How Michael Steele learned at the foot of a D.C. political legend


Shaw’s Springfield Baptist Church was packed for Joe Yeldell’s sendoff. (Lateef Mangum/Executive Office of the Mayor)

At Joseph P. Yeldell‘s funeral Saturday, which packed the pews of Springfield Baptist Church in Shaw, there were many expected tributes to a man who did as much as anyone except Marion Barry to define and direct the first three decades of D.C. Home Rule and Democratic politics.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, U.S. House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, several other council members and scores of politicos past and present, elected and unelected, joined friends and family in sharing stories about Yeldell, who parlayed a 1967 appointment to the city council into a series of high-ranking District government positions in which he amassed power that transcended his mostly modest titles.

A lesser known accomplishment of Yeldell’s was mentoring an aspiring young man from Petworth, who ended up making his name outside the confines of District government: Michael Steele.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor and national Republican chairman was among those who eulogized Yeldell on Saturday, describing how he befriended the deceased’s daughter Gayle and earned his way into the Yeldell household.

“Growing up here in the city, one of the coolest things you could do was to be invited to the Yeldell home,” he said. “There was nothing like it in town. There was nothing like it in the world.”

Steele continued:

I learned from him the art of what I would later do as an elected official, party official. To know I had that foundation, to be in that home where I got to meet and see the likes of Charlene Drew Jarvis, David Clarke, Marion Barry, John Wilson, John Ray. That is the living history of this city in one space, in one home. … If I learned anything from Joe, I learned to always bend down reach back and bring others forward, because that’s what you do. When I told Joe that was going to be officially and formally a Republican. [laughs] I just remember the look he gave me and going, “Ohhh-kay!” So what do you do with a black, Roman Catholic conservative, Republican from Washington, D.C.? Well, you teach him how to become the lieutenant governor of Maryland. You teach him how to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee. So if anyone in this town or anywhere has any doubt about my political moorings, about where I learned and where what I was taught, they have to look no further than Joe Yeldell.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · April 23, 2013