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  Mother Knows Best

Maryland's lieutenant governor didn't get his Republican values — "hard work and a sense of purpose and that quality of individual experience" — from the Republican Party. They came straight from Mom.

By Jim Duffy
First, a counterintuitive suggestion: Though we are about to enter the office of a politician, it might be best to check political baggage here at the door. Two facts make this so:

1. Michael Steele is African American.

2. Michael Steele is Republican.

If recent opinion polls and election results are any gauge, the simple recitation of those facts seems likely to cause nearly half of the nation to hoot in glee and another nearly half of the nation to groan in dismay. Approximately 2.7 percent will remain undecided, with all of this independent of whether anyone has any idea who the heck Michael S. Steele, A&S '81, might be.

Opening photo by Sam Kittner Maryland's lieutenant governor is not the only one of his kind. Fellow African American Republicans serve in posts as prominent as Supreme Court justice and U.S. secretary of state. But the breed remains rare enough that any politician throwing the one-two punch of blackness and conservatism is sure to stand out like a pink flamingo in a flock of drab ducks.

But the sighting of an exotic breed has a way of making observers gawk, of leaving them so mesmerized by strange appearances that appearances alone lodge in the mind. Exotics may be easier to spot, but they are also harder to see, at least in anything approaching full measure.

This is especially true in times marked by partisanship so passionate that many if not most (if not most, all) politically attuned Americans can know a grand total of two unadorned facts — one, African American; two, Republican — and conclude themselves capable not just of sensing whether to hoot or groan, but of knowing as well whether they would vote Michael Steele up or down.

It's absurd. Yet it's where we are.

At six feet, four inches tall, Steele is hard to miss. When he breezes through the reception area about the time of our appointed meeting in Annapolis, it's with a sense of crisis in the air. His eyes glare like a hawk's, and his voice is squeezed into a tight whisper as he engages in a heated exchange with an aide. He disappears into his office and . . . nothing. Five minutes pass. Then 10. Then 20.

Steele's mere presence here in the executive suite of the Maryland State House is rich in historical reverberations. At another quite odd time in American politics, 1783, when the Continental Congress passed several months in Annapolis, the office space that today belongs to the first African American to win statewide election in Maryland belonged then to a Virginia slaveholder named Thomas Jefferson.

Steele went from being man about Hopkins (that's him in The Music Man at right) to the seminary, where he studied to be a monk (below left). Then, too, there is 1864. That's when Maryland first established the post of lieutenant governor, only to react with horror when it turned out that the first man elected to the job, Christopher C. Cox, was an abolitionist. The state promptly abolished the post; it wasn't reinstated until 1970.

Reception-room crisis resolved (or shelved somewhere out of emotional sight), Steele rises in greeting, his movements all soft welcome and tinged with regret over having kept a guest waiting. Pleasantries complete, he fields a first question the way he will field many of those that follow, with a brief historical detour to make certain that the long view is in focus.

"This office has never been a stepping stone to anything," he says. "No lieutenant governor has ever gone on to be governor. Most tend to fade into obscurity."

But unlike many predecessors, who took the title and then dropped off the public radar screen, Steele has remained on the best of terms with his boss, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican governor in three and a half decades.

On the television news, Steele seems always at the governor's side. He gets school-visit photo ops and radio talk-show microphone moments, and he's been assigned to lead the way on high-profile issues, including education and economic development.

"So this is an opportunity to redefine the office," Steele says. "Being African American and being Republican, it all means people are going to look at you a little bit more critically. A lot of people, I've heard they're saying, 'We've got to figure out how to deal with this lieutenant governor.'

"OK. Fine. Figure me out. Let me know what you come up with."

Steele has three heroes in life: Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Maebell Turner.

Told in broad outline, his mother's tale brushes at every turn against trial and tribulation. Born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, she quit school to work the tobacco fields. As a teen, she followed her mother in the great African American migration north, landing in Washington, D.C., where she got a job in a laundromat, a job she'd keep for 45 years. She married an abusive, philandering alcoholic. Their two children were quite young when he died of a poisoned liver at age 36.

Steele, who was born in 1958, still marvels at times over his rather desperate beginnings: "I'm what, four, five years old when he died? What kind of prospects do I have? A black child in a segregated city with a mom making minimum wage?" Laughter rides in a spasm across broad shoulders and then down arms spread to full wingspan. "Doesn't look real good!"

He was raised in the northwest D.C. enclave of Petworth at the tail end of a tumultuous transformation. In 1950, the neighborhood was basically all white. By 1960, it was three-quarters black. Still, Steele recalls the place with nostalgic fondness. Big oak trees, quiet streets, and close-knit families insulated Petworth from the city's harsher corners, he says.

After burying her husband, Maebell Turner went back to the laundromat. Friends counseled her to apply for assistance — perhaps welfare would pay enough to allow her to stay home with Michael and his sister, Monica.

Years later, Steele would ask his mother point blank why she ignored that advice.

"I didn't want the government raising my children," she said.

Eventually, Maebell met and married Steele's stepfather, John Turner, a truck driver. The family's life revolved around faith; Steele's mother is an exceptionally devout Roman Catholic convert who shepherded her kids to church every Sunday for Latin Mass. To this day, Steele prefers that old Tridentine Rite to the modern Catholic Mass.

Steele credits Catholic schools in no small measure for his success. From St. Gabriel's Elementary, he moved to Archbishop Carroll High, one of the District's first desegregated schools. Classmate Kelly Williams met Steele as a freshman, while both were involved in a production of Camelot.

"He was a liberal back then, a big Carter guy," Williams says, "though I guess looking back, it's kind of obvious he was always a closet conservative."

As college approached, Steele was torn between two paths: priest and surgeon. He was signed, sealed, and all but delivered to Georgetown University when he heard from a classmate that he should go to Johns Hopkins if he wanted to be a doctor. When he told his mother he'd been accepted there, the first thing she asked was: "Is it Catholic?"

In the fall of 1977, Rob Freedman lived next door to Steele in Griffin Hall at Hopkins. Opposites in many ways, they built a lasting friendship around a shared love for theater. "I was raised in secular Jewish suburbia," Freedman says. "He was raised in a devout Catholic family. But we never seemed to look at each other across some racial or cultural divide."

Steele socialized heavily at Homewood. He signed on for drama productions and the fencing team. He was freshman class president. Along the way, he lost track of his studies, a mistake that ushered in the first crisis of his adult life.

When the letter arrived at his Petworth home one Saturday morning early in summer, Steele remembers, he snatched it from the stack of mail and disappeared into his room. Re-emerging a few minutes later, he located his mother at the stove, stirring a pot of grits while keeping an eye on the eggs.

"Mamma, I've got something to tell you."

"What is it, baby?"

"I just got a letter from Hopkins. Uh. Well. I got kicked out."

"What do you mean, 'kicked out'?"

"Well, my grades weren't that good. They're telling me I can't come back in September."

Maebell Turner never even stopped stirring the grits. "Well, I don't care what you do," she said, "and I don't care how you do it. But you will be back at Johns Hopkins come September. Now here's your breakfast. Come and eat, baby."

Compared with those marching orders, Steele likes to say, the rough-and-tumble business of Maryland politics holds little to fear. Still, he has taken some shots these recent years.

The Baltimore Sun's editorial-page endorsement of the losing Democratic ticket in the 2002 election addressed the presence of a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor on the ballot with an astonishingly dismissive wave: "Michael S. Steele brings little to the ticket but the color of his skin." A state legislator dubbed Steele an "Uncle Tom." Activists brandished Oreo cookies in an orchestrated stunt at a campaign debate. A Maryland congressman dropped the word "token" while talking about Steele.

Steele emits a long sigh at the mention of it all, then takes aim in particular at The Sun, the newspaper with which he and the governor are engaged in something of a blood feud.

"You take it for what it's worth," he says. "It's an ignorant statement meant to diminish what I represent. It's a statement of fear: fear of successful African American men, fear of successful individuals who are different in their philosophy, their upbringing, their experience."

Later, our conversation winds its way to an anecdote that might cut closer to the emotional core of this matter for Steele. Asked to describe an especially moving moment as lieutenant governor, he singled out a visit by Dorothy Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women and a surviving veteran of many of the civil rights campaigns led by Dr. King.

"My being in this office, the office of Thomas Jefferson, that means something," Steele says. "It means a lot. And having Dr. Height in this room, having her come in here and sit with me and embrace me and thank me for being here — that, for me, was one of the most profound moments. It wasn't about being a Republican or a Democrat. It was about being an African American who has achieved something significant."

The Monday after his mother's ultimatum, young Michael Steele arrived at the office of Michael Hooker, then Hopkins dean of students. His plea for a second chance ran into a brick wall.

"You're not going to make it at this school," Hooker said.

Steele returned the next day.

"This is not the place for you," Hooker said. "Go to a community college."

And the day after that.

"Why don't you just realize you don't have what it takes to be a graduate of this institution?"

At last, Steele looked him in the eye: "Dean, I can do this. I can do Hopkins."

"Out in the world there was this mindset that everything's all right, that the government will take care of you," Steele says. "Along comes Ronald Reagan, who says, 'This is the wrong way to look at our problems.'" By week's end, Hooker offered a glimmer of hope. He told Steele to enroll in four summer courses — the lineup to be chosen by Hooker — at George Washington University. A couple of months later, Steele returned and dropped his grades on the dean's desk: straight A's.

Steele got to stay at Hopkins, but he had to quit all extracurricular activities, get a B average, and rethink his biology major. He ended up studying international relations instead. And he eventually won back enough extracurricular freedom to star as Professor Harold Hill in a campus production of The Music Man and to serve as junior class president and student body president.

"Hopkins gave me a second chance," Steele says. "But before it gave it to me, it told me to straighten up, to recognize your priorities, and to do what you're responsible for, you know? That sounded a lot like my mom."

After graduation, Steele filled out a round of law school applications, but his heart wasn't in it. Instead, responding at long last to an urge he'd felt in his gut since elementary school, he entered a Pennsylvania monastery operated by the Augustinian order of priests who had taught him at Archbishop Carroll High School.

In Steele's mind, Catholics are called to deliver such blink-your-eyes surprises. His move into the monastery was an act of faith, but it also was the embodiment of a countercultural ethos, something the Augustinians describe as living life as "a sign of contradiction" to prevailing values.

"I knew what I was giving up," he says. "It wasn't like I had no clue about life, like I didn't have any idea what poverty, chastity, and obedience would mean in a world that was throwing wealth and sex in your face every day."

Steele stayed in the seminary for three years, then returned to the world. He was still as Catholic as ever, probably more so, but he left the monk's habit behind.

"I think God was saying, 'You need to take this journey,'" he says. "I think He was saying, 'There're some other things I want you to do, but you can't do those things until you have this experience and you begin to understand some things about the nature of man and about why you're here.'"

Steele's move from Jimmy Carter's camp to Ronald Reagan's did not happen in a single magic instant. It involved an evolution. In the 1980s, most African Americans regarded President Reagan with increasing disdain. But Steele had been drawn to the Great Communicator as far back as 1976, especially to his penchant for singling out the trait of determined self-reliance as the core of American identity and the source of American greatness.

More and more, Steele found himself doubting the received wisdom of the Great Society. He'd seen his share of young people deciding to take welfare instead of a job. He'd seen his share of urban renewal projects turn sour. He began to look further back, into the stories of African American communities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, places that often managed against impossible odds — not just with no government support, but often in the face of government-imposed obstacles — to build vibrant businesses and run decent schools.

Was it coincidence that these communities voted Republican? Were they really doing so only out of lingering, misplaced loyalty to Abraham Lincoln?

"Out in the world there was this mindset that everything's all right, that the government will take care of you and take care of your community," Steele says. "Along comes Ronald Reagan who says, 'This is the wrong way to look at our problems. The right way to look at our problems starts in the home. The right way is all about hard work and a sense of purpose and that quality of individual perseverance."

To Steele, Reagan's ideas rang true with the way he was raised: "What he was saying is that my mom is right," he says. And they rang true with the lessons he'd taken away from Dean Hooker. Again, Steele started to feel that calling to live life as a "sign of contradiction."

Pauline Schneider can't help but laugh at the memory of the day in the mid-1980s when Michael Steele came to her attention. A Washington, D.C., attorney prominent in Democratic circles, Schneider looked up from her desk at Hunton & Williams one day and found a fellow partner waving the résumé of a job hopeful.

"You're not going to believe this one," he said. "He's a black guy. He's a Republican. He's been in the seminary. He went to Hopkins."

Soon thereafter, Schneider hired Steele to work as a paralegal by day while he attended law school at Georgetown by night.

"The thing that I found amazing about Michael," Schneider says, "is that he's such an easygoing guy. He's almost a teddy bear. But he always had this strong sense of aspiration, of the things he wanted to accomplish."

After leaving the seminary, Steele had married Andrea Derritt, A&S '81, whom he'd met at Hopkins. He earned his law degree in 1991, then signed on with the Washington, D.C., firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. Six years later, he took a job as counsel for a Virginia real estate operation. In 1998, he started his own firm, the Steele Group, which offered consulting services on strategic networking.

In retrospect, however, all this resume fodder barely touched on the drama central to his story. That drama began after the Steeles moved to Prince George's County, Maryland, in 1986. (The couple still lives there today, in Landover Hills, with their teenage sons, Michael and Drew.) Once settled in, Steele decided it was time he volunteered with the local party.

Not wanting to crash the county GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner, Steele arranged in advance for Hunton & Williams partner John J. Rhodes, a former Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, to send a letter of recommendation. Armed with such a powerful sponsor, Steele arrived at the bash expecting a warm welcome.

"The chairman shook my hand and said hello," he recalls. "Then he kind of left me there. It wasn't so much what he failed to do, which was take me around a little and introduce me. It was that no one else there even bothered to come up and introduce themselves. Now, it's not like I didn't stand out at this event. For one thing, I was the tallest person in the room."

The event's keynote speaker proved its saving grace. When Steele introduced himself to then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, she promptly took him under her wing and peppered him with small talk.

"When I told friends about the dinner, they were incensed," Steele says. "They were like, 'See, I told you these Republicans, they don't give a damn. They just don't like blacks.'"

Steele, too, was angry. Yet he found himself resisting his friends' advice that he cut ties with the party.

"I had two choices," he says. "One, I could wipe the dust of the Republican Party from my feet and walk away. Or, two, I could irk the hell out of them by getting involved. What would happen if I just showed up at their next meeting, ready to be the tallest guy in the room again? I found the second choice a lot more interesting."

Told in broad outline, Steele's rise through the Republican ranks seems mostly free of trial and tribulation. In 1994, he won a seat on the Prince George's Central Committee and then became county Republican chairman. In 1998, he ran in the party's primary for state comptroller, but lost. In 2000, he became statewide party chair, the only African American in the country to hold such a post. In 2002, Ehrlich plucked him out of the pack as his running mate.

Now and again, black Republicans get accused of political careerism. The theory underlying this notion seems to be that since they are in short supply in the party and since they possess potent symbolic value, they are more likely to zip up the political career ladder — and that a whole lot of cold calculation and grasping for power or fame is what's actually behind the exotic beliefs they espouse.

This is a charge Steele's friends have heard, and they judge the accusation equal parts laughable and infuriating, not least because Steele made all his major moves as a Republican activist in, of all places, liberal Maryland. If he were such a clever opportunist, he would have been much better off feigning conservatism somewhere much more hospitable — a Sun Belt state, say, or even neighboring Virginia.

"When he got into this, he was tilting at windmills," says Matt Dolan, a friend from high school. "What he was doing was taking on the dominant party in a one-party state. I've got to say, this did not look at the time like a very lucrative career move."

Sylvester Vaughns, a Republican activist in Prince George's County, found himself sitting alongside Steele at far too many dreary meetings tackling far too many dreary tasks: rewriting bylaws, reviewing financials, adjusting action plans, always with a mind-numbing array of agenda items still ahead. What Vaughns saw through those long, unpaid nights in the 1980s and 1990s was a man paying heavy dues.

"Anybody saying something like that about Michael Steele, they've got to be crazy," Vaughns says. Prince George's Republicans "were lost in the woods when he came along, and he brought us out. There are a few people out there who might deserve that kind of talk, not that I'm going to name any names. But not this guy."

So what, in the end, does Republicanism consist of for Michael Steele? Last August 31, he got a chance to tell the nation when he strode across the stage at Madison Square Garden to address the Republican National Convention. No one who knows Steele was surprised to see him turn the moment into a tribute to Maebell Turner.

Straight away, he ticked off his mother's name alongside those of Rev. King and President Reagan. He ran through her life story. He raved about her determination and her perseverance. Then he listed the ideas that he cherishes today because of her influence in his life.

"You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift," he began. "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and incentive. And you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they should do for themselves."

As lieutenant governor, Steele's constituency crosses all manner of ethnic and economic boundaries. But he seems to especially relish opportunities to talk about how rooted his Republicanism is in the African American-ness of his life story. He imagines himself a weaver, working diligently to reconnect frayed threads that once bound black America into the party of Lincoln.

"I think those historical threads are still very much there in the black community," he says. "I consider myself a radical Republican, a true Republican. Talking about freeing slaves, that was radical. Talking about 40 acres and a mule, that was radical. Talking about giving women the right to vote, that was radical. And it's radical right now to talk about trying to bring the party back to the African American community."

Then he starts to explicate the ways these radical steps wrap into what he finds at the core of Republicanism: the notion that government's role is to clear the way of obstacles, leaving individuals free to "design and fulfill their dreams."

What about Michael Steele's dreams for his own future? That's easy. In a perfect world, he'd win a second term as lieutenant governor in 2006. Then, 2011, he'd take the oath of office as Maryland's first African American governor.

"Yeah, of course, I'm hoping people come to think of me as the kind of guy they'd like to see in the mansion," he says. "Yeah, I'm hoping they come to feel I represent the kind of leadership that they find responsive and responsible and innovative and effective."

But he knows it's going to be a long slog to 2011.

"If they don't, Michael Steele will survive," he says. "I will wake up the next day, and I will meet whatever challenge God sets before me. And I expect that whatever happens, I'll go right on being that 'sign of contradiction' in whatever it is I'm doing. OK? That's the bottom line."

Jim Duffy writes from Cambridge, Maryland.

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