Volume XI, Issue 9 ~ February 27- March 5, 2003

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Bay Weekly Interview:
with Sandra Martin & Sara Kajs
Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele
‘Any time you have an opportunity to make history, you don’t blink.’

Michael Steele has no peer. Never before has an African American been Maryland’s lieutenant governor — nor, for that matter, been elected to any statewide office.

But thanks to the Republican’s epochal victory in November, Steele, 43, is hanging pictures on the wall and arranging mementos in his freshly painted, robin’s egg blue office in the executive suite of Maryland’s historic statehouse.

In an interview with Bay Weekly editor Sandra Martin and staffer Sara Kajs, Steele said that his work is just beginning. And he took to task editorial writers and others who implied — or flat-out said — that he was chosen as Robert Ehrlich’s running mate because he was black.

Steele’s relationship with Maryland’s first GOP governor will be something to watch, as will Steele himself, who acknowledged in the interview that he wants to run for governor himself one day.

Of course, his success likely will depend on how well Steele, a lawyer best known for his political skills, takes to governing.

Will Steele, no shrinking violet, get along well with Ehrlich? Will he adapt to the strict Republican order he speaks of, or might he challenge Maryland’s conservative GOP? Will his outspokenness win friends or make enemies?

Will Michael Steele prove himself as lieutenant governor? Steele’s is a fascinating story in the making, and here’s an early chapter.

BW Before we talk politics, let’s talk gambling. Should we bet on your former brother-in-law, boxer ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, to beat Clifford Etienne in that heavyweight fight Saturday night? Is he going to win?

MS I have no idea. It depends on his frame of mind at the moment. Boxing is as much mental as it is physical; probably more so. You psyche yourself out or get psyched out by your opponent. Physical prowess means nothing if you don’t have the wherewithal to go into the ring and deal with your opponent mentally.

Editor’s note: It took Tyson only 49 seconds to win his February 22 fight.

BW What you say about boxing sounds like it applies to the campaign trail. Did you find you had to have the right mental attitude and be physically fit to campaign?

MS I actually gained weight during the campaign. Bob lost weight. You do have to be physically prepared to do the running around, but you also have to be mentally prepared because your opponents will take the least little thing and blow it into something huge. Nine times out of 10 it’s nothing, but if it sticks you have to be prepared to deal with it. The other nine times, you have to let it roll off your back.

For me, it was getting mentally prepared to defeat Democrats who have held control for 36 years — and I wasn’t just looking at my own race. I came to the race as state party chairman, so I was also looking at the races I put in play before I got picked to the ticket and wanted to win for the party. So there’s a whole lot of balance.

BW Did you know Gov. Ehrlich well before he asked you to join the ticket?

MS He and I have been friends since his early days in Congress and through the political operations of the party. We got closer because of what happened in 1998. When Ellen Sauerbrey lost the race, he became the heir apparent. At the moment that race was concluded, all eyes turned to him. From my perspective, I was still county chairman and wanted to get involved at the state level, take a leadership role and work with the next team.

So we grew close from circumstances and having an idea of where the party should go. In 1998, I became vice chairman of the party, and then in 2000, when I became state party chairman, we got to work together even more so.

I have to jump higher, run faster, think quicker by virtue of being the first African American.
BW This is about you, not the governor, but I can’t resist looking back four years. How soon was it after the election of 1998 that Bob Ehrlich’s inheritance became apparent?

MS About 10 minutes after the results came in.

We Republicans are a funny political creature. We reward loyalty, and we have an order to things. There is a process of recognizing talent and capabilities.

When Ellen lost, everyone looked around to see who would step up to run for governor in four years. That individual needed to be groomed, if necessary; prepared, absolutely.

BW Did you do some of the grooming, so that was part of your relationship?

MS Absolutely. As the governor will tell you, I was one of a handful of people who encouraged and cajoled and pushed him to run. I thought it was his time. The party needed a message of youth, opportunism and possibilities yet to come, a very forward-looking vision beyond what we’d been used to.

We turned to image and philosophy and who could articulate it for us. He was the guy.

BW What complement of strengths did he see in you?

MS I think he saw someone who first and foremost was a friend. I think that was important to him. Remember, congressmen and women are very singular individuals, very individualistic. But now it wasn’t just him for the office. He needed a running mate, someone to complement him in terms of temperament, ideology and focus. He didn’t want a yes-man.

I kind of fit that mold for him. I was a friend; I had both state and — and as a member of the executive committee of the Republican National Committee — national political skills; and I was able to articulate a message.

There were a whole lot of variables that came into play for him, so when he batched it up it just ideally worked.

BW When you speak of opportunity as one of the messages the Republican party wanted to convey, in a very particular way your election as the first African American to hold statewide office sends a message of opportunity …

MS Any time you have an opportunity to make history, you don’t blink. You take it.

For me, there were some defining moments in the campaign that said to me we were competitive, we were in the game.

About three quarters of the way through the campaign, when I found out the inauguration was scheduled for Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, I knew we would win. Sometimes history makes itself, and this is one of those moments. Sometimes history takes over and says at this moment, at this time, this has to happen because it’s right and people are ready. I thought how apropos, how important and how significant it would be to inaugurate the first African American elected statewide on Martin Luther King’s birthday. For me, it was a moment that said, ‘The campaign’s over. We won.’

Now there was still a lot of work to do. Believe me, I didn’t go slacking.

BW Do you plan on becoming Maryland’s first African American governor in 2010?

MS That moment may come again in eight years. And again, the question will have to be asked, ‘Is Maryland ready?’ And history will either say, ‘I can make it’ — or it will be up to us to make it.

BW What message does your election send about our state and nation’s progress toward racial equity?

MS We have a lot of work to do. The steps on which I was inaugurated — 150 years ago we were selling slaves there. It’s a testament to progress but also a challenge as to what lies ahead. As much progress as we’ve made, African Americans have still not assumed their rightful role and relationship in the partnership with America. African Americans built America. African Americans fought and died for this country: Since the first shot was fired in 1776 to current conflicts, we are there on the front lines providing service and leadership to the country.

With all that said and done, there are still vestiges of Jim Crow, still vestiges of racism that adversely impact African Americans in spite of all our contributions and commitments in terms of proving that we are fully American.

The challenge we face is electing more African Americans to office, recognizing that African Americans do more than make rap CDs and make good Nike commercials. We are talented men and women who, like so many others, want for themselves the American dream and, more specifically, the Maryland dream.

Standing on those steps that day — Wow! — all that came rushing to me looking out over Annapolis. Here we are. I’m a black man whose forefathers and mothers had shackles around their ankles and necks, and I have a necktie on and a great suit, and I’m being sworn in.

BW It must have been a thrill …

MS Maybe it’s all that seminary training I had, but I take things in differently. I get caught up in excitement, but I temper myself very quickly. I enjoy it, but I don’t enjoy it too much, because I know that there’s a lot of real work that has to be done, and a lot of eyes are watching me.

BW So there’s still a double standard …

MS I have to jump higher, run faster, think quicker than most lieutenant governors have had to do by virtue of me being the first African American. The standard is different; it just is.

That goes back to my point that we still have farther to go. Sometimes being talented and capable gets trumped by being black.

The Baltimore Sun showed that in endorsing Kathleen [Kennedy Townsend], noting that Bob Ehrlich’s picking of me was nothing more than a political ploy, and I had nothing to offer but the color of my skin. When you read that and know that’s the mindset, you know that even after you win and as much fun as you’re having, when you wake up tomorrow you’ve got to start proving all over again you can do this job and that the voters made the right decision — not just because I’m a black man with a suit but because they saw qualities in me and this ticket that they felt comfortable with, trusted and believed could get the job done.

BW The president’s stimulus package calls for tax cuts with 50 percent of the benefits going to the richest one percent of Americans, and three-quarters going to the richest five percent in the first year. Do you think that would be healthy for black Americans?

Why should a brother out there making a good living want any more of his dollars to go to the federal government than anybody else?
MS Who are the richest one percent? Last time I checked, [actor] Will Smith fit into that one percent category. [Black Entertainment Television’s] Bob Johnson, [actress] Vivica Fox, my brother-in-law [Mike Tyson] fit into that one-percent category. I think that they wouldn’t mind keeping more of their own money.

It amuses me that somehow people think that a wealthy black man wants to give all his money to federal and state government. For what? This brother’s out there working, he’s got his career, he’s being paid good money to do a good job. So why should he want any more of his dollars to go to the federal government than anyone else?

I’m about creating black wealth. I want to see more black millionaires. The governor and I — if we haven’t created, or begun the process of creating, more black millionaires here in Maryland, then we haven’t done our job of providing full opportunity to all Marylanders.

So the president says he wants to create a stimulus package that will reach the top one percent. Guess what? There are some black folk in that top one percent. We should be very happy about that, because whatever they do, their money creates jobs and opportunities for others. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly in an economy that’s right now stagnant. As long as you’re not hurting the poor, as long as you continue to provide resources to those who really need it in our community, then stimulus incentives are okay by me.

BW You’re settling nicely into your new office here in the capital. How are you settling into your new job?

MS It’s very, very busy, especially during the legislative session. The governor and I have a lot of people who want to see us, and we’re out and about quite a bit. It’s interesting that people want to meet and see and hear myself and the governor. People are genuinely excited about the opportunity Ehrlich-Steele represents. They genuinely want us to get a fair shake from the legislature and the various groups out there that would line up and throw stones immediately. I think we’re doing well so far. We’re keeping busy meeting constituents, working with legislators on very important legislation that will help us get the stimulus we need for our economy.

BW Are slot machines the big item in that stimulus package?

MS Slots is a very passionate subject for a lot of people. But the reality is those are dollars currently leaving Maryland to the tune of some $400 million to $500 million a year — not including hotel and restaurant taxes that we lose because [slot players] are not eating and staying in Maryland. Delaware is able to meet their fiscal requirements because they’ve got Maryland tax dollars. We want those dollars here.

Is this the best way to do it? Probably not, but I haven’t yet seen a better solution put on the table. It’s not enough to go after corporate America and try to balance the budget on their back. It’s certainly unacceptable to go after hard-working families. It’s their tax dollars that were overspent, so we’re not going to go back and say ‘We got you into this mess. Now we want you to get us out of it by giving us more money.’

There are only three choices: raise taxes, cut government programs that are needed — or put slots on the table, and use that money to address education.

BW Beyond building relationships and looking at how you’re going to raise revenues, what else has the governor put on your plate?

MS I’ve got a number of issues in my portfolio: economic development, because that’s my background as a financial lawyer, especially with regard to our minority business community as well as the international component to open up doors for Maryland. Education, particularly with respect to our historically black colleges and universities, charter schools and certainly K-12. Domestic violence … and the death penalty review.

BW You’ve taken the lead in reviewing the death penalty in Maryland. But in terms of the kind of partnership you’re forging with Gov. Ehrlich, was it a problem that your call for the study on the death penalty took him by surprise?

MS It’s a partnership. He’s surprised me before in the middle of a press conference. That’s the nature of our relationship. I don’t have to check in with the governor before I say something. He knows I’m an intelligent man who knows the ramifications of what I say and do. I’m not stupid.

I read the University of Maryland report and did my own evaluation of it. So when I was asked about my opinion in an interview, I gave it. I wasn’t going to say, ‘I’ve got to get back to you after I clear it.’

The governor wasn’t embarrassed about it. He didn’t feel boxed in. There were no surprises there for him; he didn’t feel blindsided. He appreciates that I can think for myself and raised a legitimate point.

If he didn’t want the commission to go forward, he’d have said so. But instead he said I raised a very good point. ‘Take a look at it,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you find.’

BW And you’re doing that …

MS I’m doing that. In the meantime, as these death-penalty cases bubble up from the appeals courts and come to the governor’s desk, they’ll come to me for review. I’ll make my recommendation to the governor, and he’ll decide.

I can’t swim a lick, but I love being in the Bay on a boat or at least up to my knees.
BW A lot of our readers have a special concern for Chesapeake Bay. What’s your personal relationship with the Bay?

MS I’m a Bay lover. I can’t swim a lick, but I love being in the Bay on a boat or at least up to my knees.

The Bay is a national resource, not just a Maryland resource. We had the EPA administrator [“EPA Chief Whitman Vows Chesapeake Commitment”: Vol. X. No.7, Feb. 13] here providing us with assistance. When he was in Congress, the governor passed legislation to bring $600 million to Maryland to fight nitrogen and other pollutants and help us deal with our sewage treatment plants.

Our party has been defined as anti-environmental because we support corporations and job creation. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction to think that Republicans aren’t environmentalists. We’re the original environmental party. Teddy Roosevelt was the grandfather of the environmental movement.

I think development for the sake of development is wrong. People and society need clean air and water and greenspace, but we also need places to raise our families. This administration is committed to cleaning up our Bay while striking a balance with business and the economy. Call it balanced growth.

We’ve got a lot of work to do for our Bay, for watermen who’ve received their livelihood from the Bay and for other jobs that accrue from the Bay. Those families are impacted every time we fail to respect the Bay. Unless we want to see an end of an era of hardworking men and women of the water, we need to be mindful of how we recreate on the Bay, just as business needs to be mindful of how they use the Bay. All of us need to have a healthy respect for this treasure, and this administration wants to work to continue to improve it.



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Last updated February 27, 2003 @ 2:13am