Bay Weekly Interview:
with Sandra Martin & Sara Kajs
Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele
Any time you have an opportunity to make history, you dont blink.
Michael Steele has no peer. Never before has an African American been Marylands lieutenant governor nor, for that matter, been elected to any statewide office.
But thanks to the Republicans epochal victory in November, Steele, 43, is hanging pictures on the wall and arranging mementos in his freshly painted, robins egg blue office in the executive suite of Marylands 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 Ehrlichs running mate because he was black.
Steeles relationship with Marylands 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 Marylands conservative GOP? Will his outspokenness win friends or make enemies?
Will Michael Steele prove himself as lieutenant governor? Steeles is a fascinating story in the making, and heres an early chapter.
BW Before we talk politics, lets 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 dont have the wherewithal to go into the ring and deal with your opponent mentally.
Editors 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 its 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.
BW Did you know Gov. Ehrlich well before he asked you to join the ticket?
For me, it was getting mentally prepared to defeat Democrats who have held control for 36 years and I wasnt 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 theres a whole lot of balance.
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.
BW This is about you, not the governor, but I cant resist looking back four years. How soon was it after the election of 1998 that Bob Ehrlichs inheritance became apparent?
|I have to jump higher, run faster, think quicker by virtue of being the first African American.
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 wed 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 wasnt just him for the office. He needed a running mate, someone to complement him in terms of temperament, ideology and focus. He didnt 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 dont 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 Kings 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 its 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 Kings birthday. For me, it was a moment that said, The campaigns over. We won.
Now there was still a lot of work to do. Believe me, I didnt go slacking.
BW Do you plan on becoming Marylands 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 nations 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. Its a testament to progress but also a challenge as to what lies ahead. As much progress as weve 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. Im 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 Im being sworn in.
BW It must have been a thrill
MS Maybe its 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 dont enjoy it too much, because I know that theres a lot of real work that has to be done, and a lot of eyes are watching me.
BW So theres 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 Ehrlichs 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 thats the mindset, you know that even after you win and as much fun as youre having, when you wake up tomorrow youve got to start proving all over again you can do this job and that the voters made the right decision not just because Im 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 presidents 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?
MS Who are the richest one percent? Last time I checked, [actor] Will Smith fit into that one percent category. [Black Entertainment Televisions] Bob Johnson, [actress] Vivica Fox, my brother-in-law [Mike Tyson] fit into that one-percent category. I think that they wouldnt mind keeping more of their own money.
|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?
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 brothers out there working, hes got his career, hes 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?
Im about creating black wealth. I want to see more black millionaires. The governor and I if we havent created, or begun the process of creating, more black millionaires here in Maryland, then we havent 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. Theres nothing wrong with that, particularly in an economy thats right now stagnant. As long as youre 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 Youre settling nicely into your new office here in the capital. How are you settling into your new job?
MS Its very, very busy, especially during the legislative session. The governor and I have a lot of people who want to see us, and were out and about quite a bit. Its 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 were doing well so far. Were 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 theyve got Maryland tax dollars. We want those dollars here.
Is this the best way to do it? Probably not, but I havent yet seen a better solution put on the table. Its not enough to go after corporate America and try to balance the budget on their back. Its certainly unacceptable to go after hard-working families. Its their tax dollars that were overspent, so were 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 youre going to raise revenues, what else has the governor put on your plate?
MS Ive got a number of issues in my portfolio: economic development, because thats 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 Youve taken the lead in reviewing the death penalty in Maryland. But in terms of the kind of partnership youre forging with Gov. Ehrlich, was it a problem that your call for the study on the death penalty took him by surprise?
MS Its a partnership. Hes surprised me before in the middle of a press conference. Thats the nature of our relationship. I dont have to check in with the governor before I say something. He knows Im an intelligent man who knows the ramifications of what I say and do. Im 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 wasnt going to say, Ive got to get back to you after I clear it.
The governor wasnt embarrassed about it. He didnt feel boxed in. There were no surprises there for him; he didnt feel blindsided. He appreciates that I can think for myself and raised a legitimate point.
If he didnt want the commission to go forward, hed 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 youre doing that
MS Im doing that. In the meantime, as these death-penalty cases bubble up from the appeals courts and come to the governors desk, theyll come to me for review. Ill make my recommendation to the governor, and hell decide.
BW A lot of our readers have a special concern for Chesapeake Bay. Whats your personal relationship with the Bay?
|I cant swim a lick, but I love being in the Bay on a boat or at least up to my knees.
MS Im a Bay lover. I cant 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 its a knee-jerk reaction to think that Republicans arent environmentalists. Were 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.
Weve got a lot of work to do for our Bay, for watermen whove 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.