*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: Bob Christian asks: 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: Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: 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: Reverend Florine Thompson asks: What is you 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: Larry Greenberg asks: 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.
KW: Mirah Riben asks: What did you think of Governor Christie’s decision not to run, and which Republican do you think has the best chance of beating Obama in 2012?
MS: I think Governor Christie made the right choice because, as he says in his own words, he’s not ready. He’s a friend, I take him at his word and, when the time comes, I look forward to supporting his leadership nationally. In terms of who’s going to take on Barack Obama, that’s going to be measured out over then next four or five weeks, quite honestly. I don’t have a particular favorite in the race. In fact, I’m contractually bound not to under my analyst’s responsibilities at MSNBC. However, we have on the stage individuals who will be able to go toe-to-toe effectively with Barack Obama.
KW: Mirah also asks: Given the success of the Tea Party and now the demonstrations against Wall St. in NYC which is mushrooming into a national movement, do you think the time is ripe for a viable third party?
MS: Yes, I do. The real seedlings for what could become a third party or at least a third way probably began around 2005 with people who were disappointed with the party. The Tea Party grew out of a frustration with big government Republicanism. And this movement we now see on Wall Street is something that started in Wisconsin this past winter in response to what Governor Walker was doing with respect to state employees and collective bargaining. So, you’re seeing these elements in society beginning to voice their opinions. Personally, I think that’s exciting, and we should pay close attention to it. And if you’re really moved by it, get involved.
KW: Helen Silvis asks: Do you ever get embarrassed by fellow Republicans, like Governor Perry’s association with a place called N-word Head Ranch?
MS: Yes, I do, and it frustrates me to no end because, in politics, perception is reality. And it’s doubly painful when reality exacerbates the perception. I know the Governor, and this wasn’t a racist act on his behalf.
But it wasn’t enough just to paint the rock over. Remove it, because you know what’s still beneath the paint. And you know what that rock stands for and symbolizes. That is a measure of your appreciation and your sensitivity that we as a nation can’t and won’t tolerate that.
KW: Helen has a follow-up: Is it lonely being a black Republican? How did you even get mixed-up with the wrong crowd in the first place?
MS: [LOL] Well, I tend to be a contrarian, so that makes it pretty easy for me to get mixed-up with the wrong crowd. Look, you chart your own path in life. You assess the various options that lie before you, and you figure out where you can make a difference. When I first considered getting involved with the Republican Party, I decided to make the GOP confront not only its past and its present, but its future, including all the young African-Americans, the entrepreneurs, businessmen and women, teachers, moms and dads that we need to go out, talk to and attract.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: Do you think that there is really any difference between the left-wing and the right-wing in terms of concern for the plight of black America, or is that an illusion?
MS: Ahhh, that’s a good question… That’s a good question, and an important one for how we as a community go forward. On paper, yes. In reality, no. It is true that Democrats, Liberals and the Left take the African-American vote for granted every single moment of every single day while Republicans, Conservatives and the Right ignore the African-American vote every single moment of every single day. As a result, there is no political effort addressing what have become systemic problems for the African-American community. For all of the talk and hand-clapping, Democrats have not produced a hell of a lot to fix what’s wrong. Meanwhile, we have not made the concrete effort to help the community figure out how to tackle those problems. That being said, we are just as responsible for our situation as the political parties for being in the mess we’re in because we take the one thing politicians want the most, the vote, and misuse it. We don’t leverage the vote effectively by pressuring politicians to pay attention to our agenda. Just look at other communities and ask: Do they have the same problems that we do?
KW: Patricia also says: You have been a political trailblazer. What advice do you have for minorities, the handicapped and females who want to break through the glass ceiling?
MS: Have the courage of your own convictions in terms of what you believe, and don’t back down from that for one moment, because every day, you have to be able to look in the mirror and say, “I like that person. I understand that person.” If you can’t do that, then your dreams won’t materialize. They just won’t. They’ll be co-opted by others, put on a shelf, or dismissed. But when you believe very firmly in who you are, everyone will pay attention and respond to that and appreciate the leadership and the qualities which make you unique, and they’ll embrace it and want to be a part of it, even if they disagree with some of your beliefs, because they’ll see the total person. That’s the key, getting people to see the total person.
KW: The Judyth Piazza questions: How do you define success? And, what key quality do you believe all successful people share?
MS: Knowing you’ve done your best. As a society, we tend to be outcome determinative and only care about winning, without concern for how we get there. But for me, how you get there factors into it. How you get there is everything. As for the quality successful people share, I’d say it’s perseverance.
KW: Judyth also asks: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from politics?
MS: [Chuckles] Man, that’s a good question. First, have someone watch your back, and then have someone watch them. Second, remember that you can’t please everybody, but you certainly can tick them all off at the same time. And third, keep smiling; it’ll confuse the hell out of them.
KW: Film critic Peter Keough asks: What was it like having Mike Tyson for a brother-in-law? That must have made for some very interesting family get-togethers.
MS: [Chuckles] Really cool. Michael is a very warm guy. He’s funny and very smart, and he’d be the first one to tell you that a lot of his boxing persona was just for the ring. He’s still a part of the family, and we get together with him for various occasions that are important to us and certainly to his kids.
KW: Reverend Thompson also asks: What is your most valued spiritual practice and how does it help you in the political arena?
MS: Prayer! Would not survive without it. Would not be where I am today without it. I probably say forty to fifty prayers a day in various ways. Sometimes, it’s just to say, “Thank you, Lord,” and He knows the rest. I turn to prayer in those moments when I need to stop and recognize that there’s something greater than me that‘s going to heal me or give me the wisdom I need right then. And that’s powerful. It’s a practice that became a part of me in the monastery. I’d probably be a very different person, if I hadn’t entered the monastery before I began my public life, and one you might not want to deal with. [LOL]
KW: Why did you leave the monastery?
MS: Because God leads you to your vocation and to follow your calling. I had needed to confront my demons and my shortcomings, along with my positive qualities and put them all in proper perspective to understand that it ain’t all about you. That’s the problem with most public officials today. They really believe it’s all about them. So, public service takes on this sort of star quality, despite the fact that as the Bible teaches they’re supposed to be served last, not first. If you don’t understand that in your leadership, you will end up failing. Look at people like Congressmen Weiner, Senator Vitter and others who have had their personal shortcomings exposed because they thought it was really all about them.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson also asks: What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?
MS: It’s still happening, and that’s helping my two boys become strong black men.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MS: Is there such a thing? [LOL] Oh, man, these are some good questions.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
MS: Yeah, absolutely! I’m afraid every day.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
MS: Yes, and you can be both, afraid and happy. One feeds off the other. It just depends on which one hits first. [Laughs]
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
MS: It’s been a long time. There wasn’t a lot funny about the last two years. It’s been a long time.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MS: I have expensive tastes. For example, I love collecting watches, and I’ll spend a little coin on that.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
MS: Touré’s new book, “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness.” I’ve got it right here.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
MS: A mashup of Rihanna by Kaskade.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MS: Anything Italian.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
MS: Kwab Asamoah. He’s from Ghana, and his company is called Kustom Looks.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
MS: Maebell’s son.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MS: [Chuckles] I suddenly feel like a beauty pageant contestant. World peace! Seriously, that’s really a hard question to answer for me because I wouldn’t waste my wish on something like a bigger car. It would have to be for something inward or spiritual as opposed to something outward or material.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MS: I can remember my father chasing me down the hall in my diaper. He died a couple of years later. I think it’s one of those memories that God gives you to hold onto. You don’t realize it when you’re young, but it hits you at some point later in life that that was God’s way of reminding you.
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets, asks: “What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?”
MS: My best business decision was to start a business on my own, to follow my entrepreneurial spirit and to trust it. And my worst business decision was to start a business on my own, to follow my entrepreneurial spirit and to trust it. [Chuckles]
KW: The Bernadette Beekman question: What is your favorite charity?
MS: Catholic Charities.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
MS: People! I just love meeting and being with people. I’m usually the last person to leave an event because you just want to grab every ounce of energy you can from people. That excites me so much!
KW: The Toure question: Who is the person who led you to become the person you are today?
MS: My Mom, Maebell. A sharecropper’s daughter. A woman with a 5th grade education making minimum-wage working in a laundromat. Her son grows up to become the lieutenant governor of the state and the chairman of a national political party. That’s all Maebell!
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
MS: He tried.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Michael, and best of luck on MSNBC and with all your endeavors.
MSN: No, thank you, Kam!