Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele occasionally gets called a RINO, a pejorative acronym for “Republican In Name Only.” He says that frustrates him, but hardens his resolve to return the party to values he believes were abandoned under Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I just resent that term ‘RINO’ because it’s such an insult to a lot of good men and women who have spent a lot of time trying to advance the ideas of this party,” said Steele, an MSNBC commentator and ardent Trump critic who was the first African American to serve as national Republican Party chairman.
Steele, 62, may soon seek to double down on his vision for the GOP, which he says includes efficient but limited government and more outreach to minority groups. He told The Baltimore Sun that he is giving “very serious consideration” to running for Maryland governor next year, a process that includes assessing his prospects of succeeding Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is barred by term limits from running a third time.
In an interview near his Prince George’s County home, Steele suggested he would neither abandon nor be pushed from the GOP. He said he hasn’t allowed himself to become disheartened by Trump and GOP leaders who he believes have not only failed to broaden the party’s national appeal, but have stifled anti-Trump sentiment from within.
“When people ask me why are you still a Republican, I say, ‘Because I know it pisses them off,’ " Steele said. He has developed a metaphor to express his continued membership in a party from which he is partially estranged.
“If you come to my house and, in the course of being there, you start tearing up my carpet and writing on my walls and breaking my fine china, do I throw you out or do I leave? It’s my house, too,” he said.
Republican National Committee officials decline to comment about Steele, and state GOP leaders did not respond to interview requests. The Maryland Republican Party has been largely divided over Trump. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County and state party officials have supported the former president, while Hogan has criticized Trump for, among other issues, maintaining that the November presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden was rigged.
Steele has been criticized by evangelical groups and other Trump supporters.
He said his early years as a Republican in Democrat-dominated Washington uniquely equipped him to embrace the reality that he had better get comfortable standing apart from the crowd.
“I can tell you growing up in Washington D.C., the most fun you can have is to be a Black conservative Roman Catholic Republican, right?” he said.
Steele was Maryland’s first African American lieutenant governor, serving with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from 2003 to 2007.
A Steele bid in the June 2022 GOP primary would elevate the race’s national visibility and offer Maryland Republicans a choice of veering sharply away from Trump.
“The good thing for Steele is he will be able to raise money, and with enough money you will be able to talk to voters and maybe ease some of those tensions of being explicitly anti-Trump,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. “We’re not sure where the state of Trumpism is going to be when the primary season heats up.”
A decade after chairing the Republican National Committee, Steele has become one of the nation’s highest-profile detractors of the GOP’s de facto leader.
From a desk in his home office, Steele has accused Trump of abandoning core Republican values such as free trade and reduced government spending. He has called Trump divisive, intolerant and addicted to “Twitter crack.”
Steele’s barbs are often overlaid with humor and showmanship — fitting for a 6-foot-4 extrovert who once held leading roles in high school and at the Johns Hopkins University in such shows as “The Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He played the U.S. president in “Of Thee I Sing,” which he calls “a great show — campy as hell.”
“He can bring some zingers now and then,” said former Oklahoma Republican congressman J.C. Watts, a longtime friend of Steele’s who chairs the Black News Channel, an independent network.
Steele “has an infectious personality,” said former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was the first African American elected statewide in Florida. “People are drawn to him to the point you can’t barely have lunch without getting interrupted a million times.”
Diners kept recognizing him at a Bowie restaurant on a recent morning, and he indulged every request for conversation or a photo.
“How’s it going, ladies? You guys doing OK?” he said to two women who were arriving. He launched into a conversation about their relief at seeing former police officer Derek Chauvin convicted Tuesday in the death of George Floyd. “There’s still more work to do,” he told them before posing for pictures.
Steele, who studied for the priesthood before deciding to attend law school, says he’s given a lot of thought to his continued affiliation with a party that he believes has lost its way.
Steele said his party affiliation was influenced by his mother, who told him she refused to go on public assistance because she didn’t want the government “to raise” her children. His mother is a Democrat but he considered that a lesson in personal responsibility which, he said, was a core Republican value.
Today, he said, the GOP has departed from guiding principles and the kind of outreach to minority voters that he often touted as a candidate in Maryland and as the national Republican Party leader.
“Hell yeah, there have been days that I go ‘What are you thinking? Why are you pushing this boulder up Mount Everest?’ " Steele said. “The question is, do you just walk away from that and say [to Republicans], ‘OK, you guys have at it, I’m done’? Or do you at least stand and fight for those ideas a little bit longer?”
Steele declined to provide a timetable for announcing whether he will run for governor. The filing deadline is next Feb. 22.
“He could be a very strong challenger in Maryland,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. He said Steele could face a balancing act of finding “as many issues a possible to align with the current Republican Party, but not pull himself so far to the right that he isn’t who he is.”
Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, a Republican who lives in Frederick County, announced this month that she will run for governor. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford has said he will not run to succeed Hogan.
On the Democratic side, State Comptroller Peter Franchot of Montgomery County was the first to enter the gubernatorial race, and former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said this month that he will make another run. Another Democrat, former U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr., has also announced his candidacy for governor.
Maryland Policy & Politics
In a state in which Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-1, Steele’s best pitch may be that — like Hogan — he could be appealing to crossover Democratic voters. Analysts say the primary election would prove more challenging because the conservative GOP base typically votes in high numbers.
“Michael may have high name identification for all his TV appearances, yet there are many hours of taped comments that will be inconvenient in a primary campaign,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“On the other hand, Larry Hogan got nominated and elected twice. So the Trump wing of the GOP in Maryland doesn’t have the stature of Godzilla,” Sabato said.
Steele was born on Andrews Air Force Base, adopted as an infant and raised by a laundry worker and a truck driver in Washington. He ran for a Maryland U.S. Senate seat in 2006, losing to Democrat Ben Cardin by 10 points. He went on to lead the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011, the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Steele describes himself as “anti-big government” but not “anti-government.” He says he supports improving gun safety laws — especially in the area of mental health — and expanding background checks. On abortion, he describes himself as “pro-life consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Steele is “old school” in many ways, said Carroll, the former Florida lieutenant governor.
“Michael believes that the party should not be focused on just one person,” Carroll said. “His conservative principles supersede party affiliation loyalty.”