African-Americans key constituency for Steele

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate can offer personal perspective about the challenges facing blacks


Less than 90 minutes before announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate yesterday, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was on a national radio show talking about the transformation of hip-hop stars from street thugs to businessmen.

"There is a turnaround that is occurring that is very consistent with ... economic empowerment," Steele told Fox radio host Tony Snow yesterday morning. "You are looking at a generation of African-American men who have gone from the baggy pants and street clothing to suits."

It is a message that Steele has been honing for more than a year, and one that holds the potential to shake the foundation of politics in Maryland - a state with the highest proportion of black residents outside the Deep South.

Generations of white Democrats have won elections in Maryland with the steady support of black voters. But Steele represents a new model: a conservative black Republican who can speak passionately and personally about the challenges and goals of African-Americans.

Registered Democrats outnumber the GOP in Maryland by nearly 2-to-1, so Steele can't win a statewide race without significant crossover support.

A different tack

For white candidates, that has meant in recent years appealing to so-called Reagan Democrats by promoting a moderate agenda. Steele can take a different tack, however, by courting votes of blacks - among the most reliable Democratic voting bloc.

Poll numbers released this week show that Steele would get 17 percent of the black vote in a race against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, and 18 percent against former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume; both are Democrats in the race to succeed retiring incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Political experts say he needs more than that to be successful. "If he doesn't get 25 or 30 percent of the black vote, it would be hard for him to win, especially now where the Republican Party is and the importance of Senate races nationally," said Donn Worgs, a political science professor at Towson University.

But Worgs said Steele is well-positioned to make gains among black voters.

"I think African-Americans don't find his message to be as off-putting as they would many other Republicans," Worgs said. "He's willing to talk about race, and he's willing to acknowledge that there are racial challenges that still exist, and his message seems to be that there is an alternative strategy for African-American improvement and community upliftment."

Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor, said black votes alone won't put Steele over the top. For that, he would need about 80 percent support in the African-American community. The Ehrlich-Steele ticket in 2002 got about 12 percent of black votes, Schaller said, and doubling that to 25 percent would be an ambitious goal that would still leave Steele needing significant white support.

But Steele's desire for black votes works at cross-purposes to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election strategy, Schaller said. The governor's chances are boosted, he said, if black turnout is low.

"High black turnout is not good for Bob Ehrlich," Schaller said. "Steele wants middle-class black voters in Prince George's County to turn out. But if Michael Steele is really interested in getting out the black vote, let's see if the state Republican Party is out with clipboards registering voters in West Baltimore."

Steele won't be the only candidate in the 2006 elections heavily courting African-Americans. Democratic gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Douglas M. Duncan are both considering black running mates, hoping to avoid the mistake of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend four years ago - who chose a white former Republican and alienated some blacks.

Minority candidates are also poised to enter a race for attorney general if Democratic incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. chooses not to seek a sixth term.

Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker acknowledged that Steele's candidacy poses a challenge, but said that party leaders can overcome it.

"Democrats are prepared to earn every vote in the African-American community. We are not taking any vote for granted," Walker said.

Steele's message of personal responsibility and economic empowerment "transcends party labels," said former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, the most prominent Democratic official at Steele's announcement speech yesterday (Curry said he was not yet making an endorsement.)

Party labels

"It is no longer the case - I think it was learned in the last election - that party labels alone will validate or assure elections," Curry said, adding that the presence of Steele and Mfume in the Senate race will mean the topic of race will be vigorously debated this election cycle.

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