(This is the sixth Veepstakes article. Already profiled have been Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman and Rep. Paul Ryan.)
A former lieutenant governor tapped to run for Vice President two years after losing a U.S. Senate race? the idea seems outlandish. But, sure enough, Michael Steele — Maryland’s lieutenant governor, the state’s second-highest elected official from 2002-06 — is quite often mentioned on lists of potential running mates for John McCain. And to those who point to Steele’s 55%-to-45% loss to Democrat Ben Cardin in Maryland’s nationally watched Senate race in ’06 as a bar to his being on a national ticket, Steele enthusiasts counter that, among others, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon lost races for statewide office before winning the Republican nomination for President.
At 52, Steele remains one of the most prominent African-American Republican spokesmen. This is significant, since the GOP has no blacks in either the House or Senate and only one member of the Republican National Committee is African-American. An attorney and businessman who once studied for the priesthood, Steele was GOP chairman of Maryland’s Prince George’s County, and then went on to serve as state party chairman before becoming the Free State’s first Republican lieutenant governor since the office was created. Initially often referred to in the press as “Mike Tyson’s brother-in-law” (his physician-sister was once married to the former heavyweight boxing champion), Steele soon developed a strong following in the Republican grass-roots in Maryland. Now chairman of GOPAC, the Republican training and recruitment group, and a frequent Fox-TV commentator, Steele is often a guest speaker at GOP functions in his home state and nationally.
“That’s amazing,” was Steele’s response when I mentioned to him the vice presidential speculation about him I often run into. “I mean, he said, you’ve got to ask yourself the question, what would you do if the nominee of your party came to you, hopefully with a degree of confidence in what you could bring to the ticket, and asked you. You’d be hard-pressed to say no. But you definitely would have to take into consideration all the other things that are out there, like family, and stuff like that. But it’s one of those things. I’ll be very honest with you, John, it’s just so beyond my wildest imagination that I just, you know, I don’t think, I try not to think about it, at least.”
But Steele would like to see an African-American on a national Republican ticket, “either now or down the road,” arguing that “we have an enormously important history when it comes to the social, civil, and political empowerment of African-Americans,” and Republicans “don’t have to jump up and down and wave our arms and say, ‘Gee, see what we’ve done,'” The Maryland man nonetheless concedes that, “unfortunately, today, politics has denigrated to that extent.” Notice the rhetoric coming out of the Democratic primaries. You know, ‘If Barack Obama’s not the nominee,’, fill in the blank. There’s not this sense of how the process unfolds. It’s all “it would have been stolen from them, it would have been cheating.” And that’s just not — I don’t think that’s smart politics”
“The other thing ostensibly what happens with Republicans is invariably when an African-American rises through the ranks through hard work and the natural course of political experience, you hear that kind of crazy, loony stuff coming from the left, like ‘oh, well, they just promoted him because he’s black.’ Oh, well, you know, he’s just …” As, I think it was Cosmopolitan magazine, referred to me and [’06 Ohio and Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidates] Ken Blackwell and Lynn Swann — “well, they’re the lawn jockeys of the Republican Party.”
For all the “lawn jockey” invective from the left, Steele also freely admits he is looked at skeptically by some conservatives for what they consider some of his less-than-conservative standards. A devout Roman Catholic, he is strongly pro-life, but also opposes the death penalty. While against quotas, he favors affirmative action in its original form. He says, “I love confusing people. And by what measurement are they making that judgment? Their own? What yardstick are they using? I didn’t get involved in the GOP to sit back and judge who’s the most conservative, or who’s the least conservative. What I joined was a party of men and women who believed in something.
Steele is a spirited advocate of the Bush tax cuts and lower taxes, and notes that Barack Obama” released his taxes for 2007. He, made over $4 million. Paid a little over $1 million in taxes. My question is, why didn’t you pay more? He roughly came in at about a 25% tax rate. Shouldn’t you have been at a 50% tax rate? You are a left-leaning Democrat who wants to redistribute everyone else’s [money]. Why don’t you start with your own?”
Like most conservatives, Steele disagrees with likely nominee McCain on the estate tax. (“Kill it, I say.”) And, as a former county and state party leader, believes the oppressive McCain-Feingold measure that regulates campaign spending should be repealed.
Any talk with Michael Steele inevitably gets around to Obama, whose historic candidacy sparks suggestions that McCain consider an African-American as a running mate. What does he think of Obama?.
“Umm, I’ll describe Barack the way he described me when he came to Maryland to campaign against me in my race for the U.S. Senate,” he replies with a laugh. “He’s an affable fellow, probably would make a good senator, but his resume’s a little thin for the job.”
Steele for Vice President? “It probably won’t happen — not in ’08 any way, Steele himself says. “I’m intrigued by the idea of running for governor [in 2010]. I think Maryland is ripe for my brand of Lincoln Republicanism — that focuses on individuals, not institutions, that focuses on families in communities, not programs and outdated unionization of ideas, if you will, and opportunity.” He also won’t rule out another Senate race, especially if Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski retires in 2010.
One thing seems about as certain as it can be in politics — Michael Steele will be heard from again.