Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has remained largely silent during the electric rates debate that has dominated Maryland politics for the past three months, while attempting to cast himself as an independent thinker. Since declaring his bid for U.S. Senate, he has rarely mentioned his Republican affiliation, avoided a recent state party fundraiser featuring President Bush, and even showed up yesterday at campaign breakfast for a prominent Democrat, Rep. Albert R. Wynn.
But yesterday, Steele's aides said he would be at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s side Tuesday during a public hearing called by the governor to criticize the General Assembly's rates relief bill and to gauge support for a veto, though both houses passed the measure with veto-proof majorities.
"I will have a conference call with [Ehrlich] a little bit later on this evening to see where his head is and what he's thinking," Steele said, standing at Penn Station with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who hosted a fundraiser for Steele last night. "And once he's laid that out to me, I'll support whatever steps the governor's ready to take."
Appearing at the hearing with Ehrlich puts Steele squarely in the middle of a contentious issue that has dominated public debate, and it could have repercussions, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday. "I think the whole Ehrlich administration intention of siding with his donor base rather than his constituents is going to hurt Michael Steele," he said.
Only once before has Steele stood by Ehrlich's side during the rates saga -- when the governor announced his rates-deferral plan in April.
"The sun is shining, and the weight seems to be lifting from the ratepayers of Maryland," Steele said during a news conference that day in front of the governor's mansion.
By and large, however, Steele has shifted his public comments from state to national issues, including rising gasoline prices and federal education policy.
McCain, a potential Republican candidate for president in 2008, is the most recent in a procession of high-profile national Republicans to hold fundraisers for Steele in recent months. He called Steele "his own man" and said that "the Republican Party needs diversification."
"We need voices from all over America. We need proven leadership such as Michael has provided the state of Maryland," he said.
"Michael Steele wants Maryland to believe he's an independent voice, but he shows again that he's neither independent nor much of a voice," said Walter Ludwig, a spokesman for Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP leader and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Maryland. "He's clearly still prepared to do Bob Ehrlich's dirty work when called upon."
Mfume, a former congressman, is vying with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, among others, for the Democratic nomination. A spokesman for Cardin's campaign said the congressman is willing to tackle a range of issues facing Maryland families but declined to comment on Steele's involvement in the rates debate.
Steele had no public schedule and was not around Wednesday during a special session of the Assembly called to craft a proposal to soften a 72 percent increase in electric rates due to take effect when rate caps expire July 1. The resulting bill holds the increase at 15 percent in the first year and fires the entire Public Service Commission in the hope that a new panel will find a reasonable, long-term compromise.
Prince George's County Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee who has been a key player in the rate negotiations, said that Steele "has not been involved in these proceedings," and that appearing involved now is a reminder of his absence. Davis said that he thinks a gubernatorial veto is imminent, and that Ehrlich is looking to unify state Republicans -- some of whom voted for the Democratic rate plan -- before he makes his move.
"I would just imagine that at this point the governor's trying to close ranks, circle the wagons, fill in any cliche you want, to rally support to oppose the plan enacted by the General Assembly," Davis said.
Del. Rudolph C. Cane, an Eastern Shore Democrat and leader of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus, said he believes that Ehrlich is bringing Steele to the public hearing to help convince crucial constituencies affected by the rate increase that the governor is doing all he can.
"He's bringing Steele in as a political card because of the number of minorities in Baltimore City," Cane said. "He wants to bring him in for moral support."