Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele spent a warm fall evening last week knocking on doors in an Annapolis townhouse community, lending support to one of the few other African American Republicans seeking higher office in Maryland, mayoral candidate George O. Kelley.
Together, the two slapped backs, shook hands and passed out a flier that not only promoted Kelley's campaign but in many respects also captured the essence of Steele's fledgling bid for U.S. Senate, as well. It urged: "VOTE for the MAN, NOT the PARTY."
Steele said he knew from the outset that he would encounter ambivalence from many African Americans who are suspicious of the Republican Party. But that has not deterred him from fashioning a campaign for 2006 that will attempt to cut deeply into the Democratic Party's most reliable constituency.
He opened his campaign with a speech focused on poverty and the working class that never once mentioned his party affiliation. Then, he spent his first week on the trail protesting a posting by a liberal African American blogger from New York who portrayed Steele as a minstrel and leveled racial slurs at him. Steele said he believes that Democrats at least tacitly endorsed the portrayal. Democrats denounced it.
The incident was the first salvo in what many believe will be a racially charged Senate race featuring two prominent African Americans, Steele and Democrat Kweisi Mfume. Democrats have made it clear that the party has no intention of allowing its base of black support to erode.
This month, Maryland's 10 African American state senators, all Democrats, formed a slate to help raise money and exert influence during next year's elections. And yesterday, several Democratic politicians lined up behind Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP president.
At a function for Mfume last night, supporters denounced what they said was an effort by party leaders to anoint Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin as the Democratic nominee in the Senate race. They said Mfume would be an antidote to any Republican effort to drive a wedge between the party and black voters.
"Republicans are trying to say to African Americans that the Democrats are taking your vote for granted," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who endorsed Mfume last night.
He called that a lie and said, "Having Mfume could shift that [perception] altogether."
Among the other Democratic Prince George's elected officials who endorsed Mfume last night were state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, and Dels. Carolyn J.B. Howard, Obie Patterson, Dereck E. Davis, Darryl A. Kelley, Veronica L. Turner, Rosetta C. Parker and Marvin E. Holmes Jr.
Both sides say the campaign could become a war for the heart and soul of Maryland's black voters. Part of Steele's battle plan involves showing voters that he feels their pain.
"They jumped on me," Steele said of the blog posting in an interview last week. "It was painful because it was coming from my family. Well, I'm going to say to the black family, 'I am of you, I am from you, I am for you. I always have been, and I always will be.' "
After responding to the insulting depiction, Steele supporters reminded voters of the indignities he has suffered on his way to becoming the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland: how a Baltimore Sun editorial said Steele brought little to the ticket beyond the color of his skin; how during a 2002 campaign debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore, a GOP campaign staff member reported that someone in the audience passed out Oreo cookies in an apparent slur; how Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) referred to him as an "Uncle Tom" in 2001.
"We still today have prominent members of the Maryland Democratic Party who are endorsing the use of racial slurs and racial insults to attack Michael Steele," said Paul Schurick, communications director for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), during a WBAL radio discussion.
"That is just not the case," responded Terry Lierman, the state Democratic Party chairman.
Lierman joined other Democrats in criticizing Steele's publicity blitz, which they said was intended to leave the appearance that the party was condoning racist attacks. "We are all collectively offended" by such attacks, said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore). "I think he ought to just denounce it and move on to the issues."
Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said Steele's goal probably was more nuanced. "I have to conclude that what Steele is doing is developing a line of attack that is designed to gain him a sympathy vote," he said.
"That's one of the resources that's been dropped in his lap," he said. "In this case, he was attacked, and he can now go to people and say, 'I was harmed. Woe is me. I haven't done anything to deserve this.' "
Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County who supports Cardin, said he believes Steele is employing the only strategy he has at his disposal.
"This is a Democratic state. Steele is a social conservative who is anti-choice and supports the war. He has to turn the election into a personality contest," Schaller said. "He wants to position himself as a victim of a Democratic Party, race-oriented conspiracy."
Academics such as Walters and Schaller said that a lot of how Steele's appeal resonates over time will depend on how Democrats reach out to this core constituency.
Steele said he sees potential for black voters to consider him, in part because he says many African American Democrats resent their party for passing up a chance to put a black candidate on the statewide ticket in 2002.
"Democrats say, 'We've got 'em [90 percent to 10 percent], so why bother?' Well, they're going to have to learn. They don't have a lock on those votes," he said.
Democrats might not have a lock, but a poll released yesterday by the Baltimore Sun shows that Steele has begun the 2006 campaign with a deep deficit of support from African Americans.
In head-to-head matchups, black voters polled favored Cardin over Steele 56 percent to 19 percent, and Mfume over the lieutenant governor 67 percent to 15 percent.
Even so, Democrats are aware of Steele's ambitions and said they are taking them seriously.
Among the steps being taken is one by the 10 state senators, who have banded together to help influence the party's efforts in recruiting and financing black statewide candidates.
"Black voters are smart, they're sophisticated, and they're looking," Gladden said. "[Steele is] right. Those votes cannot be taken for granted."
Staff writer N.C. Aizenman contributed to this report.