Democrats give Steele a place at their table

Breakfast: The soon-to-be lieutenant governor stresses bipartisanship at a fund-raiser for Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

January 04, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of liberal Baltimore Democrats rose early on a rainy Friday to toast a longtime leader and embrace a newcomer - a conservative Republican who won two standing ovations from a ballroom full of new best friends.

"Yeah, I got a few new friends," Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele said with a laugh yesterday at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel downtown

"I got folks calling me up who when I called in April said, `Michael who?' And now they're saying, `Mr. Lieutenant Governor,'" he said to the cheering crowd. "I know not many of you ever thought you'd be standing up for a Republican."

Steele was the featured speaker at an annual breakfast fund-raiser for Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

More than 300 city and state politicians, lobbyists, business leaders, education officials and assorted schmoozers paid $60 to $500 for a meal of scrambled eggs, home fries and grilled pineapple - and the chance to rub elbows with the two men.

The event raised $75,000 for Rawlings. It also raised hopes that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground as they tackle the state's most pressing issues, chiefly Maryland's projected $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

Many said they hope Steele - because he is conservative and black - might help bridge the gap between parties.

Liberal blacks in the crowd said they were taking pride in Steele as the first African-American elected statewide in Maryland, even as they expressed some wariness about the GOP takeover in Annapolis for the first time since Spiro T. Agnew was elected governor in 1966.

Steele and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will be sworn in Jan. 15 - the birthday of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Steele noted.

"Regardless of whether he's a Democrat or Republican, he's the first black to hold that position," said Pless Jones, owner of P&J Contracting of Baltimore. "I think it makes all the blacks proud to have an African-American in that position."

Many in the crowd were getting their first real look at Steele, whom they'd known only from campaign commercials and television news sound bites.

Harvey Jones of Washington, a Democrat and entrepreneur who likes the GOP's support for "faith-based" programs, dashed halfway across the hotel ballroom to pump Steele's hand - despite recent surgery that left one foot in a bulky bandage.

"I have pins in my foot, but it didn't make a difference," said Jones, 57, a member of two churches who works with an employment training program in Prince George's County.

"I welcomed him aboard and told him the business community in Maryland and the black religious community, we're going to work with him and help him," Jones said.

In his speech, Steele promised to support education by delivering the increases in school aid called for by the Thornton Commission plan approved last spring. He also vowed to back historically black colleges and universities such as Coppin State College in Baltimore.

He said he would push for economic development and make sure that minority businesses would have "not only a place at the table, but a place setting at the table."

He spoke of helping faith-based organizations that have been "on the front lines" of mental health, crime and education problems.

And he said the administration would "totally revamp" the state's juvenile justice system.

"I am tired of 15-, 13-year-old black males seeing their future in a jail cell or a graveyard. We cannot afford to lose another generation of black men. It will not happen on my watch," Steele said to warm applause and one "Amen, brother" called out from the crowd.

Rawlings has held the breakfast for years as a way to kick off the session and fill his campaign coffers. In recent years, guest speakers have included Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost the governor's race to Ehrlich, and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Steele was the first Republican to do the honors, said Colleen Martin-Lauer, a campaign consultant who organized the event. "There weren't that many Republicans in leadership" until now, she said.

This year's choice raised eyebrows in both political camps.

"There were some Democratic friends of mine wondering why would I invite a Republican lieutenant governor here?'" Rawlings told the crowd. "It's very clear. Michael Steele is an African-American, he's a Marylander and he's made extraordinary history."

Steele faced similar questions.

"A lot of Republicans asked, `Now, why are you going to help raise money for a Democrat?'" he said.

The short answer was that Rawlings asked him to, Steele said. The long answer: The move would "begin the bridge-building."

"Bob Ehrlich and I, working with Chairman Rawlings and all the leadership in House and the Senate ... we will make those difficult choices together," Steele said. "We won't make them as Democrats. We won't make them as Republicans. We'll make them as public servants serving the people of this state."

The message Steele delivered seemed to go over well with the crowd, though some said they were eager to see Steele put his promises into action.

"I think it was a very nice speech and certainly hit issues that are important to the people of Baltimore City," O'Malley said. "If he can deliver, it will be great for the future of the city and the state."

City Council President Sheila Dixon agreed.

"I don't want to think of anybody based on what race they are, because that doesn't guarantee anything, that doesn't guarantee he's going to put money in the African-American community," she said. "I'm happy that we've made those strides, and now let's see what that means. We made history, and let's see how history pays off."

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