From the Baltimore Sun
Michael S. Steele
A personality for politics
Steele's reviews are mixed, but his charisma puts him at center stage
By Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown
October 22, 2006
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
But even when he failed to land the leads, Steele managed to make
"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
"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
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
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
Augustinian novices spend a year living in community, learning the
history of the order and discerning whether they are called to the
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
Sun reporter Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun