Michael Steele's first political awakening came as a young boy growing up in the Petworth neighborhood of the District.

The Republican Party's shining hope was just 3 when his father, William, died in 1962 of liver disease and his mother, Maebell, began work as a laundress to support Steele and his sister, Monica.

The family's pastor urged Maebell Steele to apply for government assistance, but she declined.

"I grew up in a household where my mom said, 'We can do better for ourselves than government can do for us,' " Michael Steele said. "That would later come back to haunt her, because I became a Republican."

He was the first in his family, which was solidly Democratic. In his childhood home, a photograph of John F. Kennedy hung alongside depictions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus on the living room wall.

These days, Steele has taken up the mantle of the maverick again, as the second African American to lead the Maryland Republican Party and the only black on the executive committee of the Republican National Committee.

Hopes are high that Steele can lure blacks and other minorities to the party, but so are the hurdles. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Maryland, owing in part to a large and loyal black following. And the national Republican Party is still trying to recover from the bitter presidential election, in which African Americans rejected Bush by 9 to 1, one of the worst records for a Republican presidential candidate in the history of polling.

To succeed, Steele will need to step out of the shadow of a party that many African Americans feel has not represented their interests and convince them that times have changed.

No easy feat, even for a man as persuasive, as disarmingly affable as Steele. And he knows it.

"I'd say with respect to people being critical, there has been some justification for that," said Steele, 42, his 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound linebacker build folded into a chair behind the desk in his Annapolis office.

"We have allowed the Democrats to create the perception that we are the party of racism -- that we don't like blacks, that we don't embrace the issues that are important to black people. I think the party has finally awakened and we've turned a corner. . . .

"I think the party recognizes," he said, "that in order to be competitive . . . it has to engage the community."

It's a vision GOP leaders say they embrace.

"We've worked hard to broaden the party's base, but we didn't understand the complexities of the project," said Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, national chairman of the Republican Party. "Michael can help us build relationships over the long run and be a bridge to the people we need to meet."

Steele figures that if he can just convince others of what he believes so fervently -- that the Republican Party has the best interest of African Americans at heart -- he can move the needle.

His position became clear to him during his second political awakening, as a college student at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1970s and early '80s. That's when he first heard the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps message of Ronald Reagan.

"It was my mom's philosophy coming out of this politician's mouth," Steele said.

His thinking was affirmed when he happened upon a few of his old buddies while home on break. "One friend told me he had a girlfriend and a baby, and I said, 'Oh really? A baby?' " Steele recalled. "And he said, as long as he got that [welfare] check each month, he was okay.

"And I realized that what government had done was to make a generation of black men dependent on government. . . . That ran counter to everything my mother taught me.

"So I knew the rules, but yet government was telling a generation that the rules didn't matter. . . . And what happened? Well, we've lost two, maybe three generations."

And so Steele began to see his mission as stemming that flow. The next defining moment determined his approach.

Steele was a paralegal living in Prince George's County in 1986 when he was invited to attend an annual dinner sponsored by the county Republican Party.

The reception he received still makes him cringe, he said.

"I go to the dinner and introduce myself to the chairman," Steele recalled. "He shakes my hand and walks away and leaves me standing in the middle of the room with white folks I don't know. And what do I do?"

Steele said he approached the event's keynote speaker, Elizabeth Dole, then worked the room, introducing himself and shaking hands.

"I swore that if I got into a leadership position in the Republican Party, that would end, because not everyone would be as crazy as I am and decide to stick around," said Steele, now a lawyer-turned-business consultant. "People would walk away saying not only is this party unwelcoming but it's racist.

"But the party is not racist. Now, are there people within the party who are racist? Yes, but I can call a couple of Democrats who I know to be racist, also."

So when Steele ascended to help lead the party, he vowed to begin with a welcoming spirit, which comes easily to him.

"He is the perfect choice," said Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). "He has the energy, the commitment, the people skills. . . . He's a consensus-builder."

The ability to build bridges is crucial to the GOP's future as the country grows more diverse, party leaders and political analysts agree. But in some ways the environment is tougher than ever.

Democrats control every statewide office and both chambers of the General Assembly in Maryland. African Americans played a key role in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 victory over Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Steele had run as comptroller on her ticket, losing in the primary.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.) said Steele's challenges include slating a course for a state party that has been in disarray since the 1998 election.

"The party is teetering on the brink," he said. "We gained strength in the '80s and '90s, but we've hit hard times."

In some ways, Steele stands a better chance at making an impact nationally, which is just as well since as the party's shining hope, he's frequently pulled away.

Last month, for example, he met with black Republicans in Denver, and a couple of weeks later, he appeared on the ABC television program "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher," where he participated in a discussion about race relations and Bush administration policies.

Steele said that under his leadership, the Maryland GOP will be host of a first-ever "national summit" of African American Republicans this fall to help set an agenda for black America.

"We want to have a conversation with President Bush and Cabinet members and give them a list of men and women who could fill positions in the White House," he said. "We want African Americans to understand that to be successful in politics, you don't have to be a Democrat."

To woo African Americans, Steele is focusing on issues of common interest to blacks and Republicans, such as economic development and education.

"Our polling numbers suggest that African Americans support the idea of charter schools and voucher issues to move their kids into a better-performing school system," tactics supported by the Republican Party, said Steele, who lives in Landover Hills with his wife, Andrea, and two sons, Michael, 12, and Drew, 9. His sister is a pediatrician and lives with her husband, boxer Mike Tyson, in Potomac.

As the only black member of the RNC's executive committee, Steele says he will be having regular discussions with President Bush, who he said is genuinely interested in incorporating blacks' concerns, including help for the poor.

Not surprisingly, many in the old-guard, traditionally Democratic black leadership are skeptical, evidenced by recent NAACP criticisms of Bush's tax-cut plan as benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor.

"It's no secret that the Republican Party and the NAACP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues, but there is willingness on our part to sit down and try to reach common ground," said Kweisi Mfume, president and chief executive of the national NAACP, echoing a desire voiced by Steele.

But Mfume cautioned that for Steele to be successful, he must offer tangible results. "The last thing we need is another figurehead," he said.

Steele has set out to make his case, to convince black voters that the GOP cares as much about substance as style.

How high is the hurdle?

Many who attended a meeting Steele and Gilmore had last month with the nation's black publishers call it very high. In Washington for a convention of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the executives invited Gilmore to speak about the GOP's commitment to black voters. Gilmore brought Steele, who didn't get a chance to address the group, disappointing some publishers.

Ben Jealous, executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents 200 black-owned newspapers, said that while members received Steele warmly, they're suspicious of his mission. "Michael Steele wants to be the black man we go through to reach the RNC," Jealous said. "But our people thought it was a mixed blessing."

On the one hand, Jealous said, his group is happy there's an African American on the executive committee of the RNC to raise issues.

"On the other hand," he said, "it's disturbing that we have one black person to go through these days."

Log on to http://washingtonpost.com/ princegeorges/ today for a Q & A with Michael Steele about his life and politics in Prince George's County.

On an outreach trip, Steele speaks to a gathering in Anacostia. The Maryland GOP chairman was the first Republican in his solidly Democratic family. Michael Steele is the only African American on the RNC's executive committee. "We've turned a corner. . . . I think the party recognizes that . . . it has to engage the [black] community," he said.