NEW ORLEANS - The joke being swapped here at the National Lieutenant Governors Association conference is that the group's members do nothing but drive around all day with a Bible, waiting for the governor to die or resign so they can finally get some attention.
But two of the nation's newly elected lieutenant governors - Maryland's Michael S. Steele and Ohio's Jennette Bradley - are poised to smash that stereotype. The pair share two key characteristics: They will be the nation's only black lieutenant governors, and they're Republicans.
Over the next two years, the White House and the GOP hierarchy are expected to shower them with attention. With Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts retiring from Congress, Steele and Bradley become the nation's highest-ranking elected black Republicans.
Though questions remain about whether Republicans are making substantive policy changes as they seek to broaden their appeal among minorities, Steele and Bradley are preparing to be thrust on the national political stage.
"The one question always asked of the Republican leadership is, are you expanding your base and, if so, where is your evidence," said Alvin Williams, president of Black America's Political Action Committee, which supports conservative black candidates. "So now they can point to Michael Steele and Jennette Bradley."
It's a strategy the Republican National Committee is also eager to discuss.
"I think Michael Steele might be one of the most articulate and inspiring spokesmen that we have in our party, and the fact he is African-American makes him all the more desirable to go out and talk about our message of inclusion," said RNC spokesman Dan Ronayne.
Steele, 44, said he relishes the role. During an interview amid a conference with 26 other current and newly elected lieutenant governors, Steele said he expects to be more active in national GOP politics than any lieutenant governor from any state in recent memory.
"I hope to redefine the role of lieutenant governor," said Steele, who is the departing chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "I've got four years to help my president, help my party nationally, help my party in the state, as well as move Maryland forward."
Steele will soon begin a nationwide search for black Republicans interested in seeking elective office or becoming delegates to the 2004 convention. Steele also expects to campaign heavily for President Bush and other GOP candidates, provided it does not interfere with his work in Annapolis.
"I think whatever mantle J.C. Watts had after he has retired has been passed on to Michael," said Niger Innis, spokesman for the conservative Congress of Racial Equality in New York. "There is no question he will have a significant role to play all across the country."
Bradley, 49, said she, too, is enthusiastic about working to spread a GOP message of inclusion and tolerance. "I think this national publicity I have gotten is going to make people say, `Oh, I didn't know there were African-Americans in the Republican Party,'" she said.
Bradley becomes the nation's first black female lieutenant governor. She had spent 11 years as the lone Republican on the Columbus City Council and was tapped to run for lieutenant governor by Gov. Bob Taft last summer after the current lieutenant governor left the ticket to run for the state Supreme Court.
Some Ohio conservatives criticized Taft for choosing Bradley because she supports abortion rights and voted to extend health benefits to gay partners of Columbus city employees.
"I'm of the school that the Republican Party is a big tent and there is room for a diversity of opinion," Bradley said yesterday. "You are not going to agree 100 percent of the time with 100 percent of the people."
Bradley's "big tent" philosophy is one being pushed as the GOP tries to make inroads in minority communities. So far, the party's success has been limited. All six of the black Republicans who ran for Congress lost their elections last month, and the vast majority of black state legislators are Democrats.
Exit polls found that Republican candidates in last month's ballot fared no better among black voters than they had in previous elections.
"There is a difference between politics and policy, and the Republican Party has yet to demonstrate its policy reflects its political objective of attracting black voters," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
But the GOP notes that in addition to Steele and Bradley, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams are black Republicans in statewide offices.
Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the Democratic Party should be "embarrassed" that they don't have an African-American in a governor's or lieutenant governor's office.
Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, noted that the only African-American ever elected governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, was a Democrat.
Walters and Schaller said the GOP is using Steele and Bradley, because the party has yet to demonstrate that it is serious about attracting minorities.
Bradley said she is insulted by the suggestion.
"I don't feel that I am a token," she said. "I feel like I am a trailblazer."