Maryland's lieutenant governor on his bid for U.S. Senate seat

May 12, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

For a fellow who wants to go the U.S. Senate, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele doesn't seem overly awed by the institution - or the leadership of either major party. And, for someone who at times has been portrayed as the Republican Party's "get along, go-along" guy, in a Wednesday interview Steele seemed to have found a strong voice of his own. I asked the 47-year-old candidate these questions:

Why do you want to be a U.S. Senator?

"Because the U.S. Senate needs a voice that represents the people of Maryland and is prepared to work for them and listen to what they have to say," Steele said, adding that he'd heard plenty on the campaign trail.

What are people telling you they want to hear?

"They're telling me 'Listen to us, pay attention to us.' The leadership is disconnected from the people," Steele said.

Which leadership are you talking about?


"I mean Democrats and Republicans. At the federal level, a pox on both their houses," he said.

Steele said Congressional incumbents' main flaw is that they tend to talk only to each other and fail to be candid with the people.

"We need to be honest about the energy debacle, about our failed immigration policies. The people are telling us, 'We can take it. Be honest with us.'" he said.

Steele said families are now having to reprioritize their budgets because of higher gasoline prices and rising power costs in some sections of Maryland.

Steele's Web site indicates he would propose suspending federal gasoline taxes for 120 days and remove the tariff on ethanol. For the long term, Steele would recommend the following: double the president's request for biomass and biorefinery research, expand tax credits for hybrid vehicles and mandate that cars sold in the U.S. get better mileage.

If you could accomplish only one thing in the first few years of your Senate term, what would it be?

"I think probably turning some important corners on education," he said.

"We are ill-prepared for our future," Steele said.

While the federal No Child Left Behind Act is an admirable program, Steele said it "created an environment where the test becomes the focus and not the development of the child's mind."

To counter this, Steele said that teacher pay - and the respect given to teachers - must be improved.

Asked about where he would get the money for that, Steele said more money isn't always the answer. Like families, the system must shift its funds from one area to another, he said.

Steele said he was pleased to be able to work with the Maryland State Teachers Association to improve the state's pension system.

Two of your Democratic opponents - Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin Cardin - have years of experience in Congress. What do you have that outweighs that experience?

"The fact that I don't have that experience," Steele said.

After all that time spent in the state legislature (in Cardin's case) and in Congress, Steele questioned what had really been accomplished.

He noted that Cardin was speaker of the Maryland House when the pension system was altered to reduce teacher pensions.

"How many gas crises have we had? All of this stuff has been going on for 20 years," he said.

What were you able to accomplish in Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration?

Steele said he had been able to increase the percentage of small and minority businesses selling goods to the state, worked on victims' rights and helped pass charter school legislation.

"We were able to break the stranglehold of mediocrity in the state," he said.

Did you have any significant differences with the governor and how did you handle them?

Steele said Ehrlich told him up front that he wanted an independent voice. Steele said he has given input on issues such as stem cell research, which he opposes if embryos are used, but realizes that it's the governor's call.

Is there anything I haven't asked that you feel important for people to know?

"I want people to know that I get what it's like to get up every day and to live from paycheck to paycheck, to start a business and watch it grow and go through rough times. I appreciate the lives people are living to make this a great state. It's not about me, it's about them," he said.

Steele's commitment to being honest should be welcomed by voters, but his blunt assessment of the national party's failures may not win him many friends with the leadership. But if the former head of the Maryland Republican Party feels he must run as someone outside the GOP's inner circle, perhaps those leaders are in more trouble than they realize.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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