- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Democratic Party has been relentless in criticizing Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in his run for U.S. Senate, but party officials say that won’t stop them from paying homage to the conservative Republican during Black History Month.

“Michael Steele is an important figure in African-American history in Maryland. There is no question about it,” said Derek Walker, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

“We should be proud of the achievements of African-Americans, regardless of what party they are from or what their background is,” he said.

Mr. Steele, the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, will be celebrated Monday as part of the state Democratic Party’s campaign to honor a black Marylander each day this month, Mr. Walker said.

The party distributes a daily e-mail spotlighting the day’s honoree.

When told of the party’s plans, Mr. Steele said it sounded like a joke — but added that he would be appreciative if the Democrats truly mean to honor him.

“I appreciate the honor, and I thank them for it,” the lieutenant governor said.

In recent days, Democrats have scolded Mr. Steele for not taking a public stance on the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., for opposing the $1 increase to Maryland’s minimum wage, for not criticizing President Bush’s budget proposal and for being allied with congressional Republicans who received low civil-rights scores from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“We’ll see what the next e-mail they send out looks like,” Mr. Steele said.

Some black Democratic lawmakers said it is about time their party credited Mr. Steele for raising the profile of black Marylanders in state politics.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., Baltimore County Democrat. “Michael Steele is an honorable man.”

The party also plans to honor Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat and former NAACP leader who has been at odds with his party over its lackluster support for his Senate run.

Mfume campaign spokesman Dan Walter said it is “appropriate” that the party would honor Mr. Mfume and Mr. Steele.

Racial issues have overshadowed Maryland’s Senate race — one of the most closely watched contests in the nation — as the Democratic Party struggles to shore up black votes lost to Mr. Steele and the Republican Party that backed him in 2002.

Black Democratic lawmakers said racially tinged attacks against Mr. Steele are fair because he is a conservative Republican, and key Democratic leaders — such as gubernatorial candidates Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, both white — declined to repudiate their comments.

In addition, black Democrats have blamed Mr. Mfume’s fundraising woes on their leaders’ push to give the Senate nomination to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a white Democrat and 10-term congressman.

Mr. Walker has said the party is “militantly neutral” about Democratic contenders seeking to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Still, Democratic endorsements for Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume have divided closely along racial lines.

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