Steele calls on club to admit blacks

Minority groups' anger over Ehrlich fund-raiser understandable, he says

July 17, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele yesterday called on the all-white Elkridge Club to change its membership practices so that African-Americans can be admitted, and said he understands the anger of minority groups at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision to hold a fund-raising event there.

"There is a sensitivity with respect to this issue, particularly in the African-American community, that cannot be lost," Steele said, offering on WBAL radio his most extensive comments to date on the volatile issue of the club's membership since Ehrlich's June 20 golfing fund-raiser.

"And that has to do with the fact that country clubs have been and are a symbol in the minority community of exclusion. And that's because historically there has not been access granted to African-Americans other than to work there in some capacity," said Steele, a Republican. "For a lot of people, irrespective of the fact that this is a private club, that the government has no control or say over its membership list or anything else ... the symbol of this club, in 2005, grates."

Steele's comments on the Stateline program struck a markedly different tone from those he made after the first news reports on the Ehrlich golf event, which raised $100,000 for the governor's expected re-election campaign. After the first article in The Sun about the fund-raiser, Steele told the Associated Press that he did not much care about the club because he does not play golf.

Yesterday, he acknowledged that those remarks were "flippant" and said they did not reflect his full thoughts on the issue.

"I will admit that my initial reaction to this was a little more flippant than it should have been," Steele said, saying he had just come out of a meeting discussing the management of nearly two dozen poorly performing Baltimore schools.

"When I was posed with this question, my response was in the context of all the things I am fighting for and thinking about ... ," he said. "My concern is not whether or not African-Americans or Hispanics or any minorities have access to an all-white country club. I'm concerned that they have access to a better education system, a greater opportunity to get jobs and keep jobs, a greater opportunity to put themselves in a position where they can realize their dreams. And if their dream is to one day play at Elkridge, God bless them. But we have a lot of work to do between now and then."

Steele said the Elkridge Club, which straddles the Baltimore City-Baltimore County line on North Charles Street, should alter its practices so that minorities can become members.

"I would encourage Elkridge and others to reconsider their policies, that are stated or unstated," he said. "And recognize that Maryland is a very diverse community with a lot of potential, and we shouldn't cloud or hamper that potential with this kind of foolishness."

When asked for comment on Steele's remarks, Gregory Massoni, a spokesman for the governor's office, said yesterday that "the lieutenant governor speaks for the governor, and what he says speaks for us."

Former Elkridge officers and current club members have confirmed to The Sun that the club, Maryland's oldest, has never had a black member since its founding in 1878. In the 1970s, it chose to forgo a property tax break rather than comply with a state law requiring the disclosure of its membership list before qualifying for the tax reduction.

Members say that blacks and other minorities have dined and played golf there, but memberships are extended based on long-standing social and family connections, which often date back decades.

A Democratic Party official said it was hard to take Steele's comments seriously because they came just moments after he and show host Bruce Elliott were repeating rumors about Democratic politicians who held events at the club.

"Their actions are still disappointing and show a lack of sensitivity," said Derek Walker, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "Steele going on talk radio two weeks later is not leadership."

Isiah Leggett, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a candidate for Montgomery County executive, said Steele's comments were "a step in the right direction."

"The club should change its policy," he said. "The governor should also apologize for attending the function and any other public official who had something there."

Jay M. Wilson, a vice chairman of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. and president of the Elkridge Club since May 2004, did not return repeated telephone messages left at his house. The club's general manager, Joseph Fulco, also did not return phone calls.

Steele did not apologize for the governor's fund-raiser, which he did not attend.

Last week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a probable Democratic candidate for governor, urged Ehrlich to apologize for the event.

Steele, who is black, is considering seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.

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