When Michael Steele ran for Maryland’s open US Senate in 2006, his backers hired 300 mostly poor African Americans from Philadelphia — most if not all of them unemployed, many of them homeless — fed them donuts and then packed the crew onto Trailways buses for an Election Day trip that would make a bit of political history.
The buses, which were draped in banners for Steele and then-Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, headed across the state line into Maryland, where the day laborers were dispatched to predominantly African-American neighborhoods of the city of Baltimore and populous Prince George’s County.
They spent Election Day handing out glossy fliers headlined “Democratic Sample Ballot” or “Official Voter Guide.” The fliers employed the phrase “Ehrlich-Steele Democrats.” And they featured images of prominent African Americans, such as former Democratic congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, above the words: “These are our choices.”
The implication that Mfume and other popular Democrats in the state were backing Steele, and Ehrlich, was hard to miss.
But Mfume wasn’t backing the “Ehrlich-Steele Democrats” ticket.
Steele and Ehrlich weren’t running as Democrats.
Both men were Republicans. And, despite what the group Progressive Maryland described as a campaign of “Lies, Dirty Tricks, and Fraudulent Fliers Designed to Deceive African American Voters,” they both lost.
Now, however, one of them, Steele, is the new chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who has long been a favorite Republican commentator on Fox News and other conservative programs, won the backing of committee members who gathered in Washington Friday after promising to renew the sagging Grand Old Party.
Steele, an arguably able political player who has for many years been one of the GOP’s highest-profile African-American leaders, pitched himself for the chairmanship by suggesting that he could put a positive face on a party that has seemed in recent years to be more interested in circling the conservative wagons than in attracting new voters.
Steele promises to engage in “outreach.”
But what will the outreach look like?
What sort of politics will Steele practice as RNC chair?
If past is prologue, this 2006 article from the Washington Post may prove instructive.
As Post writers Matthew Mosk and Avis Thomas-Lester noted: “Republican leaders have defended the Election Day episode as an accepted element of bare-knuckle politics. But for many voters, it shattered in one day the nice-guy images Ehrlich and Steele had cultivated for years.”
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was blunter: “I think it’s pretty low that Ehrlich and Steele would print up a fake ballot and bus in unemployed people and exploit them. It doesn’t get much lower than that.”