A personality for politics

The Baltimore Sun

As a teenager, Michael S. Steele was a natural on the stage. Tall and handsome, with a dazzling smile, he won parts in high school, college and summer-stock theater that allowed him to be the central figure, the star.

But even when he failed to land the leads, Steele managed to make himself visible.

"Somehow, he always found his way to the front," says Jim Mumford, Steele's former drama director at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington. He was "so enthusiastic," Mumford says, "that, of course, you let him stay up there."

As an adult, Steele has taken on a broad array of roles: Roman Catholic seminarian. Washington securities lawyer. Small-business owner. Republican Party leader. Maryland lieutenant governor and the state's highest-ranking black elected official.

And though his reviews in many roles have been mixed, his charisma and personality have kept him moving forward.

Now Steele, 48, is auditioning for the biggest role of his professional life: U.S. senator. He was recruited by the White House and is running against Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for the seat now held by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Campaigning in a state where Democrats hold a 2-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration, and where 59 percent disapprove of President Bush's performance in office, he is putting some of that stage experience to use.

On the stump, he speaks little about his conservative positions on abortion and stem-cell research or his support of President Bush's strategy in Iraq, focusing instead on his humble beginnings in the Petworth section of Washington, his promise to be "a different kind of senator," his plans to bring change to the capital.

He introduced himself to voters with a series of fresh television advertisements in which he co-starred with a Boston terrier pup. And his campaign is destined to be remembered more for those commercials than for his stump appearances, which can't be as carefully scripted. Steele staffers do not release advance schedules of his activities and send media advisories inconsistently, making it difficult for reporters to track his public events.

Steele's breezy, personable approach is giving Cardin what might be the toughest race of his 40-year political career, even though the lieutenant governor trails by 6 to 15 points in most credible independent polls.

"People like Mike," says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "He's really charismatic. He's a really solid person. He's a solid family guy. Take that and market him for what he is."

'Love and hard work'

Maebell Turner rarely appears out on the stump, but she has been a central figure in her son's campaign.

"I'm the son of a sharecropper's daughter who was pulled out of fifth grade to work the tobacco fields of South Carolina," Steele said this month during his first debate against Cardin and third-party candidate Kevin Zeese. "And at the age of 18, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she began to work at minimum-wage jobs for the next 45 years."

Turner, who was widowed shortly after Steele's birth, remarried and worked to send Steele and his sister, a pediatrician, to college.

"I am the product of love and hard work," Steele said during the debate at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, "empowered by her perseverance and commitment."

Steele declined to be interviewed for this profile. His campaign would not provide the names of family members, friends or colleagues who might be available to comment, and did not acknowledge repeated requests for confirmation of basic biographical information.

Steele and his staff have publicly complained about The Sun since a 2002 gubernatorial endorsement of then-Lt. Gov Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said Steele "brings little to the team but the color of his skin" and called his selection by Ehrlich "calculated" and "crass."

This article is based on interviews with teachers, classmates and political associates, as well as public records and published accounts of his life and work.

As a student at Archbishop Carroll, Steele performed on stage and sang in the glee club. He was president of the student council and a member of the National Honor Society as a senior.

"He was a great kid," says the Rev. Edson Wood, then the dean of students at what was an all-male school. "He had the kind of personality that makes everybody feel at ease when they're around him."

Steele graduated in 1977 and entered the Johns Hopkins University on a partial scholarship. His fellow freshmen elected him class president. He continued to act and briefly took up fencing.

The extracurricular activities nearly cost him his place at Hopkins. In an alumni magazine profile last year, he said the school kicked him out after his freshman year for poor grades. According to Steele, he was readmitted after earning A's in four summer classes at George Washington University.

Back at Hopkins, Steele was elected president of the junior class and the student body, and won the title role in The Music Man. He earned a B average, according to the magazine profile, and graduated in 1981 with a degree in international relations.

It was also at Hopkins that Steele met Andrea Derritt. Eventually, they would marry; the couple live with their two teenage sons in a townhouse in the Prince George's County community of Upper Marlboro.


As far back as high school, Steele had considered the priesthood. In the fall of 1981, he entered what is called a "pre-novitiate" program of the Order of St. Augustine at Villanova University, an academic year of study in philosophy and other subjects.

On completing his year, Steele was accepted as a novice at the Augustinian novitiate house in Lawrence, Mass., according to the Rev. John R. Flynn, secretary of the Augustinian Province of St. Thomas of Villanova.

Augustinian novices spend a year living in community, learning the history of the order and discerning whether they are called to the vowed life.

"Michael was a very bright, articulate man who I would say gave himself very sincerely to the whole process of discernment," says the Rev. Francis J. Doyle, then the novitiate director at Lawrence and Steele's spiritual director.

Steele left Lawrence after six months, Flynn said. Steele told The Sun in 2002 that he had entered the program to prove to himself that he shouldn't become a priest. Ultimately, he said, the choice was simple.

"It came down to, 'Am I called to serve the people of God as a priest or in a business suit?'" he said.

Biographies on the official Web site of the lieutenant governor and Steele's campaign Web site say that he spent three years as a seminarian.

According to Flynn, Steele entered the pre-novitiate program at Villanova in the fall of 1981 and left the novitiate house in Lawrence just a year and a half later, in February 1983.

Legal career

The Steele campaign did not respond to questions about his professional activities between his departure from the novitiate house and his 1987 enrollment in the evening law school program at Georgetown University.

In April 1984, while working as a paralegal for the Washington law firm of Surrey & Morse, Steele registered with the federal government as a foreign agent to provide legal services to the Chinese Embassy.

He wrote that he would be "following developments in both the Legislative and Executive branches of the United States Government which may be of interest to the Embassy, such as trade or foreign investment laws or regulations."

"In addition," he wrote, "if specifically requested by the Embassy, I may discuss such matters with U.S. government officials or members of Congress and their staffs in an attempt to influence the policy or legislation."

For four years, he worked days as a paralegal and spent nights studying for his degree.

"He was a terrifically nice guy, very thoughtful, very engaging, smart, I think very inquisitive," says classmate Todd Stottlemyer, now head of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy group that is backing Steele for Senate.

Steele earned his law degree in 1991 and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar the next year. The Washington Post has reported that Steele sat for the Maryland bar exam but failed.

He allowed his Pennsylvania law license to expire in 2004, according to a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Bar Association. She said he had not paid the $175 fee required for renewal.

Steele was hired out of law school as an associate in the Washington office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, an international law firm that represents governments, financial institutions and corporations. He left the job after six years, he told The Sun in 2002, when he realized he was not going to make partner.

He was hired almost immediately by the Mills Corp., the developer of the Arundel Mills mall in Hanover, and left the company 18 months later. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.

When his sister, Monica Turner Tyson, was divorcing boxer Mike Tyson, Steele assisted in preparing legal papers and was later criticized because he was not a member of the Maryland bar.

Joining Republicans

By the late 1990s, he was becoming more involved in partisan politics. Steele had been attracted to the Republican Party by the folksy conservatism of Ronald Reagan during his 1980 run for the White House.

"I know for a lot of blacks, they hear Ronald Reagan and they say, 'Oh, my God,'" Steele told The Sun in 2002. "But if you listened to the man, he made a lot of sense; he talked about the core values my mother and grandmother talked about. For me, the party was a very, very comfortable fit."

But not initially. Steele has described receiving a mostly cold shoulder during a Lincoln Day dinner sponsored by the Prince George's County Republicans in 1988. He became determined to find his way within a weak, and sometimes exclusive, state party structure.

Steele joined the Prince George's County Republican Central Committee. Virginia Kellogg, the chairwoman of the committee, remembers the willingness of the young Steele to take on the unglamorous task of rewriting the group's bylaws.

"He just sort of came in and rolled up his sleeves and started working," Kellogg says. "It was hard work, and he produced a professional, finished job."

Kellogg says it was Steele's vision, planning skills and ability to bring people together that propelled him to the chairmanship of the Prince George's County Republican Central Committee in 1994.

In a county with five Democrats for every Republican, Steele rallied opposition in 1996 to a ballot initiative to lift a cap on property taxes. Wayne K. Curry, a Democrat and then the county executive, raised $400,000 to get the initiative passed, but more than 60 percent of voters rejected it.

Political work

Steele made his first run for office in 1998, an attempt to win the Republican nomination for comptroller. He finished third in the primary.

Steele considered a bid for chairman of the state Republican Party later that year and explored a run for Congress in 2000.

By then, Steele had founded the Steele Group, a business and legal consulting firm. He has described small-business ownership as a struggle, telling The Washington Post in 2002 that many clients had not paid their bills and that the unpredictability of life as an entrepreneur had put stress on his family.

In 2001, two banks filed notices of intent to place liens on Steele's Largo townhouse after he had missed several mortgage payments. By 2002, Steele said he had caught up on his debts.

In December 2000, Steele became the second African-American person ever to chair the Maryland Republican Party. Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush in the state by 17 percentage points, largely on the support of black voters. Steele arrived intent on expanding the Republican appeal to the state's black residents.

He developed a 10-year strategic proposal to expand the Republican Party and elect GOP candidates. Known as the Steele Plan, some credit it with helping the party to place its first governor in Annapolis since Spiro T. Agnew.

Steele's story

When state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick decided against joining the Republican gubernatorial ticket in 2002, Ehrlich made a historic choice. By choosing Steele as his running mate, he one-upped state Democrats, whose party is the traditional home for black voters.

Steele had never held an elective office when Ehrlich tapped him. He campaigned then - as now - using his personal story to connect with voters.

But sometimes the details didn't add up.

Early in the 2002 campaign, he said his stepfather, John Turner, was a driver for Robert F. Kennedy, the father of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Townsend. The Townsend campaign disputed the story, and Steele later altered the account, saying his stepfather may have driven Kennedy once during a part-time job as a limousine driver.

With the Steele Group struggling, the state Republican Party agreed to pay Steele $5,000 per month during the campaign - money they said was a fee for strategic consulting services.

Ehrlich and Steele earned more than 51 percent of the vote that fall, wresting the governor's mansion from the Democrats for the first time in more than three decades.


The state constitution says the lieutenant governor "shall have only the duties delegated to him by the Governor." With Ehrlich's blessing, Steele led task forces on school and business reform and undertook a review of the death penalty.

His work in all three areas has been met with significant criticism.

As head of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland, Steele led a group of 30 officials - many of whom were administration leaders or Republican loyalists - to examine what could be done to improve Maryland schools.

Detractors viewed the effort as a vanity trip that produced little of substance.

Democratic state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a former school principal from Prince George's County who was asked to join the panel, said Steele told members at the inaugural meeting in 2004 that they were not to talk to reporters about the proceedings. Steele said all media inquiries should be directed to him, Currie says.

"I was out of there at that time," Currie says. "I was not going to participate in a process where if you call me I was not allowed to respond."

In September 2005, the group issued 30 recommendations, including expanding tuition waivers for prospective teachers, strengthening Maryland's public charter school law and enhancing parent participation in schools.

"It was announced with a lot of fanfare, but we haven't seen any movement on hardly any of the recommendations," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the 65,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, which was excluded from the process.

Steele's commission on minority-owned business began work in 2003. State figures indicated that about 16.2 percent of state business had been awarded to companies owned by minorities or women the previous year. The goal was 25 percent.

The panel issued 50 recommendations for improving the minority business program, including reserving 10 percent of contracts so that only small businesses could compete for them and reprimanding agencies that don't meet minority-participation goals.

This year, Ehrlich announced that 21 percent of state contracts in fiscal 2005 had been awarded to minority-owned businesses. He said such firms had received about $954 million in state business, an increase of nearly 50 percent from the year before.

Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association President Wayne R. Frazier chaired Democrats for Ehrlich in 2002. He worked on a subcommittee of the commission, but he now calls the effort "all show."

Frazier says none of the 230 member organizations of his Baltimore-based association received state contracts during fiscal 2005. He distrusts the numbers released this year and says his requests for more information have gone unanswered.

Frazier is backing Cardin against Steele. The climate for minority-owned businesses, he says, "did not improve."

Steele's Catholicism has influenced his positions on abortion and capital punishment. Shortly before Ehrlich and Steele took office in 2003, a University of Maryland criminologist released a report that found that defendants who were convicted of killing white people in the state were more likely to be executed. Ehrlich assigned Steele to study the issue.

After three years, Steele delivered a private memorandum to Ehrlich this year "strongly recommending" that a work group be formed to study capital punishment further. He advised closer examination of eight "pressing issues," among them misconduct in forensic laboratories and racial, economic and geographic disparities.

Cathy Knepper, the Amnesty International coordinator for death penalty activism in Maryland, met with Steele for nearly two hours in early 2004. She calls Steele's effort "underwhelming and generic."

"It really didn't do much," Knepper says. "I guess it could have, if he had put any kind of backing or emphasis into it."

The state has executed two convicts since Ehrlich and Steele took office. Five more remain on death row.

Called unifying figure

State Sen. David R. Brinkley says Steele has been a unifying figure in state politics. "He is genuinely interested in shattering the paradigms of both white Republicans and black Democrats," the Frederick County Republican says.

Brinkley recalls seeing Steele interacting with a group of schoolchildren from Baltimore on a tour of the State House. The 6-foot-4 lieutenant governor bent down on one knee to talk to the children, who Brinkley says appeared awed by the powerful role model.

'I love puppies'

Steele's Senate campaign has allowed him to exercise that old onstage charm. In an early television commercial, he warned viewers that his opponents were about to start attacking him. Why, they'd even say he hated puppies.

"For the record, I love puppies," Steele said in a close-up, and produced the black-and-white Boston terrier to prove it.

The question is whether those advertisements can catapult Steele to the U.S. Senate and a victory over Cardin, a 10-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. Mumford, his theater instructor, says he's confident that his former pupil will prevail.

"You have to be a very good politician to exist in the world of theater or at the seminary for that matter or at Johns Hopkins," he says.

"You can see his performing skills even up to his political ads with the dog. He doesn't let the dog upstage him, and that's a hard thing to do."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

Michael S. Steele



October 19, 1958, at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County


Johns Hopkins University, bachelor's in international relations, 1981; Georgetown University Law School, 1991

Professional experience:

Associate, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP, 1991-1997; counsel, Mills Corporation, 1997-1998; Prince George's County Republican Committee chairman, 1994-2000; Maryland Republican Party chairman, 2000-2002; delegate, Republican Party National Convention, 2000, 2004; lieutenant governor, 2003-present


wife, Andrea Derritt; two sons

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