Steele given prominent GOP convention role

Move seen as opportunity for outreach to minorities

July 21, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has received a featured speaking spot at next month's Republican National Convention, where he will deliver a message of racial equality and economic empowerment for a party looking to broaden its appeal among minorities, GOP leaders announced yesterday.

"He has a great story to tell," Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said in an interview. "He talks about the principles of economic growth and empowerment and inclusion. That's a message our delegates want to hear."

Steele was among nine speakers announced yesterday to supplement an initial list that included President Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Also named yesterday: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Miss America 2003 Erika Harold.

Although the schedule is still fluid, Steele will probably speak prior to Schwarzenegger on Tuesday, Aug. 31, the second night of the convention at New York's Madison Square Garden, Gillespie said.

Steele said in a statement that he was "honored and humbled" by the invitation. "It represents a unique opportunity to begin a very important dialogue between the Republican Party and the African-American community," he said.

In an interview this week discussing his growing role in the national GOP, Steele said: "I'm the next generation. I am the post-Southern Strategy generation of Republicans."

The first African-American elected statewide in Maryland, Steele has been traveling with other leading black Republicans and Gillespie in recent weeks as part of an "African-American Economic Empowerment Tour." Other participants included boxing promoter Don King and Michael L. Williams, the Texas railroad commissioner.

Steele, 45, was Maryland GOP chairman when then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. selected him as running mate in 2002.

Steele's previous bid for office -- a race for state comptroller in 1998 -- was unsuccessful, but Ehrlich wanted to demonstrate that he and his party were friendly to blacks. The pair called themselves the "Opportunity Ticket" and stressed their working-class backgrounds and achievement built through education.

As lieutenant governor, Steele headed a panel that recommended changes to Maryland's minority business laws, but he has been less visible on issues where he differs from the governor, such as the death penalty. Steele opposes the practice, while Ehrlich supports it.

The speaking invitation is more evidence of the growing strength of the Republican Party in a state where the GOP is outnumbered by a 2-1 margin and has narrow hopes of winning the U.S. Senate seat up for election this year, state Chairman John Kane said. "I think its just another step in the direction of relevance," Kane said.

"It's not a dramatic step. None of them have been dramatic -- not even Ehrlich's election. But relevance brings legitimacy. Legitimacy brings honest debate. And that's what I think Marylanders want."

Ehrlich has not sought a speaking role at the convention and is not upset at the prospect of being upstaged -- at least briefly -- by his lieutenant, spokesman Henry Fawell said.

The governor "has made very clear that while he would be honored by any role, he does not want active participation," Fawell said.

Ehrlich's political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, will be a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston next week.

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