The Talking Head: Michael Steele

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Well before Steele became a punching bag or punch line for either political parties, politics was a quiet calling working beneath his consciousness. He was raised by his adoptive parents in Northwest Washington, D.C., and had a divine plan for himself. By the time he reached 21, he was on the path to priesthood, studying at the Augustinian Friars Seminary at Villanova University. But before he donned the cloth, greater powers intervened.

“God called me to this,” he says. “That’s part of my personal journey. A monastery being a place where I had to reflect on my shortcomings, on my humanity.”

He soon filed into the local political scene, looking for his voice. He found himself surrounded by major political figures such as infamous D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who was later busted for smoking crack while in office. “Learning grassroots politics from a street activist like Marion Barry, how valuable is that.” A wide smile parts his face, as if he was that kid again. “It’s awesome.”

But he found his footing when he connected with Republican Art Fletcher, the former football player who shaped the nation’s affirmative action programs as adviser to President Nixon and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the ’90s. Steele embraced Fletcher’s message of economic empow- erment and equal opportunity at a time when Republicans were moving in the opposite direction.

“It kills me when Republicans run away from affirmative action,” he says. “We created it. It was our idea. You know what the first affirmative action program was?” He pauses for effect. “Forty Acres and a Mule. That was a Republican idea.”

He ran for Senate in 2006 with some support from a few unlikely voices in the Black community—Russell Simmons and Mike Tyson (who married Steele’s sister Dr. Monica Turner in 1997).

“Mike and Russell both took a lot of flack for supporting me,” Steele says. “In fact, Russell did not want to meet with me at first because he thought I was the typical Republican. He told my staff [he’s] available for 30 minutes. We were in this restaurant for two hours. He realized we had a lot more in com- mon when it came to Black people.”

The two eventually produced a hip-hop summit for entrepreneurs in Maryland, but Simmons insists it was Steele’s devotion to underserved communities that attracted him to his campaign.

“Some people thought I had a personal interest, but I never ever voted or supported anyone for my own personal interests,” says Simmons. “Michael Steele is a force from within the Republican party that would probably help compromise on ideas or promote ideas that might otherwise not make it to the party.”