What would you call a man born into poverty who became a success in spite of many obstacles? You'd probably call him an inspiration and invite him to speak at your next business convention.
Suppose that man from humble roots is African American? He might be a keynote speaker at the next NAACP gathering, or the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Except that this man is not a Democrat. He's a Republican and a conservative. What would you call him now - an "Oreo," an "Uncle Tom," a "token"?
Maryland Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele, who is running for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes, has been called these names, and worse, by Democratic leaders in his state.
Their problem, which is the problem most Democrats have with African Americans who have Steele's work ethic and political pedigree, is that he became a success without their help.
A profile of Steele in the April issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine by writer Jim Duffy reveals the source of Democrat angst. Steele didn't waste time singing "We Shall Overcome." He overcame. His mother, Maebell Turner, born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, dropped out of school to work in the tobacco fields. While still a teenager, she and her mother moved to Washington, D.C., where she got a job in a Laundromat. She worked there for 45 years. She married what Duffy describes as an "abusive, philandering alcoholic" who died at age 36, leaving two young children behind.
Steele was born in 1958. He lists his mother, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan as his three heroes.
Steele says his mother was urged to accept welfare when his father died, but that she refused. Years later, he asked her why. Steele quotes his mother as saying, "I didn't want the government raising my children." Eventually, Maebell married Steele's stepfather, John Turner, a truck driver. They managed to send her children to Catholic school, which Steele credits with contributing to his success.
He was admitted to Johns Hopkins University, but when his grades were substandard, he was invited not to return. His mother urged him to go back. Three times he petitioned the dean of students to give him a second chance. Three times the dean refused. Steele persisted and the dean told him to enroll in four summer courses the dean would select at George Washington University. Steele did and when he brought back straight A's, he was allowed back into Hopkins, from which he graduated. He later earned a law degree at Georgetown University.
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