Steele's prominence at convention stirs pride, doubts

Status on national stage contrasts with state role

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

August 30, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Less than two years ago, Michael S. Steele was struggling to pay his bills. He drained his retirement accounts, borrowed against his home and scrambled for consulting clients as he pursued a passion for Republican politics.

Now, he earns a six-figure salary as Maryland's lieutenant governor and travels the country as an emissary for President Bush. He is in demand like never before.

While Marylanders may regard him as a politician they are still getting to know, Steele is forging a national reputation that threatens to outstrip his accomplishments.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer described him yesterday as "one of the party's rising stars" and a "key speaker" at the Republican National Convention that begins today. During Steele's appearance on CNN's Late Edition, Blitzer also repeatedly called him the Republican answer to Barack Obama, the black Illinois senatorial candidate who earned glowing reviews for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Steele addressed the Obama comparisons by saying the Illinois state senator touched on traditional conservative themes during his address in Boston.

"Barack Obama gave a great Republican speech," Steele said on the show. "I hope to do the same."

`This is cool'

Tomorrow, Steele, 45, receives a chance to match Obama word-for-word in a featured evening speaking spot, a coveted opportunity that eluded even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"My reaction is, this is cool," said Steele during an interview in his State House office last week, as a computer monitor displaying the draft of his convention speech flickered over his shoulder. "When you get a call from the White House, saying the president would like you to [do something], that's cool."

As one of just three African-American Republicans elected statewide in the country, Steele is a valued commodity this election season for a party that hopes to broaden its appeal among minority groups. When he takes to the stage inside Madison Square Garden, he is expected to tell a national audience why blacks should support Bush, and why a party with a reputation for shunning minorities actually offers a welcoming home for them.

Steele said yesterday he would be giving a "traditional, Republican speech."

On the same night, two other African-Americans -- Rod Paige, the secretary of education, and Erika Harold, Miss America 2003 -- will also address the crowd.

Some critics say Steele's visibility is more symbolism than substance. The former Prince George's County and state GOP chairman who left a career as a corporate lawyer to launch a consulting business does not yet have the track record to warrant such fame, they say.

"The gender and racial voting patterns confirm that white males comprise the base vote for the Republicans. For a party trying desperately to conceal that image, Steele provides an ideal mask, not merely because he is an African-American but because he is quite conservative" said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"The fact that Steele will be given such a prominent role at the convention demonstrates how desperate the Republicans are to repeat their efforts in Philadelphia four years ago to portray themselves as something other than the white, male-dominated party they are," Schaller said.

Such talk makes Steele fume.

"We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't," he said.

The showcase of African-Americans at the 2000 convention was a legitimate effort to demonstrate the party's appeal, he said.

"If we don't stress within our ranks the African-Americans that are part of our party, if we don't make an effort to reach out, then it's like `Oh, see, they don't care about black folks. They are a racist party,'" he said.

The Republican Party had been a "champion of civil rights" for a century from the Civil War until the mid-1960s, Steele said. But beginning with Barry Goldwater, the party embarked on a strategy of building winning coalitions by appealing to "white male voters in the South [who] were growing disaffected with the Democratic Party."

With the nation becoming increasingly diverse, the strategy must be reversed, Steele said. Supporters of the lieutenant governor say he is just the person to lead the effort.

`Work to do'

"He is a shining example to the country of the open tent of the Republican Party," said Carol L. Hirshburg, an Republican political consultant from Maryland. "I certainly know many Republicans who are not white males. No one in the party, including the president in his Urban League speech, denies that we have work to do in increasing our support in the African American community."

During his three-minute interview yesterday, Blitzer called Steele "someone who is generating a lot of buzz in GOP circles."

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