Maryland Senate Candidates: Michael S. Steele
A Political Natural, Railing Against Politics
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Even for a politician, Michael S. Steele is said to have an extraordinary handshake. Not too weak but not crushing, either, with eye contact that never breaks off to scan the room. It communicates instant intimacy, a little zap of Clintonesque magic.
It is a rare thing, though, when Maryland's lieutenant governor stops with just a handshake.
Instead, supporters get a kiss on the cheek, one-armed embrace or even a full-on bear hug. This is the Steele treatment -- as light as a friendly grasp on the elbow or as intimate as a two-handed grasp of the head, all with the same message:
"He likes you," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland. "How many people do you meet where you feel, 'He likes me'? That's one of the things that make him a good politician."
Through a series of abandoned careers in the church, law and business, politics is what Steele has done longest and best -- building relationships and winning partisan battles.
Now, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he is running vigorously against the political system that promoted him. All the while, though, he is relying on the gifts that have gotten him this far: a confident charm and an intuition that says a hug is better than a handshake.
Here is Steele, 48, campaigning in Hagerstown: "Washington, in my view, has gotten outside of itself. It is a place none of us recognize."
Here is Steele on TV, in one of his ubiquitous blank-background ads: "Washington has no clue of what's going on in your life."
There are a few things odd about Steele's anti-Washington rhetoric -- don't 278,000 of the Maryland voters he's wooing actually work for this clueless federal government? -- but start with the most basic one.
If "Washington" is given its most literal definition, meaning the District, then Steele's nemesis is his own home town.
He was born at Andrews Air Force Base but adopted through a Catholic charity and raised in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. Steele's mother and stepfather were Democrats -- and still are, to judge from the campaign sign for D.C. mayoral candidate Adrian M. Fenty (D) in their yard this fall.
Still, despite their dinner-table debates, Steele often cites his parents, especially his mother, as the source of personal values that would later make him a Republican. These included a belief in self-reliance and perseverance and an aversion to government interference in private lives and small businesses.