Tuesday, July 2, 2002

ANNAPOLIS U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday named Michael S. Steele, a Prince George’s County native and the first black state Republican Party chairman in the nation, to be his running mate in the Maryland governor’s race.
Republicans said the selection underscores Mr. Ehrlich’s message that his administration would offer opportunities to minorities and others who have been shut out of the top tiers of statewide office.
“Republican, Democrat, independent, black, white it doesn’t matter. The old lines are gone,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “This is a call for change. We represent that change.”
In a speech after the announcement, Mr. Steele went on the offensive against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the likely Democratic nominee.
Borrowing a term from her signature crime-fighting program, Mr. Steele declared her record a “hot spot” for “eight years of silence [and] complicity in which legacy building took precedence over human needs” for education, roads and mental-health services.
He said Mr. Ehrlich, unlike Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mrs. Townsend, would keep violent criminals in prison. And he said Mr. Ehrlich would not spend state money in legal settlements to cover for elected officials who failed in their responsibilities a thinly veiled reference to payments the state made to juvenile offenders abused at boot camps in the state’s criminal-justice system, which Mrs. Townsend oversees for the administration.
Mr. Steele also said Mr. Ehrlich would offer a plan for funding education aid increases. Mrs. Townsend has said she expects improvements in the state’s economy to fund those needs, but revenues are running about 4 percent below projections, a spokesman for the state comptroller’s office said yesterday.
Observers say that adding Mr. Steele to the ticket could help Mr. Ehrlich draw the minority votes he will need to win in Maryland, where Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats 2 to 1.
“It’s a good choice, a gesture that’s unmistakable,” political commentator Blair Lee IV said.
If the Ehrlich-Steele ticket wins the Republican nomination, Mr. Steele would be the second black candidate to become the GOP nominee for Maryland lieutenant governor.
The late state Sen. Aris T. Allen of Anne Arundel County was former U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall’s running mate in 1978. They won the nomination but lost the election.
Delegate Jean Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican, said Mr. Steele is a fine candidate and, as a resident of the Washington suburbs, a strategic pick for a Baltimore-area Republican who will need to draw votes from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Former U.S. Sen. William Brock, whom Mr. Ehrlich asked to search for a running mate, said Mr. Steele’s life story was among the factors that distinguished him.
Mr. Steele’s father died when he was young. His mother worked at a laundry, and his stepfather worked as a limousine driver often transporting Mrs. Townsend’s father, Robert Kennedy so they could afford to send their children to parochial schools and college.
Some Democrats said that although Mr. Steele is a person of substance and is likable, his conservative views could hinder Mr. Ehrlich’s efforts to draw independent and swing voters.
“He’s bad on the issues; he’s even bad for this ticket on the issues,” said Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson. “I thought Bob was running on a pro-choice, pro-death-penalty campaign.”
Mr. Steele studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood before deciding to become a lawyer. Many of his views are more conservative than those of Mr. Ehrlich, a centrist.
Mr. Steele’s first foray into statewide politics came in 1998, when he ran for comptroller but did not win the Republican nomination. But since becoming chairman of the state Republican Party in 2000, Mr. Steele has become prominent in national political circles.
He is on the Executive Commission of the Republican National Committee and served on both the National Federal Election Reform Commission in 2001 and the NAACP’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Election Reform.
Mr. Steele recently led an effort by the state GOP, which some Democrats joined, to overturn a legislative redistricting plan drawn by Mr. Glendening and Democratic leaders.
They argued that the map disregarded political and natural boundaries to protect favored incumbents at the expense of fair representation for the state’s voters, particularly minorities.
The state Court of Appeals agreed that many districts were unreasonably gerrymandered and redrew the map.

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