- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

Black voters in Maryland yesterday said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele’s run for U.S. Senate was not hurt — and might have been helped — by his recently publicized criticism of President Bush.

“Just because Michael Steele disagrees with Bush, I’d probably vote for him,” said Bjorn A. Fingal, 19, a pizza-delivery driver and registered Democrat from Mount Rainier. “We’re anti-Bush where I’m from.”

Johnny Jones, a retired federal worker from Silver Spring, said he didn’t think anybody was swayed by the flurry of news reports about Mr. Steele, a black Republican who said he does not want Mr. Bush campaigning for him and that his party affiliation is like a “scarlet letter” in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1.

“He just speaks the truth,” said Mr. Jones, 69, a registered Democrat. “He is a Republican, but he doesn’t like everything the Republicans are doing. That doesn’t mean I’ll vote for him. I’ll probably vote Democrat.”

More than 150 news organization around the world have reported on Mr. Steele’s remarks, which originally appeared Tuesday in a column in The Washington Post. The remarks were based on an off-the-record interview, and the column did not attribute the comments to Mr. Steele.

Mr. Steele almost immediately took responsibility for the remarks, including his criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq — positions he has often taken publicly since entering the Senate race nine months ago.

Mr. Steele is expected to win the Republican nomination in the Sept. 12 primary, then face either Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin or former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Kweisi Mfume, the front-runners for the Democratic nomination for senator.

Mr. Steele also reiterated his support for the president and said Mr. Bush was a “homeboy,” in the days following the column.

He has not hidden his close ties to the Bush administration, which was instrumental in recruiting him for the Senate race.

Mr. Steele has campaigned with Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George H.W. Bush. Last month, he held a fundraising event with White House senior adviser Karl Rove.

Tyrone Powers, host of a radio news journal on WEAA-FM in Baltimore that focuses on black issues, said black voters are torn between applauding Mr. Steele and dismissing his remarks as rhetoric to win votes. “African-Americans are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They want an African-American in the Senate.”

Mr. Powers also said black voters are not as vehemently opposed to Mr. Bush as commonly thought, though recent polls show more than 90 percent of black Marylanders disapprove of the president’s job performance. For example, black voters agree with the president’s opposition to homosexual “marriage” but disagree with the war in Iraq.

Mr. Steele “understands that there is a divide,” Mr. Powers said.

State Democratic leaders criticized Mr. Steele for “trying to have it both ways” by appealing to crossover voters, then trying to recapture his Republican base by saying his remarks were not supposed to be published.

“It is totally a ploy,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman. “On the one side, he is trying not to say he is in the pocket of George Bush, which he is. And on the other side, he is trying to say he is a strong supporter of the president.”

Mfume spokesman Steven I. Marinoff said Mr. Steele cannot run from his association with the president’s policies. “Let’s be clear, he is a conservative Republican candidate whose positions are in line with George Bush and Karl Rove.”

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller also said the episode has resulted in no clear backlash among voters from either party.

“It’s actually broadened [Mr. Steele’s] appeal among independents and Democrats,” she said. “We don’t see anything upsetting the base. We think Michael’s statements, while nothing new, demonstrate his ability to think for himself and speak his own mind.”

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