His victory as the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland just a few hours old, an exhausted Michael S. Steele paused for a question as he left the Republican celebration early yesterday morning.
Could he envision himself next as Maryland's first black governor? reporters asked.
Steele answered without hesitation. "Yes," he said, then paused briefly. "As can every black child, and white child. Any child can picture himself in my shoes."
The historic election of Steele, 45, to the state's second-highest post on a ticket with Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came as sweet vindication for a politician who had to fight for a role in the GOP and faced scorn from Democrats and some fellow African Americans in this fall's election.
Yesterday, Ehrlich announced that Steele would serve as his transition chairman and play a key role as lieutenant governor, which Steele said would include an emphasis on economic development and education.
Steele said he would be an activist lieutenant governor who would make many forays into the streets and around the state to promote issues important to him. "I don't sit behind a desk well," he said.
He acknowledged that he would need to "get up to speed" quickly for the $100,000-a-year job. "I have to be prepared to hit the ground running," he said.
Steele's ascension to statewide office marks the latest unexpected turn in his life story.
Adopted as an infant, Steele was raised in a working-class District neighborhood by a mother who shunned welfare and worked for minimum wage, teaching him values to which he attributes his Republican outlook. At Archbishop Carroll High School and Johns Hopkins University, Steele earned respect as a student leader.
After college, Steele entered a monastery and considered becoming a priest before eventually pursuing a career as a lawyer. Local Republicans who at first shunned Steele when he came courting finally embraced him, making him chairman of the party in Prince George's County and, in 2000, chairman of the state GOP.
In that role, he managed to persuade courts to throw out a redistricting plan drawn by Democrats and filed ethical complaints against lawmakers alleging they tried to influence the judges.
As he concentrated on politics, his consulting business suffered, and two banks filed foreclosure proceedings on the family's townhouse in Largo in the past year.
This fall, Democrats filed a complaint against Steele for working on his sister's divorce settlement though he did not have a law license in Maryland. Democrats also criticized the GOP's decision to pay him $5,000 a month during the campaign.
There were also public suggestions that he was selected for the ticket solely because he is black and would protect Ehrlich against charges of extremism.
The Ehrlich camp was particularly outraged by a Baltimore Sun editorial on Sunday that endorsed Townsend and said that Steele "brings little to the team but the color of his skin." Ehrlich called it "disgusting."
During the campaign, Ehrlich insisted that Steele's race played little role in his selection. "Was it a political calculation?" he said in an interview. "I'd have to be crazy, because that's the dumbest political calculation I could make. The track record is it's not going to attract a lot of votes."
While discounting the role race had in his selection, Steele was not shy during the campaign about promoting his candidacy as a strike for equal opportunity. "I think a lot of African Americans across the state took pride in my candidacy," he said. "Did it attract African American voters? Absolutely."
Poll results, though, indicate Steele did not bring many black voters to the GOP. About nine in 10 black voters across the state supported Townsend, roughly the same rate that voted for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) four years ago.
At Tuesday night's celebration, Steele's mother and stepfather, along with his wife and two children, joined him on the stage before a chanting crowd. Standing at the podium, with his fist in the air above his tall frame, Steele opened his remarks with a simple question: "Is this sweet, or what?"