Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's tour of Maryland's cities and towns landed in La Plata on Tuesday for an afternoon that mixed the spirit of a community pep rally with the nuts and bolts of a college government seminar and the pitch of a campaign appearance.
Steele said he promised local government leaders nearly two years ago that he would visit all 157 municipalities to "lend an ear and lend assistance." But as the Republican from Prince George's County considers running for the U.S. Senate in 2006, stop No. 42, in Charles, also provided an opportunity to shake hands, pose for pictures and mingle with potential voters in the state's fastest-growing region.
Of his travels, Steele said: "I've had people come up and say, 'Don't run, we want to keep you as lieutenant governor.' People say, 'Go to the Senate.' You just take it all in."
He emphasized that the visits are separate from his exploration of a bid to replace Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is retiring.
"I really try to create the Chinese wall between my official duties and what we're doing with this exploratory committee because I don't want to taint my work as lieutenant governor by having people think, 'Oh, it's just political.'
"It's not,'' he said as he walked leisurely with town officials through downtown La Plata in the 99-degree heat. "It's a commitment that I really believe in that goes back to why I ran with the governor."
That didn't stop people gathered to hear Steele speak in the cafeteria of Civista Medical Center from thinking about his potential candidacy. Republican Lorie Jorgensen, an accountant at the hospital, had heard about Steele's possible aspirations. She said she wanted to see an "up-and-coming politician" from her party in person.
Steele, who announced the formation of an exploratory committee in June, was coy Tuesday about his intentions and when he would make up his mind. Two prominent Democrats -- Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, both of Baltimore -- have announced their candidacies.
In Charles County, Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration, 49 percent to 35 percent. But in the 2002 governor's race, then-U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) won Charles with 57 percent of the vote.
Since then, Steele has continued to cultivate ties to the region by connecting with influential community and religious leaders. The Rev. Willie Hunt, president of the Ministers Alliance group of religious organizations, said: "A lot of candidates come to know you when they're seeking office. He's been here many times, so this is not something new he's begun. It is a continuation."
Without endorsing any candidate, Hunt said Steele has "been attentive and listened to our needs. He's come through for us." For instance, Hunt said, Steele helped secure $150,000 in state funds for a planned shelter that will help homeless people make the transition back to work and regular housing.
That sentiment was echoed by Sandy Washington, executive director of LifeStyles Inc., who said Steele was instrumental in directing a $275,000 grant to the group for a center to encourage start-up businesses owned by minorities in Charles County.
"I don't think Southern Maryland is new to this lieutenant governor, and I don't think that his political aspirations are the only reason he's spending time here,'' she said.
Steele is scheduled to return to Charles County next month for the opening of the minority business center in Waldorf.
A Republican has not been elected to the U.S. Senate from Maryland since 1980. Party leaders believe Steele is their best bet to change that record.
John Rutherford, chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee, said Steele is "still out just gathering information from constituents, and he's going to do whatever he thinks is the best thing for the state." But, Rutherford said, "everyone feels he's leaning in that direction."
On Tuesday, Steele commended La Plata for its recovery from the devastating tornado three years ago, offered town officials advice about state services and money, and thanked hospital workers for their service. Then he worked the crowd at Civista.
April Lee and Stephanie Proctor, both medical records clerks, waited patiently to get Steele's autograph and smile for a picture. They squealed when they were told how to download the photo from a state Web site and request a signed copy.
Lee, who considers herself nonpartisan, praised Steele for stopping to "talk to the little people."
When Proctor told her colleague about Steele's party affiliation, Lee said: "He's a Republican? No!" The 25-year-old from Port Tobacco paused for a moment, then said, "I'll become a Republican."