ABOVE PHOTO: Michael steele greets Ghanaian children during his trade mission to Ghana as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland.
Michael Stephen Steele was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Prince Georges County, Maryland on October 19, 1958, but given up for adoption while still in infancy. He was then raised by William and Maebell Steele, although Maebell eventually remarried following her husband’s untimely death in 1962.
Michael attended Archbishop Carroll Roman Catholic High in Washington, DC, before matriculating at Johns Hopkins University where he earned a BA in international studies. He subsequently studied to become a monk for several years, until he decided to leave the seminary shortly before being ordained. Instead, he proceeded to earn a J.D. at Georgetown University en route to landing a position as a staff attorney at a leading, international law firm.
Steele first entered politics in 2000, which is when he was voted Chairman of Maryland’s Republican Party. A couple of years later he won the State’s race for Lieutenant Governor, and by 2008 he had become the first African American ever elected to serve as Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
He is currently a commentator on MSNBC, where he’s generally the lone conservative in a sea of liberal pundits. Here, the former RNC Chairman reflects on his life and philosophy, on his hopes for the GOP, and on the Party’s prospects for attracting more African American voters in 2012.
Kam Williams: Hi Michael, thanks for the interview. I’m happy to get you on the phone, after trying to track you down for an interview for a couple of years.
Michael Steele: I am very sorry to hear that, Kam.
KW: Have you seen the film “Fear of a Black Republican” directed by Kevin Williams? He’s the person who helped put me in touch with you, finally.
MS: Yes, I have seen it and, in November, I will be attending a showing of it in New Jersey, and participating in a discussion of the movie afterwards.
KW: I plan to attend, too, so I look forward to meeting you in person that day. Given your almost becoming a priest, and Catholicism’s concern with the plight of the poor, I wonder what led you to the Republican Party, which I see as more concerned with the welfare of the rich.
MS: On what do you base that? What is the genesis of the question? To ask me to answer that straight out of the box assumes and presumes a lot that I believe is not true about Republicans. Why would you have that impression? What either anecdotal or factual incident would you refer to as an example of Republicans not caring for the poor?
KW: I’m not thinking of anything in particular. It’s just my general impression.
MS: Even though far more of the very people who run the industrial complex of this country, whether you’re talking about Wall Street or the military, are in fact Democrats? [Chuckles] The CEOs of the leading Fortune 500 companies are largely Democrats. What that says to me is that we have lost the definitional battle, as Republicans, because we engage differently. That’s one of the criticisms I have about how Republicans position themselves, not on the philosophical or policy landscape, but on the political landscape. We always seem to position ourselves in a way which works to our detriment. So, what we have is a failure to communicate which has resulted in this perception that you have about Republicans caring more about the wealthy, when most of the Republicans that I know and deal with on a day-to-day basis tend to be blue-collar people, not country club types. Conversely, most of the wealthy people I’ve dealt with in my political career have been Democrats.
KW: What could Republicans do to attract more African Americans to the Party?
MS: A couple of things. One is to own up to our failures as a party, when it comes to making important investments in the black community when it counted, like during the Civil Rights Movement. While we had been the architects of great civil rights legislation like the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the 40 Acres and a Mule policy of the Reconstruction Era, the party hesitated when it really mattered in the 1950s and early 1960s, and thereby lost an opportunity to preserve the longstanding relationship between African Americans and the GOP. And we probably wouldn’t be in the position today where we’re suffering from an erosion of support from African Americans. Step Two would be for us to show up in the community prepared to have meaningful discussions about issues that actually matter to us, like job creation, in a way which makes sense. That’s why my very first official act as Chairman was to host a town hall meeting in Harlem. To me, that was a very important step to take.
KW: How can people of color reconcile the social and economic platform of the Republican Party with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King?
MS: We could start off with the debate about whether or not Dr. King was a Republican. We know that Daddy King was. We know that African-Americans of that era were largely Republican. Set that aside, since what Harriet’s asking here is more fundamental. I would argue that, historically, major pieces of civil rights legislation were sponsored by and fought for by Republicans. There would not have been a Civil Rights Act or a Voting Rights Act were it not for the Republicans in the Senate who beat back Southern Democrats who stood in the schoolhouse doorway and other doorways of progress. So, that link to me is very, very important in terms of building the bridge that is necessary for this generation going forward.
KW: What is your position on Affirmative Action?
MS: I’m in favor of Affirmative Action. We created Affirmative Action. It was one of the economic tools that the Nixon Administration put in place to make sure that African-Americans enjoyed fairer treatment in landing federal and state contracts. Yet today, many think of it as something Democrats created. No, it was something we created, because it was consistent with our view of economic empowerment. It wasn’t a handout but a way of leveling the playing field. As I like to say, I’m an Affirmative Action baby. I’m a beneficiary, not just professionally in terms of my career, but academically, of those who stood with President Nixon. I like to think of 40 Acres and a Mule as the first Affirmative Action program, and I appreciate that historic link from the Reconstruction Era to the present- day. I believe the Republican Party ought to embrace that part of its history and I also think it’s an important asset for the African-American community and other minorities to have as they continue to compete for the American Dream by creating the networks necessary to rebuild the devastated neighborhoods that we currently live in.
KW: Is having your own Muppet on The Daily Show the true measure of one’s becoming a cultural icon?
MS: [Laughs heartily] Well, as I sit here looking at my Muppet friend, I would say: it helps. I know it’s a way for Jon Stewart to poke fun at me and the RNC, but I took it as a true compliment. I learned a long time ago that if you can’t laugh at yourself and some of the crazy things you have to put up with while doing a job, then you need to find another line of work. I was just very flattered and honored that they thought enough even to create such a thing.
[Part two of the Michael Steele interview in next week’s issue of the SUN]