Racial politics

September 02, 2004

MARYLAND LT. GOV. Michael S. Steele got 10 nearly prime-time minutes this week at the Republican National Convention. The obvious question is: How'd he do? Scored purely for performance, pretty good. He was engaging, telegenic and at ease. In short, we'd score his speech-making skills ahead of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s. But on content, Mr. Steele did not rise to the moment. And, unfortunately, his failure - combined with the provocative remarks made by Mr. Ehrlich this week - suggests that Maryland's chief executives are fundamentally misguided on issues of race.

The biggest problem with Mr. Steele's speech, of course, was that he chose to reach out to black Americans to support the re-election of President Bush, but did not try to persuade Republicans to support black Americans. How pleasant it must have been for these white GOP delegates to hear from an elected African-American who loves them. Quick, name another. What has his party actually done for minorities? Mr. Steele had to reach back into history to recall the 1964 Voting Rights Act. He conveniently forgot the next four decades, during which the GOP rode the white backlash to power and turned tail on issues of social justice.

Indeed, Mr. Steele's words could have been ripped from the stock speech of any white Republican conservative. It's probably no coincidence that a White House writer helped draft them. Yes, self-reliance is good. (Is someone out there against it?) But to prattle on about how "you cannot help the poor by destroying the rich" is a kind of code for affluent whites. It says: "It's not racist to cut social welfare programs even if people of my skin color will be hurt disproportionately." No wonder he was so warmly received by the party of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. And no wonder so many blacks view Mr. Steele skeptically.

But at least Mr. Steele didn't accuse Democrats of being racist. That was Mr. Ehrlich's job. He landed that jaw-dropper one day earlier. It was an impressive put-down coming from a politician who earned his biggest headlines as a congressman for vigorously opposing a federal housing program that might have let some at-risk black families live in the suburbs. He apparently believes Democrats are mind-controlling African-Americans. If that isn't the most condescending remark by a Maryland governor since - let's see - his put-down of multiculturalism earlier this year.

The Ehrlich-Steele team came to Annapolis as social moderates. Were they lying? Or is it possible that this week they're just parroting the kind of right-wing hyperbole that wows the party faithful? We need to know. The Ehrlich-Steele administration's neglect of Baltimore and its willingness to embrace potentially draconian cuts to the state's budget next year suggest that it feels no particular obligation to Maryland's minorities. Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele need to realize that black voters aren't dumb. Politicians won't be judged on race, party affiliation or even what they say. It's what they do that counts.

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