Steele urges black legislators to help empower minorities


Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele implored black legislators from around the country yesterday to turn the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of social equality into one of economic empowerment for minorities.

The lieutenant governor said he and members of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators he addressed at their Washington convention are the "post-civil rights generation of African-Americans" who have a responsibility to nurture minority entrepreneurs and strengthen the black middle class.

"As African-American elected officials, we must bend down every day to help our communities, but we must do it with a different perspective, a 21st-century perspective," he said. "Dr. King got us a seat at the lunch counter. Now it's time for us to take ownership of the entire diner."

Steele, a Republican, struck many of the same themes he has emphasized in his campaign for the U.S. Senate, such as the need to improve education, encourage entrepreneurship and help minorities create wealth that can be passed from generation to generation.

But yesterday he spoke in front of a crowd different from the ones he's encountered at most of his campaign appearances. There is not a Republican among the caucus' 56 national and regional leaders, and Steele's party affiliation came up several times during yesterday's luncheon.

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced Steele to the audience by thanking him for capital projects Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration has approved for his district.

"Some people may say that's a hard thing to do because he's a Republican. I was just looking at the bacon I've taken home," said Oaks, who added that he voted for Steele.

"He put a lot of emphasis on education, minority ownership," Oaks said. "He has truly reflected his complexion in office."

Despite the differences of party between the speaker and the audience, the legislators murmured their approval when Steele talked about expanding economic opportunities for blacks, and he got a round of applause when he said that he and Ehrlich created a program that set aside $360 million in state contracts for small and minority businesses last year.

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