MD-Sen: Michael Steele vs. Ben Cardin

In 1967, “Batman” topped the TV ratings, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals were headed toward the World Series, and anti-Vietnam War protests were beginning to rage. Spiro Agnew had just taken office as Republican governor of Maryland and the state’s previous GOP governor, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, was just finishing a stint as mayor of Baltimore. He would be succeeded that year by Democrat Tom D’Alessandro, brother of Rep.-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.). One could smoke anywhere in the state capitol in Annapolis, where Democratic Speaker (and Gov.-to-be) Marvin Mandel presided over the House of Delegates puffing on his ever-present pipe.

And sitting in the House of Delegates was Baltimore Democrat Ben Cardin, commencing his first term. He would rise to become speaker himself and then move on to Congress in 1986. After 20 years in the House, Cardin (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 6%) is now the Democratic nominee to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

A lot has changed since 1967, but Ben Cardin has not. Although pundits are quick to point out that the longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee has worked closely with Republicans, the hard facts are that Cardin, at 63, is still the same Baltimore liberal Democrat he was when he first won office at 23. Whether it’s opposing oil drilling in Alaska, the Bush tax cuts, school vouchers for the District of Columbia, bans on same-sex marriage and partial-birth abortion, or the Iraq war (the Democratic hopeful wants a withdrawal of U.S. forces), Cardin can be found on the predictable left with friends such as Pelosi and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).

That’s why a growing number of Marylanders are increasingly considering the prospect of Michael Steele as their first Republican U.S. senator since Charles (Mac) Mathias retired in 1986 and their first conservative Republican senator since John Marshall Butler stepped down in 1962. Steele became a Republican at 18 after hearing Ronald Reagan address the Republican National Convention in 1976, earned a law degree, was state Republican chairman and, in ’02, made history by becoming his state’s first-ever Republican lieutenant governor and the highest-elected black in Maryland history.

Cynics say Steele’s pro-life and pro-tax-cut views won’t sell in traditionally Democratic Maryland. But he made no ifs, ands, or buts about those views when he was elected lieutenant governor. Entrepreneurship for minorities and lower-income voters is his vision. In his words, “Dr. King made it possible for minorities to eat at the lunch counter. I want to make it possible for minorities to own the diner.”

Like many conservatives, Steele backs George W. Bush when he thinks the President is right (such as on cutting taxes or taking action against Saddam Hussein), but is not afraid to disagree when he feels Bush is wrong, such as on education policies or his handling of Katrina (which he calls a “9/11 event… You didn’t fly over 9/11.”). To his opponent’s charges that he follows Bush in lockstep, Steele laughs and says: “I think for myself, Mr. Cardin.”

And that really is what it will take for history to be made in Maryland and Michael Steele to go to the Senate: Voters must turn their backs on the past and think for themselves.