A Political Natural, Railing Against Politics

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"She never took a penny of public assistance because, as she put it, she didn't want government raising her kids," Steele said of Maebell Turner when he announced his Senate candidacy last fall.

In his old neighborhood, people remember Steele as a boy who didn't run in the streets with other kids and instead found the center of his life at St. Gabriel Catholic Church. "Hey, let's play church," he would tell his sister, Monica Turner.

"He used to have a glass with vanilla wafers in it, to symbolize the host, and some apple juice in the other glass, to symbolize the wine. I would line up like I was taking communion, and he would practice saying the mass," Turner, a doctor and former wife of boxer Mike Tyson, wrote in an e-mail. "It was too cute."

When Steele got to Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast, the boy who had once kept to himself became an outgoing actor. In his first productions, he was often consigned to the back row because he was so tall -- but he didn't often stay there.

"Somehow, he always wound his way up to the front," said James Mumford, who oversaw plays and musicals then and later became principal. Steele eventually became a confident leading actor and a graceful dancer, Mumford said, playing the president in "Of Thee I Sing" and the devil in "Damn Yankees."

In 1977, Steele went on to Johns Hopkins University, where his energy and magnetism led him to another prominent role: president of student government.

Hopkins history professor Ronald Walters, sizing up the politically gifted student that Steele had become by then, made a prediction about his future.

"That was that Michael would go a long way in Democratic Party politics," Walters said. "So I was half-right on that one."

Called to God, Then to Law

After college, Steele shifted gears radically, moving from his frenetic life on campus to the discipline of a Catholic seminary. He eventually joined a handful of other "novices" at an old house in Lawrence, Mass. The routine there: Mass every day, classes on religious life, and lots and lots of quiet time.

The program was supposed to last a year, but Steele left after six months, in February 1983.

He says now that God, who had called him to join the program, also called him to leave. But one of his vows, in particular, provided a push.

"Chastity is a state of mind. And certainly, obedience, I could take being told what to do. But poverty -- whew, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough. Just tough," Steele said. He said he was particularly unhappy when his canary-yellow 1973 Ford Torino became the common property of all novices.

After leaving the church as a career, Steele chose the law. He was a paralegal, a law student at Georgetown and then a lawyer from 1991 to 1998, working for a D.C. law office and then for the Mills Corp., the real estate giant.

During that time, though, Steele was laying the seeds for another career.

He and his family -- it now includes his wife, Andrea, and two teenage sons -- had moved to Largo. There, he began his long association with a group that had become the political equivalent of the Washington Generals, eternal doormats for basketball's Harlem Globetrotters.

"This guy says to me that he's here to build the Republican Party in Prince George's County," said Sydney Moore, a businessman active in county politics, recalling what Steele told him in the 1980s. "And I said, 'Wow!' "

A Political Rise in an Unlikely Place

The Prince George's GOP was -- and still is -- one of the most beleaguered party organizations in a state that hadn't had a Republican governor since 1969.

Into this picture came Steele, the former seminarian, comfortable with the law and with a microphone. He has said he sometimes felt isolated in the early years because he was one of only a few African Americans in the local party. Others remember meeting someone who was deeply loyal, affable and dynamite when talking to people one-on-one. Someone who was ready to pay his dues.

"He would do the telephone banks. He would do the stuffing. He would put on the labels," recalled Audrey E. Scott, a former County Council member and now Maryland's secretary of planning. "I mean, he was a worker."

And a talker. Steele became party chairman in Prince George's in 1994 and soon became one of the loudest voices in a fight over the county's property-tax cap. Some wanted to lift the cap; Steele and others fought to keep it and won.

There were setbacks: In 1998, Steele ran for comptroller and finished third in the GOP primary. Two years later, though, he ascended to the chairmanship of the state GOP. Thereafter came a major victory, as a redistricting plan from then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) was defeated in court.

"Republicans never win anything" in Maryland, said Christopher West, a Baltimore lawyer who lost to Steele in the race for party chairman. "So it was a very big deal."

Soon, Steele was a very big deal himself. Then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) picked him as a running mate in the 2002 governor's race. When they won, beating an all-white Democratic ticket, Steele became the first African American to win statewide office in Maryland.

His victory also meant that, for the first time in several years, Steele's financial situation was secure.

Since 1999, after he'd left his last job, as a lawyer, Steele had been trying to start a consulting business. Bray Barnes, who became Steele's partner in the firm, said they sought to represent countries or companies in their dealings with the federal government, relying on their Republican contacts in Washington.

"I would say we had pretty limited success," said Barnes, a lawyer in Toms River, N.J. He couldn't remember ever signing up a client. There was at least one: During the campaign for governor, after Barnes was no longer working with the business, the Maryland Republican Party was paying the firm, and by extension Steele, a consulting fee of $5,000 a month.

With little money coming in from the business, Steele has said, he drained retirement accounts. He told an audience in a recent speech that his family went without health insurance for three years.

"Don't break anything, because Daddy can't afford to fix it," he recalled telling his sons then.

On Nov. 5, 2002, Steele's election win erased all that. His current job pays $120,000 a year. A rocketing political career had finally made a struggling business one irrelevant. He savored the victory.

"Is this sweet or what?" Steele told supporters election night, according to news accounts.

Fighting the Numbers

Steele's opponent in the Senate race, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, is a wonkish, pedestrian orator. But so far, Cardin has also proved resolutely unwilling to shoot himself in the foot.

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 -- and where issues such as the Iraq war and the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina might keep black Democrats from crossing party lines -- that might be all Cardin needs to win.

"A good Democratic candidate running a good campaign will beat a good Republican running a good campaign in a statewide race every time, just because of the numbers," said Donald Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

To counter this disadvantage, Steele has run a campaign that portrays him as above party, beyond party. In avoiding Republican-specific policy recommendations, however, Steele sometimes ends up sounding as if he's avoiding specifics altogether.

He offers policy proposals, including increased restrictions on lobbyists, tax exemptions for new businesses and a 120-day suspension of the federal gasoline tax.

But often, when pressed on domestic- or foreign-policy questions, Steele responds not with firm positions but with a call for larger, more inclusive discussions.

Energy? Get environmentalists, solar advocates and nuclear people in the room with oil and gas interests. Health care? Get all the players in the room. North Korea? Get China involved.

"We need to get them in the room. We need to get them at the table," Steele said.

The one thing he always mentions is Washington, how the culture of partisan bickering needs to change. Steele, however, is not above a bit of political gamesmanship himself.

At his Hagerstown speech, he criticized Cardin because Democratic Party operatives fraudulently obtained his credit report.

"Anyone who wants my credit report, I'd be happy to give it to you," Steele said. "If you want to know about me, ask me."

Later that day, a Washington Post reporter asked: Is it possible to get your credit report?

"No, it's not," Steele said.

Right now, the polls show Cardin leading Steele. But friends of Steele, who remember him as the giant-killer of the Maryland GOP, aren't convinced.

There are a lot more hands to shake and cheeks to kiss, a lot more connections to be made, before Nov. 7.

"I read the polls, and I don't believe them," said Scott, the Maryland planning secretary. "Because I'll tell you this: I can't believe anyone who meets and talks to Michael Steele will not vote for him."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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