- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Michael Steele knows that as the only black chairman of a state Republican Party in the nation, he’ll turn some heads.

But what the new Maryland Republican Party chairman hopes is that ears will follow.

“I hope [my election] says the party is better than you think it is,” Mr. Steele said. “The only thing I ask is that they listen.”

Before the Maryland GOP asks voters to register as Republicans, the party needs to “give people a reason to” and do a better job of communicating it, he said yesterday, his first day at party headquarters since he was elected at the state party convention Saturday.

As the state’s longtime minority party, Maryland’s GOP plays an important role as the “loyal opposition,” Mr. Steele said. But the party needs to aggressively define itself rather than let the Democrats do so if it is to build a future where it has greater influence.

The 42-year-old former Prince George’s County Republican chairman said he sees his election as “an opportunity for me and my party to show the old guard they can’t guard the door anymore.”

“They need to justify why they do what they do: Why Democrats cut deals when at the end of the day [Maryland taxpayers] pay more than they have to.” And why, he said, despite more spending, they haven’t turned around failing schools.

Although he’s not the first black Republican to lead the Maryland party the late Aris T. Allen of Anne Arundel County was state chairman in the Reagan ‘80s efforts to recruit minorities to the GOP have been less than successful.

But Mr. Steele is used to surprising people.

Many of his classmates were stunned when, upon graduation from Johns Hopkins University 20 years ago, he entered an Augustinian monastery in Philadelphia.

Two years there didn’t bind him to life in a religious order, but it did further establish, he said, the role prayer plays in his life as a lawyer, family man and politician.

“The experience brought a certain peace and calmness to my life,” Mr. Steele said.

There may have been hints of that when, even as he was running third in a three-way race to be the Republican nominee for comptroller in 1998, a reporter spied Mr. Steele dancing by himself to the reggae song “Red Red Wine” in the hall where his victory party-that-wasn’t was held.

In Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, an indomitable spirit could help the state GOP leader.

“In this job, I’ll need all the prayer I can get trying to build a viable second party,” Mr. Steele said.

Of immediate concern is protecting the party’s and, he contends, the people’s interest during the post-census reapportionment of legislative districts that Democrats will preside over in 2002.

He said he hopes to have constructive talks with Democrats on the issue before Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whom the constitution charges with drafting a plan, and the General Assembly change the legislative map.

Of course he’s prepared to make legal challenges and is advocating single-member districts to provide fairer representation as well as stave off attempts to dilute Republican clout.

“There are a lot of similarities between the church and the law and politics,” Mr. Steele said. “They are all trying to get an issue and a message out before the public.”

And if that message doesn’t bear fruit for the Republicans, “… it won’t be for Michael’s Steele’s lack of trying,” said Kelly Williams a Democrat and his close friend since high school. “He’s committed … and sincere.”

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