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?"
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?"
Shortly after 4 p.m., ABC News ended the political guess-who game by naming Steele, confirmed again when Associated Press released an inside story a few hours later chronicling the mini-debacle. An hour later, Steele spoke to WORLD. He said he didn't regret what he said but was angry that Milbank wrote about it. But to assume nothing tangible would come of asking nine Washington press corps reporters to spend 90 minutes crammed around a table speaking off the record struck many as naïve for a politician who's spent most of his life in the Washington suburbs.
Then again, Steele is not one to play into stereotypes. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he felt a calling to a monastery in Pennsylvania operated by the same Augustinian priests who taught at his alma mater, Archbishop Carroll High School. The monastic life was an act of faith, he said, and he learned to live with "poverty, chastity, and obedience"-three things, he jokes, that don't change when you enter politics. He spent three years in the monastery but left to enroll in Georgetown Law School. Since 1978 he has called himself a Republican.
Steele insists that despite his incendiary remarks, he is a party diehard who fell victim to media misrepresentation. "I am very proud of my party," he said. "Why else would I run as a Republican? What The Washington Post did not do was put into context the entire thing that I said. In that political climate, it can be argued that an 'R' is a scarlet letter. When is that a surprise to everyone?"
He offered the context again: "My reality is that in a blue state, it's very difficult. If Democrats are successful in running the race between Republicans and Democrats, I'm going to lose. I'm in a state where I'm outnumbered 2-to-1." Because the Republican label is not the best label in town to win, he said, "doesn't mean I'm not a Republican."
"It's a shame that the Post took it upon itself to paint a picture that was not accurate," he continued, but then said he honestly believes "it's a difficult time to be a member of the Republican Party." Steele said he still believes the GOP knows how to attract black voters: "Do more of what it's doing-try to establish a positive relationship with the community."
From scones to scourge in 72 hours-and there are still three more months in the Steele for Maryland campaign.
It takes a full tank to keep up with Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell on the campaign trail. He drives an hour and a half from his Cincinnati home to his downtown Columbus headquarters, often works 14-hour days, makes guest appearances in church pulpits, and juggles interview requests from local and national media itching to know whether the conservative Republican will become the state's first black governor. Nevertheless, having traveled to 57 countries, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission says distance is relative.
Starting in Columbus, here's one afternoon and evening's work for the 6-foot-5, 255-pound former Xavier University football star:
12:30 p.m. Blackwell, his secretary, a state trooper, and a retired police officer board a silver Dodge Grand Caravan destined for American Energy Corp.'s Century Mine. Accessories include umbrellas, cell phones, two-way radios, laptop, StreetPilot GPS unit, and a King James Bible. Also along for the ride are Cries from the Cross, by Erwin Lutzer, and Watchmen on the Walls: Pastors Equipping Christians for their Civic Duties, by Bruce Anderson. Relaxed and talkative with two hours to kill on I-70, Blackwell practices an ice-breaker story he will use at the day's speaking events.
When asked about the Bible, Blackwell says he carries it everywhere he goes. Forthrightly pro-life and pro--marriage amendment, and a member of Greater Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church, Blackwell denies he wears his religion on his sleeve and says that instead he wants to be clothed in the full armor of God. He extols the virtues of a "holistic gospel" that "engages both sides of the church aisle" by combining the emphasis on "social justice" typical among largely black churches and the focus on "spreading the good news" common among white evangelical ones.
Weekly prayer meetings bring together members of a diverse campaign staff that includes several Muslims and a Hindu. Blackwell is quick to point out that Ted Strickland, his Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race and an ordained United Methodist minister, "rarely" attends services. (Strickland says he "occasionally" attends.)
2:45 p.m. The Grand Caravan reaches Century Mine and Blackwell ditches his white shirt and tie for a blue plaid shirt before meeting Ryan Murray, son of mine owner Bob Murray. The mine has 432 employees, Murray explains, and is the largest single economic development in Ohio; the average miner receives a salary and benefits of $83,000.
Then Murray the elder bursts through the door and offers his opinions: He wants government aid and rational safety regulations, blasts the enemies of the coal industry, and says, "I take the safety of my people to bed with me every night. They'll do what I ask, and I tell them who's for coal and who's not." Murray, a Methodist, also bashes Strickland: "All Methodist pastors I know are bad managers. I've never known one who could manage anything." Blackwell enjoys the coal baron's candor and will be spending the night at his house.
4:00 p.m. Blackwell heads downstairs to the break room, where about 60 blue-collar workers, one head-to-toe in soot, have gathered to hear the candidate. Blackwell opens by invoking his father-in-law-a dark-to-dark coal miner-and by sharing his own experience in the coal brokerage business (yes, he's done that too).
He then lays out his plan for what he calls "a common-sense energy policy": As oil costs soar, gasification and liquefaction will make coal a viable alternative energy source; and as for the high sulfur content, "If we can make fat-free chocolate, then we can create clean Ohio coal." The state, Blackwell says, should also be a leading producer of ethanol. The crowd listens quietly, and he goes on to promote a 3.25 percent flat-rate state income tax as a key to job creation.
5:20 p.m. Blackwell takes a breakneck ride from Century Mine over rural roads to Murray the elder's St. Clairsville home-a yellow-brick, three-garage sanctuary with a front yard big enough to hold a Wal-Mart Supercenter. He puts on his dinner suit and tie and heads to Undo's Family Restaurant, where supporters line up to receive name tags and shake his hand-a process that drags on for 50 minutes but does not dampen the candidate's vigor. Blackwell running mate Tom Raga jokes that he needs a few drinks to get through these events.
8:17 p.m. After a fish and pasta dinner, a fiendishly rich layer cake dessert, and a speech from official host Murray the elder, the candidates take the podium. Raga speaks briefly, putting in a word for a controversial bill to cap state spending. Blackwell reiterates his positions, emphasizing that "coal is at the center of the strategy" for boosting Ohio's economy.
9:06 p.m. The fundraiser concludes more than an hour behind schedule, but the night is not yet over for the tireless politician. At 11:30, Blackwell will descend the 330-foot elevator at Century Mine to shake hands with workers during the shift change; the next day he plans to visit more miners before heading back west to meet with the Ohio Coal Association. His goal is to reverse the misconception that Republicans are against the common laborer. "In politics," he says, "perception is as important as the reality."