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gray) is known to have a very strong mind of his own; in part that reputation was embellished by his five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, as Mr. Cardin's colleague in the Maryland delegation. Knowing his party leaders' attitude, the former congressman and Civil Rights advocate is apparently engaging in a thinly disguised scare tactic.

Given the almost certain probability nothing in politics can be deemed certain until after it happens that the GOP senatorial banner will be hoisted by Mr. Steele, Mr. Mfume is talking a tactic of him-or-me. They are both African Americans, a constituency that may deliver as much as 40 percent of the November turnout.

Those who want to cry foul at this approach should be reminded demographic blocs were considered fair game; they were bought and sold as late as the 20th century. What is doubtful, however, can be found in Mr. Mfume's assertion that he can deliver black voters, citing his NAACP history.

Unfortunately for that position, memberships in that distinguished organization continue to sink; by no means can the association claim it represents the majority of its natural constituency: some whites belong. As the racial pressures have declined, so has its enrollment. This is not to say bigotry and prejudices have disappeared. By no means. But changing laws and attitudes have put equality on a more individual basis.

The truth that lies in Mr. Mfume's threat consists of the dead certainty that voters who back him in the Democrat primary, primarily for reasons of race, will almost certainly drift in Mr. Steele's direction. The Republican candidate by no means can count on the support of all his fellow African Americans. As human beings, blacks are subject to the same diversity of opinion as everyone else. In this sense they are very much like the other so-called blocs: the Irish, Poles and Catholics, in particular, have always practiced singular idiosyncrasies.

On the other hand, triumph for Mr. Mfume in the primary might very well drive white Democrats over to Mr. Steele whose image is more reasonable and less radical that the once-NAACP head's. By failing to name another African American as his running mate, incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich may have shuttled away the black vote that boosted his election in 2002. Mr. Steele was on his ticket that year, becoming the first black elected to a statewide office.

When mostly-Democrat critics have zinged him with charges he's little more than Mr. Ehrlich's pet African American, they have entirely missed what he has been really about these past four years. The lieutenant governor has not, repeat not, given a blanket endorsement to everything the governor has said and done. On the other hand, he has not spit all over the hand that lifted him to the State House.

On such topics as executions, opposed by his Catholic Church and Mr. Steele personally, he has managed to make known his strong opposition without nettling the man in the state's top chair. He has also adroitly handled such issues as abortion and human tissue research.

Far from condemning the staunch former seminarian, I can but admire his exercise in ethical leadership in an atmosphere where a single opinion, not his, counts. His clear statements on morality, from his point, are part of the reason why I like the man and the politician who comes along with him.

Having been several times in his presence, I have witnessed the great intelligence, empathy and caring that are ingrained in his personality. He is no political hack. No one can count on Michael Steele to click heels and blindly follow orders. He is his own man. And that's good enough for me.

By the way, you might have read stories this week about how the Republican candidate removed from his campaign Web site the pictures of Democrats, including Kweisi Mfume, appearing relaxed and happy to be at his side. In a photo published by The Washington Post, Rep. Steny Hoyer was shown laughing and patting Mr. Steele on the shoulder. The House Democrat whip found himself embarrassed and asked the picture be taken down; it was moved to another part of the site, according to The Post story.

For my part, I found entirely admirable Democrat Hoyer's obviously friendly gesture toward Republican Steele, especially after the past four years when Annapolis and Washington have been torn apart by rank partisanship, from both sides.

If nothing else applied and it does Michael Steele's lack of seething anger would cause me to consider favorably his candidacy. But, as I've suggested, there's so much more to this man I believe belongs in the U.S. Senate.

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