Features

Men of steel

Politics | For black Republicans running for office in these times, it's no cakewalk. WORLD spends a day in the life of candidates Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

Michael S. Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland and a U.S. Senate candidate, loves tea parties. Or so he says. "Spots" of tea, scones, the whole bit. But a tearoom is about the last place you'd expect to find Steele, a 6-foot-4 African-American who grew up in Washington's rough Petworth area-about as improbable as the fact that this man is running as a Republican.

Nonetheless, at 11:45 a.m. on July 22, Steele stood sipping tea at a small strip-mall café in Prince George's County, at an event organized by a group that calls itself the Women of Steele. Decked in baby blue T-shirts everywhere they go, these women were the lieutenant governor's first grassroots group and now number in the 500s. Steele calls them a "phenomenon." At least two-thirds are Democrats-in step with the state's political makeup, but strange because, after all, the candidate is, as he will remind everyone at the café, "a proud Republican." Steele is one of two prominent African-American candidates running for key election posts this year and quietly toiling to extend the GOP's reach into a Democratic domain.

Steele has gotten this far in political life by combining a blazer-and-polo smoothness with a disarming dose of colloquialism. In small or large gatherings, he focuses on "legacy wealth"-it draws a mental picture of the Rockefellers-and on empowering small business owners, in this case mostly black women in the Washington suburb of Prince George's County. If elected, he told them, he'd be the only small business owner in the Senate. He motioned to the café's owner, a young black woman in the back. "Look at this!" he said excitedly, scanning the room. "Did you ever think you'd own this?"

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Stressing common bonds of race and geography over party, he wrapped a little past noon to the applause of the audience and his campaign staff: The lieutenant governor had connected. Standing in the gap between Republicans and Democrats was paying off. But 72 hours later, he'd find out it has risks, too.

Steele isn't coy about being a maverick-a black Reaganite with three years of Augustinian monastic life; a balding, former DJ who lays down his own trance mixes; a conservative politician from one of the highest-percentage and solidly Democratic counties in America. He fits no one's mold and is eager to prove it. Campaign-trail jokes deal with the perceived strikes against him-his blackness, his Republicanism, his Catholicism. "Let me clear the record-I'm black, I'm Republican, I'm 6-foot-4, I'm bald," he told his tearoom audience.

But then he hedges, too. "In one sense 'conservative' would work," he told one reporter. "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."

Steele may see the strategy of playing to both sides as his only shot at winning in blue-state Maryland, but conservatives will scratch their heads. Steele welcomed President George Bush to one fundraiser then gave a speech praising none of his policies. The pro-lifer even refused to explicitly support overturning Roe v. Wade.

A 90-minute session July 24 with nine reporters from prominent papers, magazines, and networks on Capitol Hill seemed to be part of the straddle strategy. Steele may have forgotten this was no tea party. Over lunch at a steakhouse, Steele told WORLD he spoke with the "understanding that it would be background, a way to get to know me. But one reporter decided to violate that."

That one reporter was The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, a know-it-all Beltway insider.

Over hanger steak, risotto, and salad with a four-minute egg, the candidate, according to Milbank, "spoke with little caution as he ladled a heaping portion of criticism on his own party." He was, as Milbank put it, "anxious enough to air his gripes but cautious enough to avoid a public brawl"-what some might call having your cake and eating it, too.

Without naming Steele, Milbank quoted him as saying that being a Republican carried a "scarlet letter" and was an "impediment" so severe that he'd "probably not" want Bush's help. As for the Republican-led Congress, it should "just shut up and get something done." Milbank also quoted him criticizing Bush policy on the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Milbank's column (payback for insisting lunch was off the record, Steele said) went up on the Post's website the next morning. It whipped Washington gossips and the blogosphere into a whodunit frenzy. The New Republic guessed New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr.; no, countered National Review Online, because Milbank said his man "agrees with Bush's veto of human embryonic stem cell research." They all knew Kean favors research. As Milbank likely intended, it set the Washington rumor wheels in motion, arming scandal-hungry pundits with a news cycle of fodder. One blogger exaggeratedly opined: "Whoever it is, he'll catch flak . . . pro tem scourge of the Party?"

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