Michael Steele: Democrats' Worst Nightmare

Richmond Myrick, the principal of Largo High School, is a registered Democrat in overwhelmingly Democratic Prince George’s County next to Washington, D.C. He has not been active politically and is not recorded as having made any contributions to candidates for federal office. Yet recently, he stood in the parking lot of Prince George’s Community College adjoining his school to introduce Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, whom he has endorsed for the U.S. Senate.

Myrick is African American, as are most students at Largo High. So is Steele. If enough non-political blacks follow Myrick’s course, Steele will become the first black Republican elected to the Senate in 32 years. That is the Democrats’ worst nightmare. Democratic dominance in Maryland has been based on maintaining a hammerlock over the state’s substantial African-American vote. Steele threatens that domination.

Steele sees national implications and put it to me this way in a conversation before the recent rally in Upper Marlboro: "It’s a breaking point. I’ve heard the talk: ‘Hillary, Bill, Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, all are coming in to campaign against you. They can’t bear to see you win this race.’ If I win this race, I am sure that the whole dynamic changes."

This is a potential bright spot in a dreary 2006 election vista for the Republican Party. In addition, two other African-American Republicans are running for governor — Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio and former professional football star Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania. A victory by any one of them would constitute a rare GOP breakthrough in the black vote, but a Steele win in Maryland would be most exceptional.

Maryland typifies the pattern of blacks supplying nearly unanimous support for Democrats but getting little to show for it in the way of major offices. The party’s choice this year to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the retirement of Paul Sarbanes is Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Baltimore, a hard-working toiler in the vineyards during 40 years as a state legislator and congressman. The feeling in political circles is that Cardin’s time was due after so many years of tireless if unexciting service.

The flamboyant Kweisi Mfume, former head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, has waged a serious Democratic primary challenge on Sept. 12 against Cardin. Mfume is so underfunded that he is unlikely to win, but the scars of the intraparty conflict could drive blacks to Steele in November.

Democratic leaders were not happy when Steele, as running mate in 2002, helped pull even a mere 5 percent of the black vote for Robert Ehrlich, the winning Republican for governor. Running by himself for the Senate, Steele will surely do much better. His own surveys show 14 percent, with an upside potential of 44 percent. If Steele gets 25 percent of the black vote, he is probably the winner.

I asked Myrick why he had endorsed Steele. "He came to school not just for a brief visit, but spent the whole day," the principal told me. "He showed he cared about the students and teachers." What about Cardin? "He hasn’t been here," said Myrick. When I asked if he even knew who the veteran congressman was, he said he did not.

Steele is a conservative and pro-life on abortion (balancing Ehrlich’s pro-choice views on the ’02 ticket). He says became a Republican at age 18 when he heard Ronald Reagan address the 1976 Republican National Convention.

But at Prince George’s Community College with Principal Myrick at his side, Steele whacked President Bush’s educational policies (especially defunding support for low-income college students). In his brief remarks, he could not find anything favorable to say about the president.

He was even tougher on Bush in talking to me: "In the eyes of blacks, [Hurricane] Katrina was a 9/11 event. You didn’t fly over 9/11. You got on the ground in the rubble. You should have been on the ground for Katrina." Republican regulars don’t mind this sort of talk. They know Steele, their former Republican state chairman, from fish fries all over the Free State. He can say whatever he wants to score a historic victory of national proportions.