A personality for politics

Steele's reviews are mixed, but his charisma puts him at center stage

Maryland Votes 2006

Sun Profile // Gop Candidates For U.s. Senate

October 22, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown | Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

As a teenager, Michael S. Steele was a natural on the stage. Tall and handsome, with a dazzling smile, he won parts in high school, college and summer-stock theater that allowed him to be the central figure, the star.

But even when he failed to land the leads, Steele managed to make himself visible.

"Somehow, he always found his way to the front," says Jim Mumford, Steele's former drama director at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington. He was "so enthusiastic," Mumford says, "that, of course, you let him stay up there."

As an adult, Steele has taken on a broad array of roles: Roman Catholic seminarian. Washington securities lawyer. Small-business owner. Republican Party leader. Maryland lieutenant governor and the state's highest-ranking black elected official.

And though his reviews in many roles have been mixed, his charisma and personality have kept him moving forward.

Now Steele, 48, is auditioning for the biggest role of his professional life: U.S. senator. He was recruited by the White House and is running against Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for the seat now held by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Campaigning in a state where Democrats hold a 2-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration, and where 59 percent disapprove of President Bush's performance in office, he is putting some of that stage experience to use.

On the stump, he speaks little about his conservative positions on abortion and stem-cell research or his support of President Bush's strategy in Iraq, focusing instead on his humble beginnings in the Petworth section of Washington, his promise to be "a different kind of senator," his plans to bring change to the capital.

He introduced himself to voters with a series of fresh television advertisements in which he co-starred with a Boston terrier pup. And his campaign is destined to be remembered more for those commercials than for his stump appearances, which can't be as carefully scripted. Steele staffers do not release advance schedules of his activities and send media advisories inconsistently, making it difficult for reporters to track his public events.

Steele's breezy, personable approach is giving Cardin what might be the toughest race of his 40-year political career, even though the lieutenant governor trails by 6 to 15 points in most credible independent polls.

"People like Mike," says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "He's really charismatic. He's a really solid person. He's a solid family guy. Take that and market him for what he is."

`Love and hard work'

Maebell Turner rarely appears out on the stump, but she has been a central figure in her son's campaign.

"I'm the son of a sharecropper's daughter who was pulled out of fifth grade to work the tobacco fields of South Carolina," Steele said this month during his first debate against Cardin and third-party candidate Kevin Zeese. "And at the age of 18, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she began to work at minimum-wage jobs for the next 45 years."

Turner, who was widowed shortly after Steele's birth, remarried and worked to send Steele and his sister, a pediatrician, to college.

"I am the product of love and hard work," Steele said during the debate at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, "empowered by her perseverance and commitment."

Steele declined to be interviewed for this profile. His campaign would not provide the names of family members, friends or colleagues who might be available to comment, and did not acknowledge repeated requests for confirmation of basic biographical information.

Steele and his staff have publicly complained about The Sun since a 2002 gubernatorial endorsement of then-Lt. Gov Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said Steele "brings little to the team but the color of his skin" and called his selection by Ehrlich "calculated" and "crass."

This article is based on interviews with teachers, classmates and political associates, as well as public records and published accounts of his life and work.

As a student at Archbishop Carroll, Steele performed on stage and sang in the glee club. He was president of the student council and a member of the National Honor Society as a senior.

"He was a great kid," says the Rev. Edson Wood, then the dean of students at what was an all-male school. "He had the kind of personality that makes everybody feel at ease when they're around him."

Steele graduated in 1977 and entered the Johns Hopkins University on a partial scholarship. His fellow freshmen elected him class president. He continued to act and briefly took up fencing.

The extracurricular activities nearly cost him his place at Hopkins. In an alumni magazine profile last year, he said the school kicked him out after his freshman year for poor grades. According to Steele, he was readmitted after earning A's in four summer classes at George Washington University.

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