Democrats accuse Steele of `political identity theft'

September 22, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

No, Maryland voters, the printer did not make an error. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's new campaign signs seem to identify him as a Democrat.

A "Steele Democrat," they read.

The bright blue placards and bumper stickers made their debut yesterday in Baltimore during an event announcing a new coalition of Democrats supporting the lieutenant governor's U.S. Senate bid. Steele, of course, is the Republican nominee for Senate and a former chairman of the state Republican Party.

The group and accompanying signs appear to be the latest Steele effort to distance himself from an unpopular White House and a Republican Party struggling to maintain its hold on Congress. The state Democratic Party chairman immediately accused him of "identity theft."

Steele supporters said the term was akin to calling someone a "Reagan Democrat."

No elected Democrats showed up for yesterday's event, and the crowd was composed largely of participants in the I Can't We Can substance-abuse-recovery program in Park Heights.

Among the few recognizable Democrats to appear was William H. Murphy Jr., a Baltimore lawyer who has ties to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"I'm sick and tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party," Murphy said.

"We don't embrace George Bush, we embrace Michael Steele," he said. "We don't embrace George Bush's vision of America, we embrace Michael Steele's vision of America."

Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that while such cross-party coalitions are a routine campaign gimmick, Steele's new signs are "underhanded" and a "dirty trick."

"Oh ho, we're a blue state, aren't we?" Norris said. "This is an obvious attempt on the part of a candidate who is behind in the polls to confuse the voters about which party he actually represents. To me, it's a form of dirty politics."

To add to the party confusion, a Democrat with the last name Mfume endorsed Steele yesterday.

Michael Mfume - son of former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume - linked arms with Steele in Baltimore.

"I'm here, and I'm in support of Mr. Steele," said the younger Mfume, whose professional experience as a film and music producer includes directing the horror movie Ax 'Em, according to Internet postings.

"Building a bridge," Steele replied, before they embraced before a cluster of television cameras.

Asked if his endorsement of Steele was any indication of his father's political affections, Michael Mfume said he is his own man.

"There's a saying by Billie Holiday that goes, `A mother may have, a father may have, but God bless the child who has his own,'" he said.

Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP leader, has spoken frequently of his friendship with the candidate who defeated him in the Democratic primary, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Last night, the elder Mfume said that he is sticking with Cardin. "I'm supporting Ben 100 percent," he said.

At Steele's event earlier, the only performer of sorts was a man wearing a suit and tie - and a Bush rubber face mask. After Steele finished his speech in the courtyard of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, the presidential stand-in - who would not say who sent him - loudly lamented Steele's pitch for Democratic support.

"I was here to show my support, but then he ran away from me," said the pseudo president to no one in particular. "What is that all about? I raised a million dollars for that guy. Why is he being so mean to me?"

Artie Harris, a state Democratic Party spokesman, said the man in the mask is not on the party's payroll. A Cardin spokesman said his campaign also had nothing to do with that wannabe Bush.

Bush raised $500,000 for Steele's Senate campaign at M&T Bank Stadium in November. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer said that Steele's ties to the national GOP are indisputable and that signs alone will not mask his allegiances.

"Michael Steele is trying to hide the fact that his campaign is funded and directed by George Bush and the Republican party," Singer said in an e-mail statement. "When Steele returns the money he's gotten from the national Republicans and unequivocally rejects the President's support, he can try to portray himself as an independent."

Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, had stronger words.

"Steele's new logo is the biggest election fraud perpetrated on the voters of Maryland in this campaign to date - and proves that Steele thinks his only chance is political identity theft," Lierman said in a statement. "But `Steeling' a logo or party name won't work; Maryland's voters are smart enough to know that the former Maryland Republican Party Chairman - who was on the executive committee of the Republican National Committee and who was recruited to run by George Bush himself - will just be another Bush Republican vote in the U.S. Senate."

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