By Robert Barnes and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele profusely apologized yesterday for comments linking stem cell research to Nazi experimentation, but the offhand analogy could undermine what had been a concerted effort by the Republican to run for the U.S. Senate as a moderate "bridge" between Democrats and Republicans in his left-leaning state.
Steele issued apologies in a radio interview and in phone conversations with Jewish leaders in Baltimore and Washington, and then continued to express regret throughout a series of stops in Prince George's County.
"I offended members of the Jewish community and members of the Maryland community," Steele said outside a Prince George's nursing home. "It was a remark that was an improper inference, because I never specifically said Holocaust. . . . And it did not reflect my attitude and my belief, and I am really sorry about the whole thing."
Besides offending those Steele was trying to befriend, some politicians and political observers said his remarks appeared to hurt him in several ways: putting him on the wrong side of a popular issue, reinforcing a worry among even some Republicans that he can be an accident-prone candidate in a high-profile race, and signaling to swing voters that he is more conservative than the almost-nonpartisan image he has cultivated.
"Some people could think he's not moderate . . . but a hard-right Republican," said University of Maryland Prof. Ronald Walters, who has been closely following Steele's campaign.
Keith Haller, who conducts polls for Maryland media and others, said his recent surveys show that Steele has "risen above the cacophony of partisan battles" in the state. "His popularity has been steadily soaring, so he certainly didn't need to engage on this issue, in such an awkward way."
In an appearance Thursday before the Baltimore Jewish Council, Steele responded to a question about stem cell research by saying he was "cautious" about the idea of "tinkering around with life," and added:
"Look, you of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool," Steele said, according to a recording of the event. "I know that as well from my community and our experience with slavery."
Jewish leaders, for the most part, accepted Steele's apology. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he considered it an exercise of bad judgment by a good man.
"He understands his remarks were offensive," Halber said. "People in the Jewish community are upset about them. What was behind the words were not the feelings of a hatemonger, though."
His Democratic opponents were glad Steele apologized but sharp in their criticism.
"Michael Steele does not have the right to compare the lifesaving potential of stem cell research to the barbarity of the Holocaust," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of several Democrats running to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). "His remarks were offensive to the millions of Americans who stand to benefit [from] this research, as well as to Holocaust survivors and their families."
State Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery), the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said she was "shocked by the ignorance of the statement." Another Senate candidate, former congressman and former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, said he also was offended by Steele's comments about slavery. "Any further comparison to equate slavery to stem cell research is a reach that I and others who are the descendants of slaves don't understand," he said.
Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has recommended $20 million in state money for stem cell research but wants to let an outside panel decide which kind of cell research should be funded, tried to deflect criticism from his former running mate.
"I think after an adult, straight-up person makes a comment and then apologizes for the comment, unless you want to make a political deal out of it, or you want to cause some sort of political damage because you dislike his candidacy, what else can the guy do?" Ehrlich told the Associated Press.
Steele's Senate candidacy has been greatly aided by national Republican leaders, who recruited him to run believing he is the party's best hope. But Steele has studiously avoided following a GOP script in a state where President Bush is a help only in fundraising.
The stem cell issue is one in which Marylanders differ greatly from Bush and other prominent Republicans. Haller said that in his latest poll for the Baltimore Sun, 60 percent of the voters supported embryonic stem cell research; the state's increasingly important independent voters favored it 3 to 1, and even a plurality of Republicans are in favor.
Steele has cited his strong Catholic faith -- he spent several years as a seminarian -- in explaining his opposition to abortion and the death penalty, even though he said yesterday he does not let his religion enter into "policy discussions."
"It is a force in my life. I tried to share a little bit of that because most politicians get up and give you the pat, 30-second sound bite," Steele said. "I will continue to do that, but unfortunately in that process, there was an inference that was not right."
Steele was elected Maryland's first statewide African American officeholder as Ehrlich's running mate and has not campaigned on his own for such a high-profile job. He has regretted off-the-cuff remarks before.
Last summer, when news reports broke that Ehrlich had held a fundraiser at an all-white country club, Steele said he didn't care because "I don't play golf. It's not an issue with me." A couple of weeks later, he changed his mind and said, "The core issue there is, the perception of discrimination is just as insidious as the reality of discrimination." He said his first answer was "flippant."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.