Politics & Policy

Maryland’s Tough Mike Steele, and More

In the new issue of NR–you subscribe, I trust!–I have a piece about Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland. He’s running for the U.S. Senate. When he announced at the end of October, all hell broke loose–a racial hell.

Steele is a black Republican–a black conservative–and he is subject to all the abuse such a status entails. You will read about it in this article, titled “A Horse of a Different Color.” (Also the title of an old book about Jesse Jackson, as it happens.) But I want to share a little bit more with you here.

Mike Steele has been called every name in the book–an Oreo, an Uncle Tom, etc. It’s all nonsense, of course. You seldom meet a politician so brave, so tough, or so independent-minded. To do what he has done makes you the opposite of a lackey. When he announced his Senate campaign, a prominent left-wing website depicted him as Sambo–it was nauseatingly crude. But, again, par for the course.

I asked Steele whether he was immune to such stuff. He quipped, “I’m not an elephant for nothing.” (Thick skin, as well as black skin.) “I’ve been dealing with this sort of thing for 20 years–more than that, since 1976, when I first got involved in D.C. politics.”

He also predicted we have not seen the last of racial idiocy in the Senate campaign–”because of the arrogance of people who feel that way. They think they can say anything, do anything, and get away with it. But I’m here to remind them that they can’t. We will be dealing with this issue”–racial taunting or insinuation–”in another six months in a different way.”

Thomas Sowell talks about what he calls “private support”–as in, “I’m right behind you, Tom–way behind you.” People confide to him that they like him, and agree with his conservative views, but they aren’t keen to have it known. Does Steele have similar private support?

“Oh, yes. People come up all the time and whisper in my ear, saying, ‘I voted for you.’ [For lieutenant governor in 2002.] I tell them, ‘Why are you whispering? We won!’ The other day, my wife said to me, ‘If all those people who whisper in your ear and pat you on the back actually go to the polls to vote for you, we should do okay in this election.’ And she had it exactly right: The question is whether they’ll vote.”

(Incidentally, when I was in college, I dubbed these people “scurriers.” They scurry up to you, and tell you that they like what you say–that they appreciate your voicing the conservative view, or challenging the reigning orthodoxy at all–and then they scurry away. All very underground!)

Steele doesn’t spend much time on people who accuse him of being insufficiently black, or inauthentically black. (He was raised poor in the District, by a plucky and righteous woman.) “I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be authentically black. The beauty of the black experience is that you define it–you make it whatever you want it to be.” When people try to play blacker-than-thou with him, he won’t respond. Or if he does–he’ll best them.

In reading about him, I noticed that he was a member of the NAACP. I wanted to confirm it with him. “Yes, it’s true. That reminds me: I have to renew my membership.” He stresses the bipartisan, or nonpartisan, roots of that organization. “Julian Bond and others have turned it into something else, but the NAACP was always above party and ideology, interested in only what was right, period.” Steele is not yet ready to give up on it. (Some of us gave up in 2000, when they pulled that lynching number on George W. Bush.)

As we talked, I recalled to Steele what the Democrats had done to Ellen Sauerbrey in 1998. You remember that, right?

She was the Republican nominee for governor (as she had been in 1994–in that year, she was the victim of some ballot-box funny business in Baltimore). In 1998, she was neck and neck with the incumbent, until the last days of the campaign, when the Dems dropped a racial bomb on her. They did this under the guidance of Bob Shrum, the operative who has made a specialty of race war in his long, dishonorable career. The Dems launched a statewide ad campaign to paint Ellen as a racist. This was one of the worst, most egregious things some of us had ever seen in politics.

And it was too much for honest, decent Democrats. For example, Kurt Schmoke, then the mayor of Baltimore, said at a press conference, “I know the difference between a political conservative and a racist.”

But the ad campaign worked, and Ellen went down. In an interview with me sometime afterward, she made the following observation: If you lie about, say, tax policy, you may harm a candidate, but that lie does no damage after Election Day. If you lie about race, however, you harm not only the candidate, but society itself–and the damage lingers long after Election Day.

Anyway, I asked Mike Steele, “Do you have your chin strap buckled?” He answered, “Oh, I’ve got mine buckled. The question is, do they have theirs buckled, because they’ve never run across a Republican like me. I learned the game from them. I’ve watched them for years. And they’d better be buckled up, because I’m ready to go.”

How you like them apples?

‐Jump, now, to Kurt Schmoke, with whom I also spoke. Since 2003, the mayor has been dean of Howard Law School. What did he think of the racial furor at the opening of Steele’s Senate campaign? (And for a description of that furor, please consult my NR piece.) “I was sad and disgusted, to hear what some of my Democratic colleagues were saying. I didn’t believe it at first. It really shocked me. The public doesn’t deserve this sort of thing, and Michael Steele in particular doesn’t deserve it.”

Schmoke also allowed that the controversy would help Steele, in that “it has given him so much attention.” Just about everybody in Maryland believes this, including the Steele campaign.

And Schmoke is one of many Democrats who believe that greater two-party competitiveness would benefit black Americans in general: “The refrain has always been, ‘Democrats take us for granted, and Republicans ignore us.’” But if Republicans make a serious and sustained effort to win black votes–look out.

As I say in that NR piece, black Republicans who run for office are still a select group, but their numbers are increasing. You have Steele in Maryland. You have Ken Blackwell in Ohio, who’s running for governor. You have Keith Butler, who’s running for the Senate nomination in Michigan. (He is a pastor and former Detroit city councilman.) You have Michael Williams, who’s railroad commissioner of Texas. That may not be the grandest position–but Williams will almost certainly advance from there. Lynn Swann, the football great, is contemplating a run for governor of Pennsylvania.

And don’t forget the U.S. secretary of state. (By the way, she’s the second straight black, Republican secretary of state.) A lot of people are talking about her for ‘08–for either slot in the presidential ticket.

I love something Maryland’s governor, Robert Ehrlich, said to me in an interview last spring. “If Condi Rice were a Democrat, there’d be parades for her. She’d be on the cover of Time magazine every week.”

If a Republican appoints a black female secretary of state, ho-hum. And, of course, that’s the way it should be.

Suppose Rice does run in ‘08–she, too, will have to buckle her chin strap. Racial taunts come at her fast and furious, from nasty figures both black and white. You will recall that the (white) cartoonist Jeff Danziger portrayed her as Prissy, the character from Gone with the Wind, hollering about WMD in slave dialect. When people like me objected, his excuse was that a black friend of his had suggested the cartoon. Some of my best friends are blacks who recommend that I draw racist cartoons. Terrif.

But back to Mayor (and Dean) Schmoke: I asked him about a longstanding question–voting patterns and political beliefs in black communities. They don’t always match up, do they? The conservatism of black communities is not reflected at the polls.

He answered with an episode from his political past. “I ran for state’s attorney in 1982, and the guy I was running against was anathema in the African-American community.” He was a conservative white Democrat. “When I did some polling, I found out that his policies–which were tough on crime–were very well received by African Americans. What people didn’t like was a perception in his rhetoric of unfairness. So I pledged that, if I were elected, I would be both firm and fair. That distinguished me.”

(Schmoke won, incidentally.)

Michael Steele is running for the Senate in one of the most Democratic states in the Union. Does he have a chance? Schmoke: “Oh, yes, absolutely. But he has two problems. One is personal: I think Michael has some issues of personal finance, and that may come back and bite him. The other thing is the president: If his popularity remains low, and the Iraq War is seen as failing, then Steele is going to have trouble running as a Bush Republican.” (Steele is proudly supportive of Bush, including on the war.)

More Schmoke: “What he has going for him is that people like him as a person. He goes into churches and so on, and they respond. They like him, they like his family, they like his lifestyle. You can’t discount that in any election. So the question is, ‘Will people look beyond some of his political views to his personal qualities?’ It’s a tough hill for him to climb, but not impossible.”

The two main candidates for the Democratic nomination are Rep. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and former president of the NAACP. Like everyone else, Schmoke holds that Steele would have a much better chance against Mfume. “He can make some distinctions on the values issues, which would resonate with some voters.” Cardin is “not the most charismatic of candidates, but in terms of constituent service and so on, Ben’s got a good solid record. Steele wouldn’t be able to get him on the family-values issues. It would be very tough” for the Republican, against Cardin.

And if both Senate nominees were black, would that be a sign of progress? (Cardin is white, Mfume black.) “I tend to think that the country is making significant strides in race relations anyway. In Ohio, too, you know, we could have two African-American candidates, vying for governor”–Ken Blackwell (the former mayor of Cincinnati, now Ohio’s secretary of state), and Mike Coleman, the mayor of Columbus. “But you have to understand: As a former mayor, I’m an optimist!”

That is a helpful trait, in most any job.

‐Maryland’s governor, Bob Ehrlich, is always a pleasure to talk to, in part because he is so direct: His name, in German, means “straightforward,” or “honest,” or “above-board,” or “candid.” Perfect. For the piece I did on him last March, please go here. In 2002, he and his running mate, Steele, went into places that had never seen a Republican, at least in years. When we talked the other week, Ehrlich commented, “I come from a three-room apartment in a very, very working-class area of Baltimore County. Michael comes from Washington, D.C., from no money. So, given our backgrounds, we’re not afraid to go anywhere. And if there’s one thing I wanted our ticket, our campaign, and our administration to be known for, it was this: We’re unafraid. This is not your grandfather’s Republican party. For that matter”–and this is parallel–”the Democrats aren’t your grandfather’s Democratic party, either.”

More Ehrlich: “We’ve gone to black churches, to community associations, into areas where Republicans have received very few votes–and we just engage. The purpose of this is simply . . . I hate the term ‘reach out,’ because it means nothing; it sounds phony to me. But we engage and listen, and we ask people to listen to us, too. Because we obviously have policy positions that we think are good for the community. We’ve been hyper-aggressive on this, and it is paying off.”

In our conversation, the governor emphasized a point I had heard him make before: “Mike was not put on the ticket with the idea that he would generate black votes. We’re not naïve. But we were reformers, and we were presenting a different kind of party.” Ehrlich also likes to say that Steele is “inconvenient”–inconvenient to the establishment, whether white or black. “He upsets their notion of what a black man should be, what he ought to think. He is his own person.”

You can say that again.

Republicans are pleased to note that, before 2002, there had never been a mixed-race ticket in Maryland. And when there was one, it was Republican. That sticks in some Democratic craws (which doesn’t cause GOPers too much pain).

‐Can you believe that there is a governor–any politician–who says, “I hate the term ‘reach out,’ because it means nothing; it sounds phony to me”? That, friends, is a miracle.

‐In reading about the Maryland Senate race, I have seen some excited talk that, if Kweisi Mfume is elected, there will be a black senator from Maryland, and wouldn’t that be something? I have not read the same thing about Steele.

This reminds me of a point that I know I’ve made to you Impromptus-ites before: In my home state of Michigan, a man named Bill Lucas was the Republican gubernatorial nominee. That was 1986. He lost to a white Democratic liberal named Jim Blanchard. Flash forward four years: Doug Wilder is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia. And all you heard–for months and months–leading up to the election was, “He’d be the first black governor [of any state] since Reconstruction. He’d be the first black governor since Reconstruction.” Endlessly. The national media almost dared Virginia to turn him down.

Well, he was elected. But Lucas, you see, hadn’t counted. And may I say that . . . well, let me put this as delicately as possible: Lucas was not from the same elite stratum of black America as Wilder. By a long shot.

Please do not infer that I have anything against Wilder, at all. It’s just that, as a Republican, Lucas was considered inauthentically black, so his candidacy did not count, so much.

Which I think is disgusting.

‐A final word on this (general) topic: I believe that black Republicans–black conservatives–are among the bravest people in America. I’ve talked before about the conservative on campus. But black Republicans must have the harder path. They risk so much: ostracism, scorn, defamation. As we’ve seen, they’re jumped on by the black Left, and jumped on by the white Left (which feels no compunction). And they’re no doubt condescended to by some conservatives. If you’re a black Republican, you’d better have that elephant’s skin that Mike Steele talks about. Those who do merit our highest esteem.

‐Well, I’ve banged on so long about Maryland, etc., I don’t have time for anything else. A couple of quick words, then out. In my Impromptus last Thursday, I mentioned that I feared President Bush would be rather Scowcroftian in China, and about China. That fear was not borne out, thank goodness. (Not totally.) Bush does not let you down. At least he doesn’t let me down, ‘cept every now and then. Of course he’d go to church in China (even if it was an official church). (I’m sure he was in no mood to get underground members arrested.)

‐Conrad Black has been indicted, and I don’t know whether he’s guilty. I believe I do know this: He is fundamentally a force for good, and when he’s clear of this–however long it takes–he will make waves once more in the media world. And those waves will be positive.

‐I get voluminous mail about the snuffing of “Christmas,” in favor of “holiday,” and I will publish a snippet here:

Mr. Nordlinger:

I know that you often complain about people trying to replace the phrase “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.” Well, I saw something this morning that showed me just how far this silliness has gone.

On New York’s WCBS morning news show they had a fluff story about a local fundraiser. The reporter was on location talking to children in a room filled with decorated Christmas trees. Then in walked Santa Claus himself. Santa shook his belly and said, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry . . . Happy Holidays!” He actually caught himself midsentence and switched to the Politically Correct greeting.

It’s one thing if the clerks at the People’s Republic of Wal-Mart want say Happy Holidays, but this is Santa. He is the secular symbol of Christmas. As far as I know, there is no legend or tradition that says Santa Claus will come to your house on Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Eid, New Year’s, or Kwanza. If the North Pole has gone PC, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Singin’ my song, baby. By the way–I’ve linked to this a million times, you poor people–for my piece on this subject (“December’s C-Word”), please go here.

‐Just one music review, from the New York Sun: For a piece on David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, please go here.

And I’ll see you later, dear hearts.


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