Four years later, Steele find­ing own path within the GOP

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics -

Four years ago, a charis­matic black politi­cian called a “rock star” by some moved a par­ti­san crowd to its feet with rhetoric fo­cused on the strengths of his po­lit­i­cal party — but it wasn’t Barack Obama.

In fact, then-Mary­land Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was con­sid­ered the anti-Obama for the Repub­li­can Party. His key­note ad­dress at the 2004 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in New York City was seen as the party’s an­swer to the soar­ing re­marks made roughly a month be­fore at the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion by Mr. Obama, then an Illi­nois state se­na­tor and can­di­date for U.S. Se­nate.

But bring up the Steele-asObama an­ti­dote to­day, and Mr. Steele bris­tles, al­beit po­litely.

The 49-year-old notes that he had been in of­fice “long be­fore Obama showed up” and any por­trayal of him as “the an­swer” to the Illi­nois se­na­tor was a me­dia fabri­ca­tion.

“The re­al­ity of it is that be­cause I wore our la­bel, I was less rel­e­vant and less im­por­tant to the po­lit­i­cal story, that those as we’ve seen have tried to write with Barack Obama,” Mr. Steele told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “So what? I don’t care. I’m do­ing my thing, I’m try­ing to build our party, I’m try­ing to strengthen our brand with the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

The two men’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reers have since taken dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries in the pub­lic eye. Mr. Obama eas­ily won his U.S. Se­nate bid and has gar­nered enor­mous amounts of at­ten­tion as he pre­pared to ac­cept the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent last month.

Mr. Steele, mean­while, lost his 2006 run for a Se­nate seat from Mary­land — an elec­tion marred by ac­cu­sa­tions that sup­port­ers of Mr. Steele and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich en­gaged in mis­lead­ing cam­paign tac­tics that in­cluded re­leas­ing fliers falsely show­ing the two were en­dorsed by black Democrats in the state.

David Paul­son, a spokesman for the Mary­land Demo­cratic Party, said the tac­tics have “dam­aged” Mr. Steele’s rep­u­ta­tion.

“That is not to say that in the right cir­cum­stance he could not find po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance in a lesser role,” Mr. Paul­son said. “But I don’t think again, given his own per­for­mance and his own ac­tions, that what was done in 2006 will be long for­got­ten, and that doesn’t por­tend well for his fu­ture in Mary­land.”

Mr. Steele serves as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of GOPAC, the po­lit­i­cal action com­mit­tee that helped cre­ate the “Repub­li­can Revo­lu­tion” of the mid1990s.

In 2004, his speech fo­cused on em­pow­er­ing Amer­i­cans to cre­ate a “legacy of wealth.” Mr. Steele’s step­fa­ther was a limou­sine driver, and his mother was a laun­dress.

“We want to give them a stake in the Amer­i­can dream; we want to give them a stake in their com­mu­ni­ties,” Mr. Steele said. “That means we don’t want to take more out of your pocket, we want to find creative ways to put more into your pocket.”

This time around, he said be­fore his Sept. 3 speech to the con­ven­tion, he ex­pected to fo­cus on the dif­fer­ence be­tween Mr. Obama’s mes­sage of change, and real re­form — some­thing he says Repub­li­cans have his­tor­i­cally helped achieve and that Sen. John McCain, the party’s pre­sump­tive pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, is well-suited to bring about.

“I think it’s go­ing to be an op­por­tu­nity to kind of re­mind our­selves [. . . ] that we have a lot to talk about and a lot to share with the Amer­i­can peo­ple in terms of what a dif­fer­ence our lead­er­ship makes,” Mr. Steele said.

He said the coun­try’s cur­rent cli­mate stresses the need for him to de­liver a “more pow­er­ful” and “stronger” mes­sage than he did in 2004.

He de­rided Mr. Obama’s plans for the pres­i­dency as a blue­print to cre­ate a “nanny state” with too much gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment and said Repub­li­cans and Mr. McCain, in­stead, would like to see a greater en­vi­ron­ment for “free mar­kets and en­trepreneurism,” high­lighted by lim­ited gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence.

“It does make a dif­fer­ence that an African-Amer­i­can is a Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, par­tic­u­larly one that has such think­ings as Barack does,” Mr. Steele said. “It of­fers up a very stark con­trast [of] the lead­er­ship styles and the di­rec­tion into which th­ese two may want to take the na­tion.”

As for his fu­ture, Mr. Steele — a de­vout Catholic who once stud­ied to be­come a priest — said he does hope to re­turn to a life of “pub­lic ser­vice” and run for of­fice again. He said he plans to eval­u­ate his op­tions closer to 2010.

“When the time is right and the op­por­tu­nity presents it­self, we’ll take a closer look and see what we have to of­fer the peo­ple of Mary­land,” he said. “And if they like it and think it’s in their in­ter­est, then hope­fully they’ll sup­port me.”

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