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.
Steele also has received support from former Reagan administration education secretary William J. Bennett, who was criticized for suggesting that aborting black babies would help reduce crime, and former first lady Barbara Bush, who turned heads when she mused that mostly African American evacuees from Katrina living at a Houston shelter "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." Steele accepted $1,000 from Castellanos, the man behind the "White Hands" ad.
"Having that kind of support sends mixed messages and are going to make it very difficult for him to make inroads with African American voters," said Isiah Leggett, a former state Democratic Party chairman. "He should be smart enough to see the inconsistency there."
But Steele said any attempt to attack him for taking these donations just highlights a double standard he believes that black Republicans face because they are "inconvenient" for Democrats, who have had the support of the vast majority of black voters for the past half-century.
"When I look across the aisle, I see a Democratic leader who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan," Steele said, referring to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.). Byrd has said his Klan membership, when he was a young man, was "a major mistake."
"That doesn't stop Democrats from taking his money," Steele said.
Conservative black commentator Armstrong Williams agreed.
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with him accepting that money," Williams said. "These people have supported him. That's his base. Let's say someone is racist, or has been racist in the past. If they give money to a black candidate, wouldn't that show progress on their part?"
Although there might be nothing explicitly wrong with Steele taking that money, said Weldon Latham, a black lawyer in the District with long ties to the Democratic Party, Steele shouldn't expect that there will be no political consequences.
"He can't expect African American support just because he's an African American," Latham said. "People are going to want to know where he stands, and who stands with him."
In fact, in any number of circumstances, a list of donors can be a potent political tool. Paul S. Herrnson, a campaign finance expert at the University of Maryland, said that has been true ever since campaign finance reports were made public.
"Where politicians get into trouble is where they put the campaign for money ahead of the campaign for votes," Herrnson said. "If candidates take money from people whose opinions fly in the face of the voters they're courting, they're taking a risk."
Herrnson noted the immediate response from the political world when the powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted. Scores of lawmakers from both major parties announced that they were returning Abramoff's donations.
To this point, Democrats vying to challenge Steele in the Senate race have focused on the money Steele has received from those with ties to President Bush. Their accusation: that Steele is campaigning as someone without partisan ties but is being bankrolled by Bush and his supporters.
Steele has countered that the money does not make the man -- that Bush's name won't be on the ballot in Maryland and Bush won't occupy the Senate seat if Steele wins. The same holds true for such donors as Lott and Burns, Steele said last week.
The important message he has for black voters, he said, "is that it will make a difference for them to have me at the table."