Steele at ease as Republican, comfortable on campaign trail

Of working-class family, strong Catholic values

Election 2002

October 27, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

It was his big break.

A former congressman gave Michael S. Steele, then a law student, a free ticket to the 1988 Prince George's County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner. Steele, who had just moved from Washington to Largo, wanted to plunge into local partisan politics.

"I got to the event, and I was all psyched to be there," said Steele, who was already a low-level volunteer for the national Republican Party. "I was thinking, `Wow. Maryland, they've got a state party, they have a county party. They have an organization.'"

But within minutes Steele felt a crushing disappointment as he was largely ostracized at the gathering. Only the keynote speaker - Elizabeth Dole, who was then transportation secretary - bothered to talk to him.

"I was not welcome at all," recalls Steele, who is now the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. "I was an outsider, a new face."

His friends and family told him the icy reception was a clear sign that, as a black man, he was not welcome in the Republican Party. But Steele decided he was not giving up that easily.

"A lot of people said they would have just walked away, but I had a different conclusion," Steele said. "I knew the only way to change the Republican Party was to get involved and turn this party around to make it more warm and welcoming."

Now, more than a decade later, Steele is one election away from possibly becoming the second-highest-ranking Republican official in the state and the first African-American popularly elected to statewide office.

Steele, 44, said his life story - from childhood, to college, to seminary, to the corporate world - makes him uniquely qualified to be on the Republican ticket with Rep. Robert. L. Ehrlich Jr.

Inspired by Reagan

It's the same life story that caused him to become a Republican - a party he has identified with since the 1980 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan was running for his first term as president. He said he was attracted to Reagan's folksy brand of conservatism.

"I know for a lot of blacks, they hear Ronald Reagan and they say, `Oh, my God,'" Steele said. "But if you listened to the man he made a lot of sense, he talked about the core values my mother and grandmother talked about.

"For me, the [Republican] party was a very, very comfortable fit."

Steele takes the same level of comfort onto the campaign trail. Whether he is talking to sportsmen on the Eastern Shore or African-Americans in Baltimore, he knows how to tailor his message in an attempt to maximize its effect on voters.

Steele appears particularly at ease campaigning in the African-American community. During a recent campaign swing through Baltimore, Steele visited several West Baltimore nursing homes and pleaded with the black audience to give the GOP ticket a chance.

He talked to the elderly audience - most of them lifelong Democrats - using words such as "we" and "us" and "brother" and "sister." He even used the word "blunt," which is a street term for a marijuana cigarette.

"My party has not been the most user-friendly to our people," Steele told a dozen people at the Liberty Village Senior Center. "The reality is this is a new day for our party because I am in the leadership of this party."

He goes on to tell how a working-class kid from a family of Democrats living in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington now finds himself on the GOP ticket for governor.

Born in 1958, Steele was adopted as an infant by Maebelle Turner and William Steele, who migrated from the South to work in Washington.

His adoptive father died of alcoholism at the age of 36 when Steele was 4. Steele's mother worked long hours earning minimum wage at a laundry company to support the family.

Steele's mother remarried a few years later, but she remained the head of the household, raising Steele and his sister, Monica Turner Tyson.

"It was your typical African-American household. ... The women are very, very, strong." Steele said.

He and his sister grew up in a strict household based on his parents' Catholic faith and a strong work ethic.

"We didn't look at work in our house as a chore," said Tyson, 36, whose estranged husband is boxer Mike Tyson. "It was just something we knew we had to do."

A product of Catholic schools, Steele attended Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, a school that catered mostly to lower- and middle-class African-Americans.

He excelled in academics, taking a particular liking to British history, and was a standout thespian. He also played soccer and took a leadership role in student government.

"He was Mr. Charisma," said Jim Mumford, principal of Archbishop Carroll, who was one of Steele's teachers. "He was very popular, very respected, and it was clear he had intellectual gifts."

During Steele's senior year - the same year he was class president - the student body voted him "man of the year."

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