- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Calling on one of my Sistagirls who lives in Baltimore County to get her take on the U.S. Senate race in Maryland, I got a response that pretty well sums up what may be the biggest problem for the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

“I like Michael Steele a lot personally, but I just don’t know who he is or where he stands,” said this black professional woman. “That’s why I don’t trust him.” Now that he has attracted suitors with those EHarmony-like ads, the real Mr. Steele has to show up in person. He talks a good man-of-the-people game, but how will he play it?

When I reiterated my Sistagirl’s nervous sentiments to Mr. Steele at a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday, he bristled at the very notion that he is an unknown quantity.

After all, he has been lieutenant governor of the Free State for almost four years, and he has raised the bar so high with his litany of pat-myself-on-the-back accomplishments that his successors “will actually have to work” in the ceremonial position henceforth, he said.

But the guessing game of the hour rests on whether Michael Steele is a right-wing Republican, an undercover moderate Democrat or a wannabe independent. Just where do this atypical candidate’s political loyalties lie? Exactly who constitutes the core constituency to whom he will be beholden?

The street rap on Mr. Steele is that he is hard to read once you get past the friendly smile and platitudes, even for those who have spent time with him. He begs the question posed in those old hair-color commercials, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

I wish I could tell you for sure, one way or the other, about the man behind the steely mask. He definitely has the potential to morph into a hybrid politician, based on the conversations we have had, if he can break away from his big-bucks benefactors. More important, break away from those crude folks who characterize him as “just another Clarence Thomas,” which he is not.

But it really is not my job to define Mr. Steele’s nebulous candidacy. It is the ultimate Steele campaign challenge, and it hasn’t been met well as he tries to beat Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democrat vying to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Mr. Steele argues that he hasn’t been given the chance to get out his message — a hodgepodge of populist and conservative economic and social policies — although he has visited nearly three-fourths of municipalities in the state.

He is right when he says too many partisan voters are content to stick with shallow labels, but you must offer them more than shallow stuff when you are up against fear, tradition and blind loyalty to a party that takes voters for granted.

Which brings us to those slick campaign ads that don’t mention his “R” affiliation.

“No one else has had to put up [their party label] in their ads,” Mr. Steele said. “Why should I?” Because he has to explain himself better. He contends that he has tried to do just that, and unlike “any other candidate in this country,” he has had to deal with explaining who he is as a black man and a Republican in every room he enters.

When he was the state Republican Party chairman, Mr. Steele acknowledged, he was “the most partisan man on the block.” But after he was elected lieutenant governor, he realized that he had to represent all Marylanders “from the KKK to the NAACP.” So he changed.

But how? Where would he place himself now on the political spectrum? “Oh, you want labels?” he said.

Well, yeah, and so do the voters, like my Sistagirl.

“I don’t like labels,” he answered tersely.

I don’t either, but they serve the purpose of giving folks somewhere to start, or land if you are looking to win them over.

How about giving waffling folks like my Maryland Sistagirl a few concrete reasons to take a huge leap of faith and cross over to the Other Side? For instance, how many know about Mr. Steele’s calls for more tuition assistance for community colleges and historically black colleges; or more certified teachers assigned to troubled Maryland schools; or his initiatives designed to assist black women who own small businesses, which I heard touted this weekend in, of all places, Virginia? Mr. Steele does possess a Muhammad Ali penchant for fancy footing around tough questions.

But Mr. Steele is more focused and passionate about his concerns on bread-and-butter issues that he thinks the voters want to hear about. For example, he talked about finding ways to reduce high unemployment in black communities, as represented by a man who asked him how to get his 26-year-old son, a University of Maryland graduate, a job so he can move out.

The son of a laundress and a small-business owner, Mr. Steele knows what it is like “not to get a paycheck.” Most senators don’t have a clue, and he would like to enlighten them.

With two weeks left until Election Day, Mr. Steele says, he is going all over the state and “get in your face” to tell voters exactly who he is.

He is emboldened by his latest polls that show he can expect to receive 20 percent to 25 percent of the black vote in Maryland with another 25 percent still undecided. However, he is admittedly concerned by the prospect of white voters abandoning the Republican Party and voting against him because of his race.

“I’m not silly. … I know the state I live in,” he said.

It’s not like he is unaware of his role as Goliath. “We still have a lot to do,” he said.

The Steele mystique may soon change. It had better.

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