Steele candidacy energizes state GOP But early endorsement adds some controversy to comptroller's race

August 09, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It took Michael S. Steele a year in a seminary and a year as a novice monk to come to a realization "that God was calling me in another direction" than the priesthood.

It took the death of Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein on July 3 to point out specifically what that direction would be.

Late in the evening of Monday, July 6, hours after publicly expressing support for another candidate, Steele walked into the state Administrative Board of Election Laws minutes before the deadline and filed to run for the Republican nomination for the post Goldstein held for four decades.

Many Republican activists believe a star was born that night -- one that could burn brightly in Maryland politics for years to come.

"We all have defining moments," said Steele, a first-time candidate for public office. "This was my defining moment politically."

Steele, the Prince George's County Republican Party chairman, made his move at the urging of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the favorite to win the GOP nomination in the Sept. 15 primary. On July 14, Sauerbrey traveled to Steele's home county to deliver a public endorsement that instantly made him the presumptive Republican front-runner in the comptroller's race.

The pre-primary endorsement was controversial among Republican activists, but as Sauerbrey and Steele stood together outside Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt that day, some of the reasons Sauerbrey would take that risk were apparent.

The 39-year-old Steele exuded youth and vigor as he denounced the record of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- the leading contender for the Democratic nomination for comptroller. Republicans in the audience took heart that what Steele lacked in name recognition, he could make up for in pizzazz.

Also obvious was the fact that Steele would bring to the Republican ticket something it has lacked in recent elections: ethnic diversity. The conservative corporate lawyer is black in a state where Democrats have held a near-monopoly on the African-American vote.

"He's bright, he's articulate, he's a hard worker and he's willing to stand up for what he believes in a county where being a Republican is not easy to do," said Sauerbrey.

Early survey results show Schaefer, who enjoys near-universal name recognition in Maryland, far ahead of any of his opponents -- Republicans or Democrats. The 76-year-old former governor's support cuts across racial, regional and political party lines, polls have shown.

But in a breakfast interview last week in Columbia, Steele warned political pundits to hedge their bets in the comptroller's race.

"I don't think they should put all their eggs in Mr. Schaefer's basket," said Steele. "He will not be able to hide behind his senior statesman status. He's going to have to do more than wear a funny hat and expect that to be enough."

People who know Steele insist his words cannot be dismissed as mere bravado. They say he brings to the campaign a combination of youthful zest, articulate advocacy and personal affability that could overcome Schaefer's anticipated monetary advantage.

Crowded Republican field

"I think Michael will give him a good run for his money if he doesn't beat him," said former District of Columbia Councilman Joseph P. Yeldell, a Democrat who has known Steele since Steele was a high school student.

Before Steele could take on Schaefer, he would have to win a Republican primary in which he faces five other candidates. Among them is 1994 nominee Timothy R. Mayberry, who never stopped running after losing to Goldstein that year. The others are Larry M. Epstein, Goldstein's 1990 opponent; Ardath Cade, a high-ranking Anne Arundel County administrator; corporate executive Eugene R. Zarwell; and inventor Robert W. Kearns.

One question Steele will surely be pressed to answer is what changed his mind between the morning of July 6, when he told a Republican breakfast gathering that he was supporting Mayberry, and that evening, when he filed.

So far, Steele has been vague on the subject, although he acknowledges that Sauerbrey urged him to jump into the race.

"When Louie died, the universe changed. That's the reality of politics," Steele said.

Steele's turnabout and Sauerbrey's decision to back him in the primary stunned Mayberry and his supporters, some of whom decried the endorsement as contrary to conservative principles on the issue of affirmative action.

Mayberry, a Boonsboro banker who drew 39 percent of the vote against Goldstein in 1994, says Sauerbrey told him she chose Steele because she wanted an African-American on her ticket.

Sauerbrey denies Mayberry's account, saying she told him she chose Steele because she wanted a ticket-mate from Prince George's who could attack Glendening's record as county executive. But, Sauerbrey added, "the fact that Michael is African-American is certainly a good thing."

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