Sunday, October 30, 2005

As a black Republican and rising Republican star, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has been the target of racially motivated dirty attacks over the years. So, last week, after Mr. Steele announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, we were unsurprised to hear about a doctored photo posted to Steve Gilliard’s “News Blog,” a liberal Web site, depicting Mr. Steele as a minstrel and describing him with racially stereotyped slurs.

The slurs are unfit for a family newspaper and cannot be reprinted here. But they are the same old sludge Democrats have been throwing at Mr. Steele for years — attempts to equate Democratic talking points with the black agenda and suggestions that Mr. Steele isn’t authentically “black.” It’s telling that Mr. Gilliard, a black New Yorker whose popular site gets an estimated 15,000 hits a day, is a newcomer to Maryland politics, since that confirms what practically everyone already knows: Mr. Steele unnerves liberals and Democrats everywhere simply by being a black Republican.

This has been going on since before Mr. Steele was elected as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s running mate. In 2001, Maryland State Senate President Mike Miller Jr. called Mr. Steele “an Uncle Tom.”

In what must rank as one of its most shameful moments, the reliably liberal editorial board of the Baltimore Sun wrote during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that Mr. Steele “brings little to the team but the color of his skin.” It has since had to eat those words. Mr. Steele has gone on to be a leading member of Mr. Erlich’s administration, as the Sun itself acknowledged Thursday in an editorial on Mr. Steele’s Senate bid.

The political rabble has shown its ire in ugly racial terms, too. In 2002, during a campaign debate with then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Steele-bashers threw Oreo cookies at him.

There are a number of possible explanations for all this. The first, preferred by Mr. Steele, is that the Democratic establishment fears an independent thinker. “You know why I annoy them?” Mr. Steele explained to reporters in 2002. “I annoy them because I’m an independent-thinking black man who has not bought into their lies and rhetoric.” There must be some truth to this explanation: Any Republican in Democrat-dominated Maryland is by definition an independent thinker, especially in the upper levels of the state’s sclerotic political culture.

It can only rankle his opponents further that Mr. Steele stands a decent chance of becoming Maryland’s first black senator and its first Republican senator since Charles Mathias, Jr. It’s virtually impossible to tell where Mr. Steele will end up by November 2006, but as of last week, he stood second in fundraising behind Democratic frontrunner Rep. Benjamin Cardin, a 10-term veteran of the House of Representatives and a formidable opponent with $1.5 million already in the bank. In a statewide poll by the nonpartisan group Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, Mr. Cardin led Mr. Steele 47 to 38 percent. In a sense, those numbers are very encouraging for Mr. Steele. They show he already appears to have more voters than even 100 percent voter loyalty among Republicans would afford in a state with a lopsided 2-to-1 advantage for Democrats. And the campaign is only just starting.

The stronger Mr. Steele gets, the more his opponents will realize they underestimated him. Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine seems to understand this; after the latest flap, he pulled an ad from the Gilliard “New Blog,” citing the injection of racial stereotypes into Maryland’s race. But others, including the influential liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas, editor of the blog “Daily Kos,” do not. Mr. Moulitsas called the doctored Steele photo “edgy.” If a Democratic opinion-maker like Mr. Moulitsas can defend racial slurs as “edgy,” there is little doubt that some will continue to play dirty tricks with Mr. Steele.

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