Steele Factor Looms In Md.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, right, a likely Senate candidate, at St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, right, a likely Senate candidate, at St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore. (By Brendan Cavanaugh)
By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 13, 2005

As parishioners swayed and clapped, women in festive red blouses huddled under the imposing front archway of St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church, waiting for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Many Republican politicians would have seemed entirely out of place at last Sunday's Mass honoring the parish's 125th anniversary -- the mostly black church sits in West Baltimore, one of the state's most lopsided Democratic districts. But not Steele, who arrived flanked by aides and security guards and was swept up in embraces by ushers and churchgoers.

"He's made a very favorable impression," said Emma Hawkins-Johnson, 61, an employment coordinator and longtime Democrat.

If Steele launches a widely anticipated bid for U.S. Senate in coming weeks, his candidacy will test one of the most deeply rooted certainties in Maryland politics: that no matter the contest, the vast majority of African American voters will cast their ballots for the Democrat.

Steele, 44, a Prince George's County lawyer who became the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, said in an interview that he intends to court the black vote aggressively, part of a concerted push by the GOP nationally to bridge a chasm that opened 50 years ago during the modern civil rights era. Already, the Republican National Committee has pledged significant campaign support and money to a Steele campaign.

Republicans say his historic status and his use of state office to open a dialogue with minority business executives and church leaders could help draw votes from what is arguably the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency. Another factor is the bitterness that many black leaders have felt since 2002, when Democrats passed up a chance to put a black candidate on the statewide ticket and left it to Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to end the tradition of all-white slates.

"I think they still feel that . . . most of us have no place to go," said Del. Obie Patterson (Prince George's) of his fellow Democrats. "But I would caution them. If Democrats don't take significant steps to combat those perceptions, many African American voters may stay home, and a significant number may vote for the other side."

Many Democrats, including African Americans, are quick to dismiss the threat of mass defections among black voters, and they reject the idea that a candidate's race will blind voters to significant policy differences. "What people vote on are the things that mean the most to them, like health care, fair wages and education, and those are the strongest issues for Democratic candidates," said Terry Lierman, state party chairman.

Still, Steele's potential to help the GOP diversify has put Democrats on the defensive. Already, it's seen as a near certainty that both of the party's gubernatorial contenders, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, will select black running mates before the 2006 primary.

That move alone might not overcome concerns that Democrats are taking black voters for granted. Patterson is one of many who argue that his party needs to embrace black candidates for other statewide offices as well. He also is among those disheartened to see some leaders rally around the Senate candidacy of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who is white, instead of Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP leader from Baltimore, who is black. "It gave African Americans the sense, here we go again, the same old tired leadership dictating who would be next in line," Patterson said.

Constant Outreach

The Sunday before the November 2002 election, Steele took a breakneck tour through some of Prince George's County's fastest-growing churches, where endorsements from key ministers -- explicit or implicit -- can sway hundreds, even thousands of votes.

At Jericho City of Praise in Landover, Steele and Ehrlich sat in an ornate room behind the sanctuary and described their vision for faith-based state programs.

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