Steele's Donor List Stirs Racial Questions

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

The fundraiser thrown for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on Thursday night, while ordinary in most ways, struck some African American leaders as notable because of the host.

Unlike the dozens of high-dollar events across the country in his U.S. Senate bid, this event was thrown by the producer of the famous "Willie Horton" ad, the 1988 commercial that came to symbolize the cynical use of skin color as a political wedge.

It seemed a most unusual choice for Steele, the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland and a Republican whose strategy for winning a Senate seat in a state dominated by Democrats has involved the aggressive courtship of black voters.

"Why would he go for money to those who have done us harm?" asked Elbridge James, a former leader of the NAACP's Montgomery County branch.

Steele said he sees nothing unusual about getting help from Floyd Brown's Citizens United Political Victory Fund. Brown produced the Willie Horton ad, which helped torpedo Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign by drawing attention to a weekend furlough program that released a black convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

Nor, Steele said, was there anything incongruous about donations he took from others who have offended black audiences in the past, including Republican Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) as well as Alex Castellanos, the man behind the racially charged "White Hands" ad that then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) used to attack his black challenger.

It featured a close-up shot of a pair of white hands crumpling a letter as the narrator says, "You needed that job . . . but they had to give it to a minority."

In an interview, Steele said, "I appreciate all the support I get from members of my party."

The donations underscore a political quandary for Steele and the handful of other black Republicans seeking national office this year: As they look for financial help from GOP stalwarts, they risk forging relationships with people liable to turn off black voters.

Steele said the donations are not a problem. "The way I look at it, if I am in the United States Senate, I'll be a voice at the table that's probably not been appreciated that much in the past," he said.

The national GOP has touted Steele as a symbol of its drive for inclusiveness, giving him a prominent speaking role at its 2004 convention and aggressively courting him to enter this campaign. Steele has predicted he will need to peel away 25 percent of Maryland's large African American voting population to give him the edge over his eventual Democratic opponent. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore area congressman, and Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP president, are among those seeking the Democratic nomination.

Democrats said there are several names on Steele's donor list that won't help him. It includes Lott, who lost his leadership post for seeming to endorse Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential candidacy, and Burns, who drew sharp criticism for saying he found it "a hell of a challenge" to live among all the blacks in Washington, D.C.

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