BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Michael Steele, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, when did you first become a Republican?
LT. GOV. MICHAEL STEELE (R), MARYLAND: Oh, my goodness. Probably 1976. That was the first election I could vote in – Jimmy Carter going up against Gerald Ford. And I was struck by the words of Ronald Reagan during that primary, where Reagan ran for the first time for president.
And while he didn’t win the primary, he left an indelible mark, an impression on me, as I was maturing politically and philosophically.
And it got me to thinking about politics. And I’d been involved in some, you know, local races. I’m a D.C. native, so this was home for me, and spending some time in politics as a young sprite trying to figure out what’s going on.
Reagan spoke to me. He spoke to me in a way that sounded like my mom, in terms of personal responsibility, obligations, commitment to family – certain values that really carry a lot of weight – faith, and those things that mattered most.
And it just – it resonated. And I just did a little research and got to study party politics and what that meant, and realized, heck, I have a home in the Republican Party. This is where African-Americans are from politically. This is where we, you know, really got our first foothold in American political life, is through the Republican Party.
So – and in one sense it was really kind of good to go back home. But then, of course, reality sets in, and you realize you’re the only brother on the block who’s a Republican. And that’s a whole different ball game. And so, then you have to figure out, what does that mean and how do you deal with that?
LAMB: Your mother, you said in the speech you gave to the Republican convention, was a lifelong Democrat. Is she still a Democrat?
STEELE: Yes, still is. Yes.
LAMB: Where does she live?
STEELE: She lives – we live still in the family home in Petworth Community here in Washington, D.C., Northwest.
And, you know, it’s a part of who she is, and she shared those values with me as well. And strong Southern values – she’s originally from South Carolina, Orangeburg. So, there’s a lot of the sharecropper daughter still left in her.
But she’s also brought certain other values that come from living in an urban community, in a city environment, and recognizing the challenges of raising a child in that atmosphere, particularly during the turbulent period of the ‘60s.
The civil rights movement was just really beginning to peak, at the zenith between ’56 and ’65, then of course, culminated with the death of Dr. King, which, you know, opened up a whole floodgate of response, both good and bad.
So, it was a very interesting time to raise an African-American child, because you didn’t know really what tomorrow was going to be or what it was going to look like for that kid.
Being a single parent at the time – my father was an alcoholic, a very abusive man, died very young as a result of his alcoholism, left her with a lot of uncertainty. But she found the strength, the perseverance that so many of our famed heroes that you recognize, you know, had. But you realize, gee, that was commonplace.
I mean, how do you survive slavery? How do you survive Jim Crow? How do you survive segregation? You’ve got to persevere some kind of way.
So, all of these things for me, I found in my mom. And at that convention was a chance for me to very – in a very public way say, "Thank you. I think you did all right, Mom." And I try my best to live up to the commitment that she made to me.
LAMB: You’ve got a lot of firsts for a Republican African-American. Let’s go over them.
LAMB: You were first chairman of the Republican Party for Prince George’s County.
STEELE: Yes, that’s right, 1994.
LAMB: How big a place is Prince George’s County?
STEELE: Prince George’s County is about, I guess somewhere around 700,000 or so African-Americans, roughly. It’s a very large black population – the wealthiest African-American county in the country.
There’s a great concentration of wealth there, many of whom are, you know, like myself, transplants from Washington, D.C. or from other parts of the region – or the country, for that matter – who have come and probably started out in government, but now working their way through business.
And so, it’s a very vibrant community – a very vibrant community – a reflection of, I think, the ascending African-American middle class and upper middle class.
LAMB: Are there many Republicans in Prince George’s County?
STEELE: You’re probably looking at me and about four other guys who – no. It’s – that’s a good question. I don’t think it’s – there’s not a lot, obviously. It’s a very strong Democrat county. It’s about four-to-one Democrat.
But what I’ve noticed is that more people are more comfortable these days – at least say, hey, you know, you guys aren’t that bad. Or, you know, admitting that their parents or a relative was a Republican, which is always a fun conversation.
But it also holds, I think, a lot of promise, because I think it is really kind of the nexus of where you’ll see a lot of political activity over the next generation, with this growing middle class of African-Americans in their 30s and 40s right now who have figured out small pieces of the American dream and are making it work for themselves, and now coupling that with the challenge of the civil rights legacy, and that we’re a part of. And we’ll see what happens.
I talk about it in terms of legacy wealth, creating something of value that’s going to be passed on, tapping back into the roots of your family and your community, and empowering yourselves and others.
So, it’s – Prince George’s offers that, as does a lot of communities. But it’s a great place to be from.
LAMB: Now, the other first. Has there any – has there been a black person elected in any statewide office to any higher office than lieutenant governor in the country?
STEELE: Doug Wilder was the first African-American lieutenant governor. He went on to become governor of Virginia.
LAMB: He was a Democrat.
STEELE: He was a Democrat.
LAMB: How about a Republican?
STEELE: No. I’m the – well, we had a Republican lieutenant governor in Colorado, Joe Rogers, who is no longer in office.
When I was elected in 2002, we had another Republican elected in Ohio as lieutenant governor. So, there were two of us – a woman. She was the first African-American female, Jeanette Bradley. She is now the secretary of commerce, I believe, for the state.
So that leaves me the only African-American lieutenant governor in the country, Democrat or Republican.
LAMB: How about in Maryland?
STEELE: In Maryland, I am the only African-American to serve statewide office.
STEELE: First elected in the 360-year history of the state.
LAMB: And Maryland has close to 30 percent African-American.
STEELE: Yes. Yes. And the first is a Republican. Imagine that.
LAMB: What is the difference, in your opinion, between an African-American who is a Democrat and a Republican? Do you ever sit down – do you get in many discussions?
STEELE: Oh, do I get into discussions. Absolutely.
I think it’s a number of things. It’s your philosophical orientation, how you look at life, how you see it. I think it boils down to how you view the role of government.
I have a number of my contemporaries, we come out of very similar backgrounds. But it’s how we were imprinted by those experiences in that neighborhood, or that community, that environment.
I grew up where I came to understand government had a very limited role. Learned that first from my mother. I remember sitting around the kitchen table asking her, when I was about 15 or 16, why she never went on public assistance, why she never went on welfare, because I was seeing a lot of my friends in the community seemed to be dependent on this system for some reason or another. And I was talking to young guys who, you know, have girlfriends who were pregnant and they can’t wait until that first of the month to get that check.
And that bothered me. There was something about it that didn’t make sense. So, I’d talk to my mom about it.
And she summed it up very succinctly and in a very Reaganesque kind of way, actually. She said, she didn’t want the government to raise her children. She thought it was her responsibility to find a way, to make a way, for her and her kids – given everything she’s been through.
LAMB: What did she do in her life?
STEELE: She was a – she started out as a sharecropper’s daughter. She was pulled out of school in fifth grade to work the fields …
LAMB: In Orangeburg, South Carolina?
STEELE: … in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to work the tobacco fields of South Carolina.
At 18 she moved to Washington to join her mother, who had migrated here probably a year or two before. Started working at Sterling Laundry – which was then over here in Georgetown, is now up on Blair Road in Northwest D.C. – where she worked for about 45 years making minimum wage.
LAMB: Doing what?
STEELE: She was a laundress. She worked the big presses.
LAMB: For 45 years.
STEELE: For 45 years. Minimum wage.
And got me through Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins University, and …
LAMB: What did you study at Johns Hopkins?
STEELE: International relations.
LAMB: What year did you graduate?
STEELE: Eighty-one, ’81. I started out as a pre-med student, but we don’t need to discuss that.
LAMB: And you got your …
STEELE: A rude reality.
LAMB: … Georgetown law degree in ’91?
STEELE: Ninety-one. When I graduated from Hopkins, I entered the monastery to study for the priesthood. I’ve always wanted to be a priest.
LAMB: Augustinian …
STEELE: Augustinian monastery (ph).
STEELE: Villanova. Spent about a year at Villanova, taught high school at one of our Augustinian high schools. History and English – I mean, economics.
And did my novitiate up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and working with the Hispanic community there and studying theology. And I left the order right before I was to take several (ph) vows.
LAMB: Why did you get into it in the first place?
STEELE: It was a calling. It was something I was called to do.
I kind of look back on it now and see it as a period of preparation – for what, at the time, I didn’t know. You know, I was just – I wanted to be a priest. I had an attraction to it – service and commitment back to – giving back to the community I grew up in. And the religious life was something that was very empowerful and very fulfilling.
But part of that process is going in and discerning, and figuring out, is this what God’s calling is? Is this where you’re ultimately going to serve?
And for me it was a question of deciding, do I serve the community and God in a religious habit, or do I serve Him in a business suit? And, you know, they’re two different lifestyles and two different approaches.
But I come to realize, one prepares you for the other. And I think my time in the monastery really prepared me for the rigors of politics and the rough-and-tumble of trying to effect policy and create change in our stagnant, moribund system that we had in Maryland – 40 years of control by one party, domination.
And going in and chipping away and trying to put fresh ideas, new approaches on the table and getting some merrily (ph) thrown back in your face, just because you have an "R" label behind your name. You learn very quickly to pray and to keep going.
LAMB: When you were growing up in Washington, you had how many siblings around you?
STEELE: One sister. I have a younger sister. She’s about eight years my junior. And she is a great lady. She’s a doctor today here in D.C. She’s a pediatrician, my sister Monica.
She’s another testament to perseverance. I mean, she came through and had some struggles and some challenges and managed to, you know, rise above them and become, I think, a very successful doctor.
LAMB: So, what was it like in your home? Your father died at what year?
STEELE: My dad died in ’62. Sixty-two. I was four years old.
LAMB: Do you remember him at all?
STEELE: I do. I do remember him. I remember certain images that I recall with him.
He liked to take me out a lot. My mother had her own reasons for why he did that, but he liked to take me out a lot. And I do remember spending some times with him in the car. I remember him chasing me down the hallway. I had this tendency to not always necessarily make it to the restroom in time. So, he would always come running behind me to hurry me along.
I remember those things. I remember seeing him in his casket after he died.
And so, you know, he – in terms of how he was with my mother, I don’t have a lot of memory of that. But I’m glad I don’t, to tell you the truth, because he was not, apparently, a very nice man when he drank, and womanized.
So, my mom had to put up with a lot of that. And for her, the focus was on me. I mean, she figured she had a louse for a husband, and she could deal with that. But she wanted to make sure nothing interrupted what she wanted to provide for her kids.
So we – after he died, we were together, just the two of us, for about four or five years. And then she remarried, and my sister was born shortly thereafter.
LAMB: Is your stepfather still alive?
STEELE: Yes, he is.
LAMB: They’re still together?
STEELE: Still together. They’ll be coming up on 39 years.
LAMB: Now, did that have – did your stepfather have an impact on you?
STEELE: Oh, he did. He did. Because in a real way, in a real sense, he stepped up and fulfilled the role of father. He didn’t have to. I wasn’t his kid, you know, and so I kind of, like, came along with the package.
LAMB: What are his politics?
STEELE: Democrat. strong ….
LAMB: So, when you all get together …
STEELE: Oh, we …
LAMB: What’s your sister?
STEELE: My sister is probably . I mean, she was a Democrat. I think she’s more independent now.
I’ve been working on her, so we’ve kind of moved the needle a little bit on her.
But she is – I mean, she’s always been an independent sort. So, even when she was a Democrat, she would, you know, have issues that – with the party, and positions – take positions that weren’t necessarily in the traditional fold.
But when we got together, when my dad and I get together, you know, we just – it’s like cat and dogs. I love it. Oh, dinner conversations when I was growing up was a hoot, particularly once I self-identified as a Republican and realized, this is what I wanted to be and this is what I wanted to do.
And my dad would just like to come and just pick right at it, just have fun.
And I learned a lot. I learned how to stand on my ground and hold my own. And if I really believed in something that was important to me, to defend it and understand why I was defending it.
LAMB: Do I (ph) remember you being born in ’59?
LAMB: Fifty-eight. How old are you today, then?
LAMB: So, go back to, you said, I think, ’76 you became a Republican.
LAMB: Had you been a Democrat up until then?
STEELE: No. Well, not really. No. I mean, it was in the household, but I hadn’t really focused on it. I mean, that election – the bicentennial election was the first time I could vote.
So, coming up in my junior year in high school at Carroll, you know, we’d have political discussions, so it was really kind of the first time that you could really kind of put – you know, put it all together.
I really – I liked Richard Nixon. There was something about him that I could respect. He was strong. He was kind of – and I had – I should have known then (ph) I had this foreign policy kind of internationalist leaning, because I was much more intrigued by what he was saying on – in terms of, you know, China and Vietnam and all of that, than anything on domestic issues at that time. But that appealed to me.
I remember the ’68 Democratic Convention and the Republican Convention and the contrast, and recognizing that the Republicans seemed to manage their issues a little bit better than the Dems did.
So, all of those little things kind of added up, and didn’t really focus in for me until much later, and …
LAMB: Were you a student officer anywhere in your life?
STEELE: I was. I was class president in my freshman year in high school and my junior year. And I was also student body president, both in college and high school. So, I was very involved politically.
LAMB: I want to read a quote from the "Baltimore Sun" editorial:
"Mr. Ehrlich’s running mate, state GOP chairman Michael Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin."
STEELE: Oh, isn’t that precious?
LAMB: When was that said?
STEELE: That was said the weekend before the general election, when the paper endorsed Kathleen and her running mate for governor and lieutenant governor.
LAMB: Kathleen …
STEELE: Kennedy Townsend, in 2002.
LAMB: Who is Bobby Kennedy’s daughter.
STEELE: Bobby Kennedy’s daughter.
LAMB: Ran against Robert Ehrlich.
STEELE: Against Robert Ehrlich. She’s a sitting lieutenant governor of Maryland, first female lieutenant governor in the state’s history.
LAMB: Read it again:
"Mr. Ehrlich’s running mate, state GOP chairman Michael Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin." "Baltimore Sun."
LAMB: What was your reaction when you read that?
STEELE: Ignorant. It was just pure ignorance. It’s something I had to put up with countless times – to have a state Democratic leadership senate president call me an Uncle Tom, a member of Congress from Maryland calling me a token.
LAMB: Who called you an Oreo?
STEELE: They didn’t call me an Oreo. At the debate, the partisans on the other side threw Oreo cookies at my feet as I was walking out of the building, as a symbol that I’m black on the outside, white on the inside.
What was disturbing about that was, it put a blemish mark on the university – Morgan State University – because it wasn’t the African-American students. It was some union folks that the Kennedy Townsend campaign had brought into the state.
And they thought it was cute. But it was, again, showing a high level of ignorance – ignorance and racism. And call it for what it is.
The "Baltimore Sun" is the "Baltimore Sun." I don’t deal with the newspaper. I have nothing to say to the editorial board or – I barely speak to its reporters, because this is a newspaper that, in my view, has some issues it needs to work out with respect to race.
Keep in mind, this is the same newspaper that, until 1986, after force and pressure from the community – the black community – removed a mural in its lobby of African-Americans picking cotton. And tell me what relevance that has about people in 1986.
So, when that came out, the only thing that bothered me the most about it was the fact that my kids had to read it.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
STEELE: They are 16 and 13. And at the time, they were 14 …
LAMB: Male or female?
STEELE: Both boys.
LAMB: And where are they?
STEELE: My eldest son is a junior at Georgetown Prep. My youngest is in school here in D.C., Our Lady of Victory.
So, you know, we, you know – they had to read this. And I had to sit down and talk to them about it. And, of course, they were like, well, why would they say that to me? You know, you graduated from Hopkins. You worked for seven years as an international lawyer at one of the top 10 firms in the country – in the world – representing clients as diverse as Morgan Stanley and, you know, DLJ and others.
So, they didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to them.
It also said something, I thought, very important and relevant to the broader community. If you can go to a good high school, graduate from one of the finest undergraduate universities, graduate from one of the finest law schools in the country, get a job running with the big dogs, a white-shoe law firm on Wall Street for seven years – not one year, seven years at the firm – to, you know, achieve success politically, become the first African-American county chairman, the first African-American elected to state Republican Party chairman in the country – you have nothing to offer?
Whether it’s a ticket for office or anything, you have nothing of value to put on the table?
That’s the height of arrogance, and the height of, I think, a kind of racism that – I call it sort of a soft bigotry, because it’s not overt. It’s not calling me a name. It’s not, you know, making slurs of me.
It’s just saying, you have no value. That’s kind of stark.
LAMB: What’s at work here? And I know there’s different levels. There’s a professional level, people who are in politics professionally. Or there’s the average person.
What is it that upsets black people so much – I mean Democrats – if they see someone who is an African-American and is a Republican?
STEELE: I don’t know. I think it has to probably go to a sense of power or control that they feel they have within the Democratic Party. And maybe we represent something different, because we have a high level of freedom, the line is less – you know, is a lot shorter on the Republican side, in terms of opportunities within the party.
I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand this mindset that says that we have to be, as African-Americans, monolithic in our thought and our politics, in our values.
It is a dichotomy. It is a contradiction.
When you talk to individual members – I was just having this conversation recently – when you talk to an African-American, and you sit down and you talk to them about the social issues, the political issues, the economic issues, and you’re keeping a scorecard, you’ll find that where they are on the political spectrum has a more center right than left, more Republican than Democrat.
Now, when you put the "R" label on it, oh, my gosh! Then it’s a whole different ball game. And I don’t know what that is. I think it has to do with a lack of understanding of who the Republican Party is – who we are, what we are, what we stand for – not really appreciating the history in terms of our lineage as African-Americans politically, coming through the Republican Party.
Now, a lot of that’s the Republican Party’s fault, quite frankly, because we stepped away from engagement. And we did not stay connected in a way that helped define the future of African-Americans in terms of what the Republican Party could offer.
LAMB: Let me just test some of the things that you know they would say about you. A black Democrat would say, he – Michael Steele – is just an opportunist. He sees that the line is short, and why not go over there, he can do a lot better.
STEELE: Yes. I wish that were true. If, you know – it takes a lot of time and a lot of cutting through it to get to this point.
Why am I an opportunist? I’m no less or no more an opportunist than they are.
Why are they so beholden to a system that has ruined the communities they live in? Take a look at our urban centers. Go to Baltimore City and tell me – show me what Democrat leadership has done for African-Americans in the school system, economic development and empowerment, health care, social issues. Tell me.
We’ve not – Republicans haven’t run major urban marketplaces (ph) or a community in over 50 years in Baltimore. It wasn’t until Rudy Giuliani ran and won in New York that a Republican mayor was elected in and got to run a (ph) city.
But look what happened once Republicans took control. We put to work what we say, the values that we say, the politics of what we talk about and say. This is about self-empowerment.
You control your community. We don’t. You empower yourselves through education and through economic development. Government is there to fashion the tools for you, to create the pathways. And I think that goes back to your earlier question about the differences and how we view government, the role of government.
We see government as a limited-purpose entity. It is there for a limited purpose. Certainly for self – for defense of country and for keeping many from falling beneath the safety net that society creates. But ultimately is there to create the opportunity.
You go down that road. Your business will succeed or fail depending on how well you perform, and what you do to prepare yourself. There’s not a government program that can create a job.
LAMB: If you …
STEELE: You do.
LAMB: … this is a big if, but if you decide you want to run for the Senate, and you won it in Maryland and became a member of the United States Senate, would you become a member of the Black Caucus?
STEELE: Absolutely. Absolutely.
LAMB: Do you think they’d take you?
STEELE: Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they? They can’t – I see no reason why they wouldn’t. I would join up in a heartbeat. And I would get those ideas at the table.
And I would not be surprised to find the number of African-American congressmen who would support me on certain issues.
LAMB: Is there a need today for a black caucus? If there is, why?
STEELE: I think there is. I think there is. I think it is, for a number of reasons.
One is to make sure that those issues that are significant and important – now, I’m going to say this, and then I’m going to maybe contradict myself a bit – but make sure that those issues that are important are at the forefront, at a federal level.
But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure they get there. And the caucus has to be a reasoned voice that represents the diversity of opinion within the broader black community.
You just can’t go in and assume that, you know, Jesse Jackson or Mel Watts or Elijah Cummings speaks for every African-American in the United States. They do not. They don’t even speak for every African-American in their district.
They represent a perspective – a perspective which can be easily challenged by a different perspective. That’s what dialogue is all about.
LAMB: I thought it was interesting. Mel Watt was here last weekend, and he was talking about his mother. His father wasn’t with them in the family.
LAMB: And his mother left high school at the sixth grade level.
LAMB: And she worked her entire life at the post office. I want to run just a little clip of the speech that he gave, …
LAMB: … when he became chairman of the Black Caucus.
STEELE: All right.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MEL WATT (D-NC), CHAIRMAN, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: I wondered how many CBC chairs were raised by a mother who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, had three boys by the time she was 18 years old, and was separated and divorced by the time she was 22, who worked as a domestic in a school, and against all of those odds, still taught us the value of sacrifice and conservation, but never, ever let us know that we were poor or couldn’t do anything that anybody else could do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Sound familiar?
STEELE: Very much. Make a good Republican. I need to talk to him.
LAMB: So, again, I’ll go back to the question. What is it that makes you come down on one side and him on another?
STEELE: It goes to the core of what we think the role of government is, and how government plays a part in your life.
What his mother said to him is very much what my mother said to me. How we interpret that and how we put that to action in our daily lives is the difference. And the role that we see society playing in that is the difference.
I see government as, as I said, a limited-purpose entity in my life. I think it has a limited role and value.
At the end of the day, it’s going to be what I do for me. It’s going to be what I impart to my kids, and what they do for themselves.
LAMB: President of the United States, George Bush, calls you to the Oval Office and says, Michael Steele, tell me how this party, this – how I can bring more African-Americans into the party? What do you tell him?
STEELE: Show up. Show up. Go into the communities.
I had a very interesting conversation during the campaign with a group of folks that I’d gone out, on behalf of the president, to talk to at this black church.
And when I left, this woman came up. And it was a raucous meeting. It was a lot of fun and a lot of give-and-take and a lot of George Bush-bashing. But I held the ground and I laid out the issue. And at the end, I think they appreciated that we had the conversation.
And I know I reached some folks, because a woman came up to me and she said, "When you go back to the president, tell him this. It’s not that we don’t like you, or that we don’t support all of your policies – or any of your policies." She said, "We just want you to show up in our community and tell us yourself who you are and why we should vote for you, because you don’t."
And I thought that that was a very powerful lesson. A very powerful lesson.
Republicans, when it comes to African-Americans, oftentimes do politics at a distance. Politics is very personal.
Getting someone to vote for you and support you is a very personal thing. And you have to engage them at a personal level, to look them in the eye and tell them why I need your support and why your supporting me will not be a bad thing for you.
And I think, if the president were to ask me that, I would tell – I would share with him that story. And I would let him know – and as I let our new chairman, Ken Mehlman know – that we have an enormous opportunity as Republicans to reach beyond the barriers that have been built by many others, other than ourselves.
Democrats have defined us as racist and evil, and elect a Republican and they’ll start burning crosses on your lawn – all that crazy nonsense.
We get beyond the din of that and really focus on the voter and talk to them and where they are at their kitchen table, and not come out with some hard-press sell, say you’ve got to be a Republican because they’re not good for you. We’re better than the Democrats – no, we’re not. No, we’re not.
We’ve got just as many boils as they do. They have as many boils as we do. The difference is in our candidates and in our message and how we convey that, at a very personal level with the voter.
And I think, if we can do that a little bit more comfortably, a little bit more frequently, with a high degree of sincerity, we can change the political dynamic for – that would benefit the African-American community.
I resent when anyone says that they shouldn’t be a part of the Republican Party, because who are you to make that judgment? Let the individual decide for themselves, just as I decided for myself.
My parents didn’t pressure me to be a Democrat. I have not pressured my kids to be involved politically one way or the other. Let them decide for themselves. We are intelligent human beings. We can do that.
LAMB: Did you choose to, or did you by default, use affirmative action anywhere in your life to get ahead?
STEELE: Oh, my goodness, yes.
LAMB: And how did it work? Give me some examples.
STEELE: It worked fine. I mean, scholarship programs and opportunities, some job opportunities when I was younger, coming up, trying to make my way.
I have often questioned Republicans who rail against affirmative action because, again, they show their lack of understanding of the connection.
LAMB: Define it.
STEELE: Define it. Well, let me – let me give you the history first, before you define what it is.
We created it. African-American – an African, Art Fletcher – an African-American in the Nixon administration is the architect of affirmative action.
So, this is a product of the Republican Party. This is the continuing legacy of 40 acres and a mule – another Republican concept, post-Civil War.
And so, what’s happened to it is, it has become a program of dependency in the minds of a lot of Republicans. And it’s a program that’s designed to hurt someone. It’s a zero sum game. It is not a zero sum game.
It is designed to create a playing field that everyone can access equally, fairly. And what you do once you’re on the field is up to your talent that’s given to you by God. And if you’ve got the ability to run the race, you run the race. If you don’t, guess what? The competition’s going to beat you.
But all we’ve been talking about since the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed was, give us a chance. Give us a chance. And let us access the same avenues that you do, whether it’s economic empowerment, whether it’s home ownership, whether it’s political empowerment, give us the chance and see how we can run with the big dogs.
LAMB: Johns Hopkins, did you get in there on, with any special treatment?
STEELE: No. No, that was merit. I graduated fifth in my class in high school, so …
LAMB: And what high school here in Baltimore?
STEELE: Archbishop Carroll, John Carroll.
LAMB: And how about your law school, Georgetown?
STEELE: Georgetown, you know, again, I mean, it’s hard to say what level of affirmative action
– were they trying to increase the enrollment of African-Americans? Absolutely. Was I part of that? Absolutely. I have no problem with that.
So, this is the downside that we’ve got to be careful of.
I remember sitting in law school, and with a group of friends, and this young guy came up. Well, he was talking about his buddies and he was frustrated, because his friend had just gotten a rejection letter.
And he looks at me, because I was the only African-American sitting there. And he looks at me and says, "So, how did you get into Georgetown?"
Now, I know what that was. That was saying, I took his friend’s place.
LAMB: He asked you that …
LAMB: … in front of you.
STEELE: He asked it in front of me. He said, "So, how did you get in – how did you get into Georgetown?" And the implication was, you’re only here because you’re black.
You don’t – again, going back to the "Baltimore Sun" – you don’t have the talent, you don’t have the knowledge, you don’t have the skills. You don’t have what it takes to be here. They only got you in because you’re black. You can’t be lieutenant governor, because you have nothing of value to offer but the color of your skin.
That level of ignorance is born out of a frustration, and born out of a sense of entitlement that isn’t guaranteed to anyone.
LAMB: Mel Watt told us that, when he checked into his room at the University of North Carolina back in 1963, that he had three white roommates. And by the end of the day, he had no roommates.
LAMB: Have you had anything like that happen to you?
STEELE: Not in terms of roommate type experience. But in going for a job when I came back from the seminary, I answered – you know, the newspaper has all these want ads – I answered a bunch of paralegal ads. Sent my resumes in blindly. Just says, Michael Steele, where I lived, et cetera, and what I had done.
And I got a call from this law firm, we’d love you to come in and interview. Oh, great. Thank you. So I’m talking to the woman and giving her more of my background.
So, when I show up, the reception looks at me and she goes, may I help you? And I go, I’m Michael Steele, here for an interview. And she said, here? I said, yes.
And she said, OK, just a minute. And so she called back to the recruiter. And the recruiter comes out – I’ll never forget. I can see this woman now, walking down this long hallway, and she sees me standing there in the lobby. And her pace was very quick at first, and then it slowed.
And she got closer to me. And she walks up – because, you know, I’m the only person there, I’m in a suit – she walks up to me. And she goes, oh, so you’re Michael Steele? And I go, yes.
And she said, you’re so tall. And I said, yes, I am. I’m very tall, thank you very much.
And I knew what that meant. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, although on the phone I was highly qualified for the position.
LAMB: How tall are you?
LAMB: And when that happens to you, what’s your reaction – inside?
STEELE: Persevere. Go on. Why should that stop me? Why should – who’s to – again, that’s their problem. It’s not mine. I can’t make it my problem, nor can I solve their problem for them.
I have to keep going. This is the direction I’m focused on. This is where God is leading me, and I’ve got to get there.
LAMB: Lieutenant – I mean, Governor Bob Ehrlich, who won in 2002 …
LAMB: … won by how many votes? I mean, by how many percentage?
STEELE: Fifty-two, 48, I believe, was the number.
LAMB: How many African-Americans in the percentage, total (ph)?
STEELE: I think we got roughly, overall, about 10 percent, 11 percent. We got 16 percent in Baltimore, less in Prince George’s. So, it averages out …
LAMB: Sixteen percent of African-Americans in Baltimore.
LAMB: Now, what would you say to the cynics who said, he picked you only because of the color of your skin?
STEELE: Yes. How do you like me now?
LAMB: Did he?
STEELE: No. The governor and I had known each for years before I became his running mate.
LAMB: You were chairman of the party.
STEELE: I was chairman of the party, and I was involved with grassroots politics and, you know, local stuff, and knew him when he was in the legislature, knew him especially when he was in Congress, was a congressman.
So, yes. I mean, we had a – what makes this work is that we have a friendship. We have a pre-existing friendship.
And we’re – we really are kind of the brothers neither of us had. He’s an only child. I had a sister. And so, we find ourselves oftentimes finishing each other’s sentences. And our staffs have to tell us, look, guys, you’ve got to get serious, because we just – we enjoy being with each other. We enjoy the job we’re doing.
We recognize that we are blessed. We probably say we are affirmative action babies. Both of us got to school, you know, Hopkins and Princeton on scholarship, work study, whatever it took to get through – proud of that.
If the resource is there – it goes back to what I was saying. If government creates the pathway, why don’t I get on it and take advantage of it and make it work for me? But know when to get off, because that’s where real value sets in, when you can then make it on your own and sustain that opportunity down the road for yourself and the next generation.
LAMB: What’s your own goal? I mean, you going to run again in 2006?
STEELE: We’ll run again in 2006. And, you know, God willing and the people willing, we will win and get a second crack at it and finish the work that we began in this term.
And then, we’ll be looking at a race in 2010 for governor.
LAMB: Can he run again?
STEELE: No, he’s term-limited, two terms.
LAMB: So, you might do that in 2010.
LAMB: Any interest in any other job? The Senate job or …
STEELE: You know, I didn’t know I was going to have this job. You know, I was very content being a state chairman.
And the governor and I have this sort of running joke. The governor has yet to ask me to actually be his running mate. This is how close we are.
And I remember when I went in and – the night he wanted me to join the ticket. And he sat there and he said – he said, you know, I have to tell you honestly. I didn’t even know if I wanted a lieutenant governor.
I’ve been a congressman for eight years and a delegate before that. He said, you know, this idea of having a running mate is all new. You know, my staff told me you’ve got to have a running mate.
And he says, I couldn’t think of anyone better than you. And I said, well, how do you think I feel? I’m state party chairman. I’m working with the national party. I’m working with the local party. I’ve been traveling around helping to build the party in Chicago and Florida and California.
And you’re asking me to take a job with no job description. What kind of – you know, what am I, nuts?
And so, we got a laugh with that. And I said, yes. I said, this is going to be a great combination.
And so, that, you know, leads me to some other opportunities, I guess. But I haven’t really thought about them. I mean, I’m focused on being the best lieutenant governor I can be.
LAMB: What are the responsibilities of a lieutenant governor in the State of Maryland?
STEELE: Well, none. You serve at the pleasure of the governor. So, if your governor likes you, you get to work. If he doesn’t, you just sit in your car all day long.
LAMB: Do you – I mean, you have no statutory responsibilities.
STEELE: No statutory responsibilities. I don’t oversee the senate. I don’t manage any state agency, as some lieutenant governors do.
My job portfolio, though, that the governor has given me is a very significant portfolio. I manage economic development for the state. I reformed our small and minority business enterprise program.
I have opened Maryland, and continue to open up Maryland, to international opportunities in Africa, where we did a trade mission – one of the more successful trade missions in recent history.
LAMB: Why was it successful?
STEELE: Well, because Maryland companies for the first time got to go play abroad, and got to really get engaged, and got some deals.
LAMB: Was this your trip to Ghana?
STEELE: To Ghana and South Africa. They actually got some projects done. And we’ve established our relationships now with Bafokeng and the Northwest Province of South Africa, with Johannesburg and Ghana.
And so, I’ll be hosting the conference of African ministers and presidents when they’re here in the Baltimore area later this spring.
So, we’re really trying to forge those opportunities. Now we’re looking at the Caribbean. We’re looking at South America.
And so, we’re doing the non-traditional as well as the traditional, you know, going and doing the Paris Air Show and trying to help our defense industries, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, in their efforts.
So, I really do have a full slate of time (ph) there. And, of course, working with our faith-based community. The governor has asked me to manage that and oversee that and really create it. And we’ve done that, given some obstacles that we’ve faced to do it.
But we’ve done it in a way that is true to what the president’s agenda is in this area, in trying to create an avenue where faith institutions – faith-based institutions – and non-profit organizations can also tap into resources that will help them continue the good work of helping people.
LAMB: Has this president asked you to do anything for him?
STEELE: How do you mean?
LAMB: Offer you a job in the administration?
STEELE: No. No. No.
LAMB: Would you go?
STEELE: I like being lieutenant governor. I don’t know. I mean, it depends on what it is.
You never say no, particularly if asked by the president, you know. You consider everything. My mama did teach me that. I’m no fool.
But I’ll have to wait and see. You know, I enjoy working on behalf of the president’s re-election. I enjoy serving this president when called upon by him, whether it’s at a, you know, something on economic policy or education, which is another area in my portfolio, K through 12 education, universities and college – community colleges, as well.
So, however I need to be serving, I’ll serve.
LAMB: If you could do one thing now, right away, in the educational world, in the State of Maryland, what’s the big problem and what would you do?
STEELE: I would break the system in half. I would absolutely break it in half. It is a bureaucracy beyond bureaucracies.
And I would empower local school boards, superintendents, principals, to run and manage schools, because that’s where it is.
Why aren’t parents involved in education? Because bureaucracy says, hey, we’ve got this. We’ll call you if Junior acts up. But until then, don’t show up. Don’t bother.
And that’s wrong. We need parents involved every day – every day – in the education of their kids. And they have to understand, as a parent, the education of your child doesn’t end at three o’clock in the afternoon. It just begins.
LAMB: In the District of Columbia, where you’re from originally, …
LAMB: … they have a 25 truancy rate, the highest in the United States.
STEELE: I know.
LAMB: And there is no state.
STEELE: And why is that? Why is that?
LAMB: It’s just one community.
STEELE: Why is that?
LAMB: I don’t know. You tell me.
STEELE: It’s because someone’s not paying attention.
LAMB: Who’s the someone?
STEELE: The system. This infamous system that everyone talks about and refers to, which can be a varied combination of school boards and superintendents, and depending on what the structure of the school system is.
But why is that? Why do we allow that to happen? Doesn’t …
LAMB: Why …
STEELE: Doesn’t anybody stop at some point and go, this is dumb. Why aren’t these kids in school? And why does it take, you know, national headlines and studies and, you know, dollars spent to figure out a problem that everyone in the community sees every day?
LAMB: But one solution supposedly, and people have talked about, is putting the parents in jail when there’s truancy.
STEELE: That’s kind of radical. I have something that’s a little less radical. I offered this – I’m right now, I’m chairing a commission on education reform in the state.
And I sat down with a group of parents and students, and I said, let me ask you this. What would you think of – let’s get your parents involved in education. That if your teacher said to you, well, you know, hey, John, you would have gotten an A, but because mom and dad never showed up for a PTA and never participated in school, you get a B+.
And the kids kind of looked at me like, whoa, what do you mean? I said, well, tying your performance to their performance, because it’s linked. It’s connected.
Now, that’s an extreme way to get attention, but the reality of it is no less true, that you’ve got to wake up as a parent and recognize – I don’t care if your kid’s in kindergarten, where there seems to be a lot of emphasis, rightly, or in 12th grade, where there seems to be very little emphasis, wrongly, on their education.
You’ve got to face the fact that these kids need you to be a part of that reality for them for a long time.
LAMB: Go back to your own kids. Again, how old are they?
STEELE: Sixteen and 13.
LAMB: How did – did you talk to them at the dinner table over the years?
STEELE: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What did you tell them? What kind of message? And where did you meet your wife?
STEELE: Well, my wife and I went to college together. We knew each other in college and …
LAMB: Johns Hopkins.
STEELE: Johns Hopkins. We were friends there, and got to know each other over the years. Didn’t date or anything like that in college. It wasn’t until I came back from the seminary that we started dating.
But I talk to my boys about life. I mean, I talk to them about things that they encounter. You know, they – you know, they’re kids, so they know it all, you know. They’ve experienced everything there is to experience at 13 and 16.
And I keep smiling and go, yes, OK. Sure you’re right.
LAMB: Have they lived well?
STEELE: They – how do you mean, lived well?
LAMB: I mean, have – even economically successful and …
STEELE: Oh, we’ve struggled. Oh, my goodness, no. We’ve struggled. I, you know, when I was with the law firm, I left, decided to start my own business. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to pursue that, because I wanted ownership. I wanted something that was me. I got tired of working for the man, as we like to say.
And I wanted to be the man. I wanted to be the one that wrote the check every two weeks. And as I quickly learned, there’s a lot more involved than that. You’ve got to – there are sacrifices that you make when you go out.
And that’s why I appreciate entrepreneurs and that entrepreneurial spirit, because that’s a real risk-taker. That’s someone who’s, you know, is mortgaging a whole lot. Stuff probably members of the family don’t even know they’re mortgaging to make things happen.
LAMB: How long did you live in Tokyo? How long did you live in London?
STEELE: Off and on, I was in Tokyo for a short time, you know, three-month stints. I’d go over, do a deal, come back, go back three months. Same in London. And work on transactions three, four or five months, and then come back home and go back over. So it was back and forth.
LAMB: What did you notice in those two countries about the way they treat someone that doesn’t look like them?
STEELE: Well, interesting. Interesting enough. It wasn’t as much of an issue then as it is today. Europe is going through a very rude awakening, as the world has gotten a lot smaller all of a sudden. And people, you know, have a way to get to London and have a way to get to Paris and Germany and places like that. And they’re going.
And they’re saying, you know what? I like the Alfatal (ph). I think I’ll live here. And the reaction of the Europeans, I think, is very telling. They are where we were, as a country.
I remember, the president had asked me and J.C., who led this delegation on xenophobia, racism two years ago. And we went over and there was this huge conference of all these nations. It was like a mini-U.N. type thing. And to listen to the Europeans complain about, you know, Indians and Pakistanis and people who didn’t look like them living in their neighborhoods.
But then also hearing the more rational, understanding approach that look, that the world is changing and we’ve got to work with this. It was reminiscent of the struggles that we went through here in this country and trying to deal with race relations.
LAMB: But the Japanese?
STEELE: The Japanese – a little bit more hard-core about these things. Not a very tolerant society with respect to differences like that. That’s unfortunate. A little bit closed.
Now, that was – I was there in, what, ’97, ’96-’97, and earlier in ’91. So, it just – it was very different at that time. And, of course, the Japanese were emerging economically, you know, from the ‘80s, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and sort of having to deal with a lot of what that means as an emerging market nation.
And then, of course, to have the bubble kind of go out. And that’s where the real pressures in society began, when all of a sudden you look around you and you’ve got to start sharing the wealth.
So it’s a very different – you know, we are fortunate people. We are very blessed, despite our history in terms of race relations. Even some of the silly things and stupidity that still exists in this area today. We are blessed, I mean, in that we have been able to struggle through it.
And we still hold out our arms and welcome the world to us, no matter who you are or where you’re from. And I think that’s a very powerful statement about America and what we try to do here.
I think it’s one of the reasons why we are respected and reviled around the world, all at the same time.
LAMB: And if you had young people in front of you who wanted to get the message from Michael Steele about how to succeed like you have, what are the different things you’d tell them?
STEELE: I think a couple of things. One is, shut up. Just shut up. Listen. Don’t go into a room and start talking. Go into a room and listen.
Be mindful of what other people are saying and thinking in that room, so you can understand what you’re dealing with, who these people are. Get a sense of what’s important and what’s not important.
It’s not about pontificating and making yourself think or be better than you are. It’s about listening. It’s about – and my mom taught me that. She was like, just shut up and listen. Sit down and listen. Let me tell you what I have to tell you.
LAMB: Were you a talker?
STEELE: I was a talker. Couldn’t you tell?
LAMB: Was she a talker?
STEELE: No. Very quiet. If my mom was in a room, you wouldn’t know she was there. But when she spoke, she spoke.
The other thing that I’ve learned is, for any young person who, regardless of what it is you want to do, it’s going to involve leadership. Even if you’re just, you know, a stay-at-home dad, it’s going to involve leadership.
And you have to know when to lead and when to follow. And in understanding that, you can’t be afraid to follow.
The sign of a true leader, a good leader, is someone who can die to self, die to his ego, and let you take the lead, and I’ll step back and follow you, and respect the fact that you are better positioned than I am. You probably know a little bit more about this than I do, and I can learn from you.
My opportunity to lead will come from that experience. And people who follow you see that. And they see that as a sign of leadership, and they know that you respect them first, because you’ve done two things.
You’ve shut up and listened to them, and you were willing to follow them, and trusting their judgment and offering your opinion, but trusting their judgment. And not willing to – and not afraid to say, OK. Let’s try it your way.
LAMB: A lot of people in government and in the media are watching you and Governor Ehrlich deal with this "Baltimore Sun" situation.
LAMB: But most people in the country don’t know about it. But you will not speak with – nobody in the administration will speak with – one reporter who runs the statehouse bureau …
LAMB: … and one columnist.
STEELE: That’s right.
LAMB: This has been going on since late November, I believe.
STEELE: Yes. Yes, it has.
LAMB: And what was the reason for it?
STEELE: Well, what was happening was, they just were outright printing falsehood. They weren’t accurately reporting the stories, or commenting accurately on the facts that were, you know, true to any particular situation.
And so, the governor just got tired of it. He said, look, you know, if you’re going to report on what we’re doing, be fair about it. We don’t care if you agree with it or disagree with it, but report it accurately so the reader can make up their own mind. Imagine that.
LAMB: Have either one of you sat down and talked to the "Baltimore Sun," and tell them why …
STEELE: We had a meeting with the "Baltimore Sun" in early January. I just sat – I have nothing to say to the paper – so I just sat there in the room and watched the proceedings. And the governor just laid out his case.
And they were trying to tell the governor why, you know, why they had a right to ask him questions. And he was telling them, well, you may have a right to ask questions, but I don’t have to answer you.
So they sued us. And the court agreed with the governor. He doesn’t have to answer you.
And because he’s not said that you can’t speak to the "Sun" paper, he’s identified those two individuals. Our staff, our senior staff, and our cabinet secretaries are not permitted to talk to them.
LAMB: But you’ve decided ever since they said that the only reason you were picked was because of the color of your skin not to talk to them at all.
STEELE: I have no use for them.
LAMB: How does it work for you?
LAMB: Doesn’t matter?
STEELE: Doesn’t matter to me.
LAMB: Have they been pounding on you at all?
STEELE: Oh, every chance they get. That’s – who cares? Who cares?
LAMB: Does the public pay attention to it?
STEELE: They do, and they get angered by it. That’s what they don’t understand. That’s the part that kills me. The "Sun" doesn’t understand. The more they do that, the more they look silly, I mean, and biased and racist.
And so, it’s crazy. I just – you know, I don’t deal with it. You know, if the editors want to – I’ve asked for a public apology. That’s all I’ve asked for.
Just say, look. You know what? The editor who wrote this was wrong. And, you know, we probably shouldn’t have gone there (ph). We’ll apologize for that. You know, we don’t agree with everything you stand for or what you believe in or what you do. But that’s us, you know. And – but that doesn’t mean that you have nothing of value to offer.
LAMB: So, what’s the best way for you to get your message out?
STEELE: Talk to people. I go to community groups. I go to breakfasts and dinners and lunches, and go to schools and visit schools. And we do a lot of radio and television, and we talk directly to the people – unfiltered.
I like it unfiltered. You make the judgment. I don’t …
LAMB: So, …
STEELE: … I don’t need to have some third party say, this is what I said, or this is what he thinks.
LAMB: You don’t need newspapers anymore at all.
STEELE: No, I don’t say you don’t need newspapers. I wouldn’t go that far.
What I’m saying is, I love newspapers. I mean, I read – I read my "Washington Post," and now my "Washington Examiner," my "Washington Times." You know, I read the local newspapers. I love local newspapers, like the "Gazette" newspapers and some of the other national, local newspapers. I love that. That’s great.
All I’m saying is, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to put it in print, be fair about it, because that’s the only time people – I mean, unless they hear me and see me, the words leaving my mouth, you’re the voice. You’re the voice.
So, when you say something, you’re painting a picture. When you write that, you’re painting a picture about that individual, about that fact, about that situation.
Unless it’s on the editorial page – that was a purely editorial comment about me during the primary. Fine. No problem. I thought it was misplaced, and it was inappropriate. And that’s part of my objection.
The problem, though, is when that editorial page bleeds into the front page, where the objectivity is lost, and your partisanship comes through.
That’s where I have a problem. And those newspapers that do that, they suffer. Those people, newspapers, that stay objective and try to stay true to the facts, I think do a better job of it and are better received by the community. People are still going to have issues on the, you know, around the periphery on some things, but by and large, the circulation is pretty much stabilized and people read the newspapers and they’re quoted, and things like that.
And that’s good. I have no problem with that. I love the press in America. I think it’s great. I love freedom of the press.
But that freedom does not require me to answer every question you ask or to respond to every issue you raise. I’m not obligated – because I’m an elected official doesn’t obligate me to do that.
Now, you come to me as a constituent, now that’s a different story. But as a newspaper reporter trying to write a story, it’s my option.
LAMB: On that note we thank you very much.
STEELE: All right. Thank you.