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Political Animal

Black Like Me

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/2/2005

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—the main reason Michael Steele was chosen to be Robert Ehrlich’s lieutenant governor in 2002 is because he is black. It’s not a racist thing to say; look at the facts. He’s never been elected to any office before—hell, he never even seriously ran for office before that. In terms of qualifications, three years ago Steele was the Harriet Miers of Maryland politics. He was chosen because he was the head of the Maryland Republican Party, he comes from Prince George’s County, and he’s handsome and well-spoken. Oh yes, and he’s black.

Steele was chosen because he could bleed off some African-American votes from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, something he did admirably well considering that, at the time, she was shooting herself in the foot with the black community by choosing as her running mate a white former Republican who also had never been elected to office before. Ehrlich picked the exacta: Some blacks voted for him, and many others stayed home.

But let’s not kid ourselves here: The same qualities that made Steele perfect as a lieutenant governor candidate in 2002 could hurt him running for the Senate in 2006. Again, he has never been elected to any public office in his own right in his entire life. He is now a taller, more melanin-enhanced version of, well, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Reportedly, Steele is more conservative than Ehrlich, which is saying something considering Ehrlich was one of Newt Gingrich’s original fair-haired boys during 1994’s Contract on America “revolution.” Steele is a hard-line anti-choice Catholic in a pro-choice blue state. The gun lobby has had its rear end handed to it at least twice here, and any candidate who talks about the government as if it were the enemy will have to deal with a lot of angry federal employees in Montgomery County who actually read newspapers.

If the state’s media look at this campaign like it’s a horse race (as they tend to do), Steele will benefit from it, as right now he is mostly a blank slate who can walk around smiling and looking dashing without delving deeply into any issues. A lieutenant governor without a portfolio (in Maryland, that’s almost a redundant statement) benefits mightily from the trappings of office, but the job Steele is running for requires taking positions on a lot of hairy issues. Where does Steele stand on Iraq—stay or go? How does he think the projected deficits from all four of George W. Bush’s tax cuts will be eliminated? Did Steele agree with Bush’s attempt to gut Social Security with a privatization scheme designed to enrich Wall Street? Does Steele support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? If he does, how does he think that will solve the nation’s energy problems?

These are just the first of many, many questions Steele should answer while running for Senate; policy is what that body is all about, and he can’t duck it by saying we could fix the nation’s problems by installing slot machines. His problem, however, is that the more answers he supplies, the likelier it is that he will lose support. Despite what you may hear from Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, Americans like government. It builds and fixes their roads, it takes care of them (or tries to) in their old age with Social Security. It keeps their food safe, their cars from being dangerous, and, hopefully, their money out of the hands of white-collar criminals. Republicans have to dissemble and dodge to get around this, and we should expect Steele to start up the music any time now.

On another note, last week The Sun reported that a liberal blog posted a picture of Steele in minstrel makeup on the day he announced his candidacy for the Senate. Steele’s spokesman called the offense “gutter racism” and claimed it was part of a coordinated campaign to smear the lieutenant governor. The blog’s author, a black New Yorker, said the picture exemplified Steele’s “groveling, lackey behavior.”

A few notes on this from your also-melanin-enhanced correspondent: This sort of crap is out of bounds, as is doing things like throwing Oreos at Steele, something the candidate says was done to him at a debate in 2002. There’s no need for this kind of behavior—it’s demeaning and insulting. That this kind of thing makes news is also a shame—it will be far too easy for the press to report on distractions like what some blogger says or does than to actually pin down Steele on the issues facing the U.S. Senate. If the press runs around playing games of “He said such-and-such about your momma,” Steele could get a free pass on the issues, and that will hurt Marylanders most of all.

Michael Steele got his last job because he’s black. He shouldn’t get his next one because of it, for better or for worse.

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