Steele speech has Democrats talking, hoping -- wondering

January 05, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN LAST seen, in the fullness of the recent gubernatorial race, Michael Steele was a registered Republican. According to highly placed sources close to the newly elected lieutenant governor, he still is. But Steele spoke to several hundred people, almost all of them Democrats, who gathered last week at downtown's Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, and he said nothing that could not have been embraced by anyone in the room.

"I closed my eyes for a moment," said Michael Busch, the new House speaker, "and I thought I was listening to a Democrat."

"You could be a progressive Democrat and like what he said," added Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, who sponsored last week's gathering.

"I thought it was great," said Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon. "And I believe in making people eat their words if they don't stick to them."

Refresh my memory: There were philosophical differences expressed in the last gubernatorial campaign, were there not? And there are modern philosophical differences between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, who have banged their heads over them for the last 40 years, are there not?

Yet Friday morning, there was Steele, talking about a fair economic shot for African-Americans. Democrats used to talk that way, while Republicans would wrap masking tape around the mouths of those such as Trent Lott. And there was Steele, talking about more money for education. When Democrats have talked about such things, conservative Republicans scoffed at throwing money away. And there was Steele, talking about minority businesses.

Black contractors, he said, "will have a place at the table -- and a place-setting at the table."

That's what grabbed the attention of House Speaker Busch.

"I've lived through the debate on minority contracts," he said. "Let's face it, Republicans were not exactly out front on the issue. Maybe that'll change. Maybe this is a signal."

"The message," said Rawlings, "is consistent with this audience." Of more than 300 people there, perhaps one-half were African-American. Most in the audience had Baltimore ties, and most were Democrats, at least nominally. "So he knew these issues would resonate with this crowd," Rawlings said. "We'll hold him to his word."

Steele finds himself in a place where no one has ever previously arrived. As he put it, "It's taken 350 years" -- for a black person to win statewide elective office in Maryland. During last summer's campaign, he and Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich promised to take the state to areas of racial cooperation previously unseen.

"Yeah, I heard that," City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell said Friday, moments before Steele spoke. "They bent over backwards for African-American votes during the campaign. I was waiting for them to say something during the Trent Lott mess. I thought that was the time for them to say, `That was the old Republican Party, it's not today's Republicans.'"

"The silence on Trent Lott," added state Sen. Lisa Gladden, "said to me that this is still the same old Republican Party. They have to say, `We're going to make this party different,' and the Lott controversy would have been the time to begin doing it."

But there are different ways to deliver the same message. One way is to shove Lott aside as quickly as possible, hope nobody talks about a 40-year history of Republican foot-dragging on race -- and instead focus on new days.

In that sense, Steele is in a unique position. He can wade into waters tricky for a white Republican -- but not for him.

"My house gets robbed," he said Friday. "We know why. There are no jobs. So let's not ignore the community and those who need help." Then he added, "I am tired of 15-year-old black males seeing their future in a jail cell or a graveyard. We can't afford to lose another generation. It will not happen on my watch."

That is familiar language from Democrats, black and white. It is not familiar language from Republicans of any color.

The question, as Rawlings mentioned, is this: Was it a message delivered mainly because Steele knew this particular audience would embrace it? Or was it a message meant to be heard by everyone?

"It was a real nice speech," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "Now we'll see if he means it."

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