Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said black Democratic leaders who call racially tinged attacks on him fair game because he is a conservative Republican have exposed themselves as racists and cast shame upon the state.
“I think it diminishes their leadership,” Mr. Steele said in an interview. “But most importantly, I think it embarrasses our state to have elected officials speak in those terms. Marylanders now have a sense of the content of their character, because that is what [Martin Luther King] wanted us to judge each other by, and that’s enough for me.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Steele voiced support for affirmative action and the war in Iraq. He also expressed offense that black Democrats would accept branding him an “Oreo cookie” or an “Uncle Tom” because his campaign for the U.S. Senate espouses a message of personal responsibility and individual empowerment.
The lieutenant governor, who is the first black man elected to statewide office in Maryland, said he bristled at a report in The Times on Wednesday that several black Democratic lawmakers condoned racial attacks against Mr. Steele because his political positions do not reflect those of the black community.
“Party trumps race, especially on the national level,” said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a black Baltimore Democrat. “It’s democracy, perhaps at its worst, but it is democracy.”
Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, a black Baltimore Democrat, said Mr. Steele invites racially charged criticism — including labels such as “Oreo cookie” and “Uncle Tom” — because his conservative philosophy is anti-black, in her opinion.
“The fact that my values are outside the black community … will come as a surprise to my mother, who raised me with those values,” said Mr. Steele, whose widowed mother raised him in the District working as a minimum-wage seamstress and refused welfare.
“When I have opponents like that say that I am anti-black, [I say] show me in my rhetoric where I have been anti-black, tell what I have said that has been anti-black,” he said.
“When I talk about empowering my community and all communities, not just African-Americans but everyone, when I talk about giving your business a fair opportunity, a fair shake, giving your child a fair shot at a good education, giving your community a fair shot at re-establishing itself and growing again, I don’t know where that becomes anti-anyone.”
Mr. Steele, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said his party has failed to articulate its message to black voters but he intends to correct that mistake.
“The philosophy, the policies that we espouse go directly to the benefit of the black community,” he said. “But our problem is we never stepped up and started talking about that directly to the community.”
Mr. Steele commended Kweisi Mfume, a candidate in the race to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, for criticizing fellow black Democrats who approve of racial attacks.
Mr. Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus in saying that Baltimore lawmakers in the General Assembly should “cease and desist” from making racial comments about Mr. Steele.
The lieutenant governor was critical of politicians who did not repudiate the comments, including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, both white Democrats who are running for governor.
“I’m surprised and embarrassed for Doug Duncan and Martin O’Malley who seemed to duck the question, and they want to be governor,” he said.
The Times reported Friday that U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin pledged to not use racially charged attacks in his run for senator but stopped short of chiding fellow Maryland Democrats who approve of such tactics.
“This is the Democratic Party, after all. We have a rather open party, and people are very opinionated,” Mr. Cardin said. “I’m not going to start dealing with that other than to say … our campaign will not permit any racial issues. We are going to deal solely on the issues.”
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Steele has raised more money for his Senate bid than any other candidate except Mr. Cardin.
Mr. Steele had raised more than $400,000 for a campaign and has about $350,000 in cash on hand, while Mr. Cardin had raised $837,000 in the past three months and has $1.5 million in the bank, the Associated Press reported last month.