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GOP Speaker Courts Minorities

September 01, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Michael S. Steele -- the African American lieutenant governor of Maryland who was part of Tuesday night's charm offensive by a Republican Party anxious to corral minority votes -- has heard all the comparisons to the Democrats' star black keynoter, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois.

And the man who rose through the GOP ranks to become state chairman in 2000, and the first Republican elected Maryland lieutenant governor, takes exception to comments that, unlike Obama, he is an unknown.

"Obama and I came in the same taxicab," Steele said in an interview. "His stopped in Boston, mine in New York."

Eighteen months after Steele became the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland, he was featured Tuesday night as part of the GOP's outreach to minority and moderate voters. Convention planners boosted participation of minorities, who make up about 17% of the 5,000 delegates and alternates, to an unprecedented level.

"I am honored to have been asked to speak," Steele said. "I represent the Republican Party at its core. I worked my way up. My story is reflective of the delegates who are there."

Like Obama, the state senator who gained national prominence with his address to the Democrats in Boston last month, the 45-year-old Steele has a compelling story.

He was adopted as an infant by Maebelle Turner and William Steele. After his father died when Michael was 4, his mother worked long hours in a laundromat to support Michael and his sister, Monica.

After attending Catholic schools, Steele received a partial scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where he studied international relations. After graduation he decided to become a priest. But after a few years at the Augustinian seminary in Villanova, Pa., he left for Georgetown University's law school and a career as a lawyer.

"It came down to, 'Am I called to serve the people of God as a priest or in a business suit?' " he said during his campaign for lieutenant governor.

Steele said he gets "teed off" by presumptions that all Republicans are white or all blacks are Democrats. "You are saying you can only believe or think or feel a certain way because of the color of your skin," he said this week.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told reporters in New York that he thought the Democratic Party was "racist" in its appeal to blacks. Steele agreed.

"The perception of Republicans as racist is perpetuated by the Democratic Party," Steele said. Fifty years ago, he said, Republicans "enjoyed the same relationship with the black community that Democrats do today."

Now, Steele hopes to remind voters that Republican values are advantageous to minorities.

"A 32-year-old African American entrepreneur came up to me and said, 'I'm not crazy about Republicans, but I love your message on money.' That's exactly what our paradox is," he said. "People have this preconceived notion of us. But when you breakdown the stereotypes, we deliver through action on the promise of hope."

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