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Monday, May 09, 2005

Steele Factory

The forging of Michael Steele into the GOP’s rising star should be a concern for gays

By Steve Charing

Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele will be the Republican candidate for Senator to fill Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ vacant seat in 2006. You can take that to the bank. He hasn’t announced his candidacy yet; he’s mulling over his options, which would include his desire to be governor in the future, his teaming up with Gov. Ehrlich for a re-election bid in 2006, as well as his own family considerations, but he will accept the GOP nomination for Senator. Count on it.

Mr. Steele is clearly the most prominent African-American Republican in the state, and he was the first ever African-American to hold the position of Lieutenant Governor in Maryland. Since last summer, the national GOP has anointed him as a potential "rising star" in the Party. That, in itself, is rather odd because Mr. Steele, 46, never held an elected office prior to his being teamed up with Governor Ehrlich and, therefore, is not a proven vote getter. But Republican strategists view Mr. Steele as the best chance in decades to win Sen. Sarbanes’ seat.

Spotlight on Steele
The former chairman of the state’s Republican Party—and the nation’s only African-American to hold such a post—was given a high profile speaking slot during the Republican National Convention. To select the Lieutenant Governor over a sitting governor of the same party speaks volumes as to how Mr. Steele is perceived by the GOP power brokers and election strategists. Following the Convention he went on and campaigned tirelessly for the President’s re-election in places outside of Maryland—especially in the pivotal state of Ohio—amassing valuable IOUs.
Moreover, President Bush selected Mr. Steele to be part of a three-man delegation to represent him and the country in attending the installation of Pope Benedict XVI. A devout Catholic and former seminarian, Lt. Governor Steele was a natural choice. But it was yet another opportunity to elevate his profile and to remind Maryland’s largely Catholic voters of his religious affiliation.

A key component of the GOP strategy
To a Party that is yearning for African-American support and believes it is trending in that direction, Michael Steele is the Messiah, or so it seems. His being an African-American would be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy of attracting conservative blacks to help bolster the GOP agenda. (Another strategy is doling out faith-based initiative money to black churches to promote opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and other pet conservative issues.)
And for the Republicans and the President, a GOP Senate win in Maryland would be tantamount to the Orioles winning the World Series. It would represent a major, unexpected victory that would embolden Republicans as they fervently seek a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

To further the point, Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee, named Michael Steele to the Party’s newly formed, highly visible African-American Advisory Committee. In discussing a possible Steele run for the Senate, "The lieutenant governor is an incredibly strong candidate," Mehlman said at a fundraiser in Baltimore County last month. "Whatever he decides to do, he's going to be successful." In addition, Karl Rove, the GOP’s strategy wizard, has approached him to run. And if Michael Steele is to be the nominee (and he will), he would receive significant RNC backing. Translation: tons of money, volunteers on the ground and organizational help.

Governor or Senator?
Although it has been reported Mr. Steele would eye the Governor’s Mansion in 2010, a run for the Senate, with a reasonable chance for winning, would bring out the GOP base and help Governor Ehrlich’s re-election chances, which appear, at this point, sketchy at best. After witnessing the turmoil that the Governor has experienced especially in the General Assembly, Mr. Steele would find it far less stressful in the U.S. Senate chamber where he would hold a very prestigious, influential position on a national stage. It would be too tempting to brush aside this golden opportunity. Besides, since the Republican power brokers want him to run, he may not want to rebuke their pleas lest he lose similarly strong support in future election efforts.

Steele and the lgbt community: a tough read
While Governor Ehrlich strategically ponders the fate of four pro-gay bills recently passed in the General Assembly, neither he nor Mr. Steele publicly expressed a position one way or the other.
In Annapolis late January Michael Steele "represented" the governor by speaking briefly at a virulently anti-gay "Defend Marriage Rally" consisting of religious conservatives who were demanding a superfluous amendment to the state’s Constitution reiterating that marriage should only be allowed between a man and a woman. He backed the traditional union but did not publicly support a constitutional amendment to prevent gays from marrying. "We are here to affirm that marriage is only between a man and a woman," Mr. Steele said. "We need to make it clear where Maryland stands."

Michael Steele hasn’t provided many clues on his attitude towards the lgbt community mainly because of the political reality that he (and the governor) must retain support from moderates to succeed in Maryland. That explains the reticence by Ehrlich and Steele concerning the recent legislation. Many analysts familiar with statewide politics believe that both would prefer the measures be part of a 2006 referendum so that neither would have their fingerprints on the bills and risk offending conservatives and moderates alike.

Precious little evidence is available, however, that would put Michael Steele in the gay-friendly category. "I am sure Michael Steele is not a homophobe," Joe Zuber, the former president of the Maryland Chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans told me. "I consider [Steele] a friend and that he knows I’m an openly gay man. We’ve hugged."

Real Time confusion
There was hope in gaining some clarity as to Michael Steele’s thoughts on gay issues during a recent appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. That did not happen. While he essentially stood his ground against a combative panel and moderator (Maher) and a rather hostile audience, he didn’t shed much light on these issues. Part of this was attributable to his vague stances; most was due to the frequent interruptions by his co-panelists. However, in addressing the charge of homophobia within the black community, he did argue that "the other side of the coin" is that one must respect the "values" (there’s that word again) taught by others or had been read in the Bible by those who believe that homosexuality is wrong. When Maher asked him if in fact he’s tolerating intolerance, Mr. Steele replied "No, I’m not. I’m not." He was never given the chance to complete his point.

"Senator" Steele could hurt gays
The prospect of a Steele Senate victory could be troublesome for Maryland’s lgbt citizens. This is obviously not based on any fiery anti-gay rhetoric spewing from his lips or clearly defined positions that undermine the lgbt community. But he is a social conservative, tied to his religious beliefs. I believe he is sensitive to homophobic African-American ministers and their congregations because this is a coveted constituency by the GOP. Perhaps that is why he spoke at January’s rabid anti-gay rally and not at Equality Maryland’s Lobby Day gathering held the next month at the same location.

"Our community would have a lot to be concerned about if we lost Paul Sarbanes' vacant Senate seat to Lt. Governor Michael Steele," said Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland, the state’s largest lgbt advocacy group. "Sen. Sarbanes has been a staunch supporter of lgbt rights, while our Lt. Governor has gone so far as to speak at that anti-gay rally in Annapolis organized by Del. Don Dwyer, the most extreme member of the Maryland Republican Party."

Regardless of what is in his heart, he will almost certainly, as senator, tow the Republican line. This is true especially if he has any dreams of gaining a position on a coveted committee or even a window office. And the Republican line is anti-gay for no other reason is that it taps into the country’s homophobes, religious zealots and bigots—all proven GOP voters.
Accordingly, he would be inclined to vote for a U.S. Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage should it come before him then. He would not favor the end of the insanely counterproductive "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy in the military. And he would most likely not support ENDA—the measure that would add "sexual orientation" to federal anti-discrimination laws.

But most importantly, the election of Michael Steele to the Senate would bring the Republicans one step closer to complete dominance in all branches of government. A filibuster-proof majority in the Senate would allow Bush’s extreme right-wing judicial nominations to sail through. That’s not a good thing for gays and their families.

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