On the campaign trail two years ago, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele touted his long-held opposition to capital punishment when trying to connect with voters giving the Republican ticket a serious look for the first time.
Within weeks of becoming the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, the new lieutenant governor broke ranks with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and pledged to address a report that found racial bias in the state's use of the death penalty. Steele vowed to set up a task force, bring all parties to the table and find a way to fix the system.
But that has not happened. This week, as Maryland prepares to execute its first convict since Steele took office and as a clemency petition waits on the governor's desk, the lieutenant governor has assiduously avoided making any comments on the subject.
"He will not talk about the death penalty, period," is how Steele's press secretary, Regan Hopper, responded to questions on the subject.
Steele's silence has been a sore subject for some advocates who have campaigned against capital punishment in Maryland and who believed that Steele, a Catholic who shares their moral objections, would become an influential voice on their behalf.
Cathy Knepper, an Amnesty International activist fighting the death penalty in Maryland, said she "knocked myself senseless" trying to get a meeting with Steele and was disappointed once they finally sat down in February.
"He made it very clear he would go along with Ehrlich's position" on capital punishment, Knepper said. "That was the most clear, unambiguous thing he said."
To seasoned Annapolis political observers, such as lobbyist Dick Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference, Steele's position is understandable and even expected. The person in the lieutenant governor's post has never been afforded much wiggle room when views depart from the governor's.
"I don't think it's fair to put him on the spot. It seems to me he's powerless," said Dowling, who has lobbied for years against capital punishment and is engaged in an aggressive effort to persuade the governor to spare the life of Steven Oken, who faces lethal injection this week, barring any 11th-hour success in court.
A federal judge has promised to rule by 10 a.m. today on whether to stay the execution and allow further legal arguments to be heard. District Judge Peter J. Messitte said at a hearing yesterday that he was troubled that corrections officials had waited until Friday to provide Oken's attorneys with a step-by-step plan for his execution.
Later in the afternoon, in a two-paragraph ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals closed the door on Oken's additional appeals through the state.
Oken has also submitted a clemency petition asking Ehrlich to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, but attorneys acknowledge that there is little hope that the governor will spare their client.
Ehrlich, a death penalty proponent, said yesterday that Steele has been involved in all of the top-level discussions about pending executions, including Oken's. "Mike's views are heard," Ehrlich said. "He has a religious conviction, and I knew that when I picked him for the ticket."
Last week, after a public appearance at a fundraiser in Annapolis, Steele brushed aside questions about his efforts as he walked to his car. When asked if he regretted not doing more in advance of the state's first execution under Ehrlich's watch, Steele said only, "What kind of question is that?"
Then he got into the car and drove away.
Staff writer Susan Levine contributed to this report.