I had the pleasure of campaigning alongside former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele for much of 2006, and I love the man. He is one of the most affable, gracious, engaging and authentic people I've ever met. He instantly makes you feel welcomed and comfortable, and there is no pretense about him. My mother was visiting from Louisiana during the last two weeks of the campaign and I took her to an event where Michael was to endorse me. I introduced them and he made her feel like a queen! I have a story about him that illustrates who he is. I was at a Redskins game with my son and a friend, the father of my son's best friend who happened to be celebrating a birthday that day. During the tailgate party, my friend, a devout Catholic, asked me what Michael was like, and I described him in pretty much the same terms as above. At the end of the game, he caught up with me and excitedly told me that he and his son were riding one of the elevators at FedEx Field when they ran into none other than Michael Steele! My friend said he was just as I described him; he engaged them in conversation, congratulated his son on his birthday and generally made them feel comfortable and important. He won himself two more fans that day, and reinforced my view of him as a thoroughly decent man.
He also stands out in my mind as a living example of what happens to you when you're outside of the mainstream of black opinion.
Here is a man who was adopted as an infant and raised in a home with an alcoholic father who died when Michael was only 4. His mother worked as a laundress earning minimum wage to sustain him and his sister, and when she was asked why she didn't apply for government assistance, she replied, "I don't want the government raising my children." She did well; Michael graduated from Johns Hopkins University with his bachelor's degree and Georgetown University with his law degree. His sister, Monica Turner, is a pediatrician. When I was growing up, my parents would have pointed to people like Michael Steele and Monica Turner and said to me, "You see what they've done? That's what you can do if you work hard, do well in school and keep God in your life." To my parents' generation, they would have been role models.
When he talks about "turning hope into action," he speaks of blacks owning their own businesses so they can generate wealth for themselves and their families. He talks about empowerment and creating opportunities for ownership in the black community, whether it's businesses or homes or their own financial futures. It doesn't sound like there's anything wrong with his message. You would think this man would be honored and esteemed for his accomplishments and his vision.
Instead, this man is savaged by the liberal press, the thought leaders in the black community, the left-leaning blogosphere - basically the entire liberal establishment. He's very gracious about it and professes that it's cool, but I imagine in his private moments, he must ask himself, "What in the world did I do to these people?" I know during the campaign that the worst thing they could say about him was that he liked President Bush (oh, the horror!).
Guilt by association isn't an excuse for the slander they directed at this decent man. Some condemn him simply for being black and a Republican, as if that was a public expression of betrayal or self-loathing. For those people, I have two questions:
1) If you believe in the sanctity of life beginning at conception, strong families built around a mother and a father in the home, government doing what only government can do and leaving the rest to the people, keeping more of the money you earn, and creating personal wealth that can energize a community and be passed down to your children, what other political party choices are there?
2) Do political parties change through engagement or ostracization?
It was only 43 years ago that the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan and "separate but equal." It didn't change because black shunned it. It changed because when the party sought to expand its base to welcome blacks, we accepted their offer and worked from within to affect change. Read this excerpt from a U.S. News and World Report article on Michael Steele:
"Early in his political days, he attended a Prince George's County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner. He was ostracized at the event. Only Elizabeth Dole, then transportation secretary, would talk with him. It was then that he decided to enter politics. 'I knew the only way to change the Republican Party was to get involved and turn this party around to make it more warm and welcoming,' he says."
The apostle Paul offers this bit of Biblical wisdom to put an exclamation point on what I'm trying to say:
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." - 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
While Paul was speaking of the Gospel, the same principles apply to political engagement. Michael understands that two political parties competing for the attention of the black community means the black community wins. Right now the Republicans think we're a lost cause and so they ignore us, and the Democrats know we're their most loyal constituency so they take us for granted. Michael Steele is a Republican not because he hates black people, but because his personal values are honored in the GOP and he can have an impact for his community within the GOP by engaging them and sensitizing them to our issues.
Michael Steele is a gem, and you ought to get to know him before you cast stones at him. Maybe you too will say, "I love the man!"