As parishioners swayed and clapped, women in festive red blouses huddled under the imposing front archway of St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church, waiting for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
Many Republican politicians would have seemed entirely out of place at last Sunday's Mass honoring the parish's 125th anniversary -- the mostly black church sits in West Baltimore, one of the state's most lopsided Democratic districts. But not Steele, who arrived flanked by aides and security guards and was swept up in embraces by ushers and churchgoers.
"He's made a very favorable impression," said Emma Hawkins-Johnson, 61, an employment coordinator and longtime Democrat.
If Steele launches a widely anticipated bid for U.S. Senate in coming weeks, his candidacy will test one of the most deeply rooted certainties in Maryland politics: that no matter the contest, the vast majority of African American voters will cast their ballots for the Democrat.
Steele, 44, a Prince George's County lawyer who became the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, said in an interview that he intends to court the black vote aggressively, part of a concerted push by the GOP nationally to bridge a chasm that opened 50 years ago during the modern civil rights era. Already, the Republican National Committee has pledged significant campaign support and money to a Steele campaign.
Republicans say his historic status and his use of state office to open a dialogue with minority business executives and church leaders could help draw votes from what is arguably the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency. Another factor is the bitterness that many black leaders have felt since 2002, when Democrats passed up a chance to put a black candidate on the statewide ticket and left it to Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to end the tradition of all-white slates.
"I think they still feel that . . . most of us have no place to go," said Del. Obie Patterson (Prince George's) of his fellow Democrats. "But I would caution them. If Democrats don't take significant steps to combat those perceptions, many African American voters may stay home, and a significant number may vote for the other side."
Many Democrats, including African Americans, are quick to dismiss the threat of mass defections among black voters, and they reject the idea that a candidate's race will blind voters to significant policy differences. "What people vote on are the things that mean the most to them, like health care, fair wages and education, and those are the strongest issues for Democratic candidates," said Terry Lierman, state party chairman.
Still, Steele's potential to help the GOP diversify has put Democrats on the defensive. Already, it's seen as a near certainty that both of the party's gubernatorial contenders, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, will select black running mates before the 2006 primary.
That move alone might not overcome concerns that Democrats are taking black voters for granted. Patterson is one of many who argue that his party needs to embrace black candidates for other statewide offices as well. He also is among those disheartened to see some leaders rally around the Senate candidacy of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who is white, instead of Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP leader from Baltimore, who is black. "It gave African Americans the sense, here we go again, the same old tired leadership dictating who would be next in line," Patterson said.
The Sunday before the November 2002 election, Steele took a breakneck tour through some of Prince George's County's fastest-growing churches, where endorsements from key ministers -- explicit or implicit -- can sway hundreds, even thousands of votes.
At Jericho City of Praise in Landover, Steele and Ehrlich sat in an ornate room behind the sanctuary and described their vision for faith-based state programs.
Bobby Henry, an associate minister, said at the time that he wasn't sure the visit would yield many votes. And he was right -- academics found that Ehrlich-Steele didn't fare much better with blacks than had past GOP tickets, between 10 percent and 15 percent statewide. But Henry also said "it was meaningful to us that he came."
Last week, Henry said it has been even more meaningful that Steele and Ehrlich have kept on coming. "They have been back on numerous occasions," Henry said, "and they followed through on things they said they would do."
Entries in Steele's calendar suggest that he has turned an office with no job description into a headquarters for the administration's minority outreach effort. In recent months, Steele has met often with black political, religious and business leaders. He has made regular visits to, and delivered grants to, black churches and universities.
In an interview, Steele said he believes that those efforts have helped change black voters' perceptions of Republicans. Specifically, he cited efforts to increase funding to historically black colleges and to revamp the state's minority business enterprise program -- which helps minority- and women-owned firms compete for state contracts. "We didn't just talk about these reforms; we did it," he said.
Whether he can persuade voters of that remains an open question.
"I just don't see it translating," said Kenneth N. Harris Sr., an African American member of the Baltimore City Council, who held a party recently for Cardin that drew about 100 people, about two-thirds of them black, he said.
In Maryland, Democrats still hold a nearly 2-to-1 edge in party registration and have an overwhelming advantage among blacks, who account for 28 percent of the population -- the highest percentage of any state outside the Deep South. And, they note, Ehrlich and Steele drew fewer votes in Prince George's than did Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1994 and 1998. Another black Republican who ran statewide, Alan Keyes, failed to gain traction outside GOP strongholds in his 1988 and 1992 Senate bids.
But Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said Steele could emerge as a viable alternative for disaffected black Democrats.
"I think he has managed to show up at the right places and say the right things and not give people a real reason to vote against him," Walters said. "He makes a plausible alternative for some people. The only question then is how many."
The Race Is On
When Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) announced in March that he would retire rather than seek a sixth term, it was considered the starting gun for a wide-open race to succeed him.
Mfume waited just three days to announce. Cardin followed five weeks later, just as Mfume was confronted with allegations about his NAACP tenure. As Mfume lost time denying reports that he favored employees with whom he had romantic relationships, his campaign seemed to sputter.
In the weeks that followed, Cardin secured the backing of House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and a string of other endorsements, as he raised more than $1 million. Mfume struggled to clear $130,000, a gap that has subsequently widened.
In July, speaking to minority media executives, Mfume complained of "a huge effort to sort of guide the process" in Cardin's favor.
"I don't believe the Democratic Party should surrender the high ground on inclusion, but you certainly can't defend the high ground if you're not doing much," Mfume said more recently. Coming on the heels of Democrats' failure to recruit a black statewide candidate in 2002, Mfume warned that the party had "created a trickle that could well be an avalanche if we ignore it."
Some Democrats seem to have recognized the problem. Not only is it widely assumed that Duncan and O'Malley will tap black running mates, but a growing number of Democrats are agitating as well for additional minority candidates.
"The Republicans raised the bar in 2002. If we don't, we won't be successful," Harris said.
That kind of talk has intensified pressure on Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) to step aside rather than seek a sixth term. Younger Democrats especially have come to view Curran and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who is 83, as impediments to a new, more diverse generation of politicians. Schaefer, a former governor and mayor of Baltimore, has been resolute about running again. Curran, 74, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, has sent mixed signals.
In August, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stood before a roomful of black journalists and outlined his party's plan to reach out to African Americans in a way it hadn't in more than a half-century.
The party has recruited high-profile black candidates in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to run for governor or Senate in 2006. Efforts to persuade Steele to run included a fundraiser headlined by White House aide Karl Rove, a pledge by former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie to oversee a national fundraising drive and entreaties from President Bush and others.
Walters, who was in the audience the day Mehlman spoke, said he remains unconvinced that Republicans can overcome decades of rocky relations.
But at St. Edward's Church last Sunday, it was as though Steele had left his party affiliation at the door. "Yes, sir, I'll vote for him," said an enthusiastic Charles Banks, a Democrat who was an usher that day. "I've got no problem with him."