Republican Michael Steele Getting Help from Republicans

Ah, the perils of being black and Republican. WaPo has a story on page B1 of yesterday’s edition entitled, “Steele’s Donor List Stirs Racial Questions.” It seems that Michael Steele, the Maryland lieutenant governor running for the United States Senate (Psst: He’s black, by the way) is getting help from some people that many black people won’t like: Republicans.

The fundraiser thrown for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on Thursday night, while ordinary in most ways, struck some African American leaders as notable because of the host. Unlike the dozens of high-dollar events across the country in his U.S. Senate bid, this event was thrown by the producer of the famous “Willie Horton” ad, the 1988 commercial that came to symbolize the cynical use of skin color as a political wedge.

It seemed a most unusual choice for Steele, the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland and a Republican whose strategy for winning a Senate seat in a state dominated by Democrats has involved the aggressive courtship of black voters. “Why would he go for money to those who have done us harm?” asked Elbridge James, a former leader of the NAACP’s Montgomery County branch.

Yet, the NAACP is the group who ran an ad against then-Governor George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign with the infamous tagline, “It was like my father was killed all over again.” To them, any Republican is, by definition out to do harm to blacks.

And isn’t it time for the Willie Horton thing to die? It happened in 1988. Al Gore, a Democrat, used the issue first. And Horton was a powerful symbol, not because he was black, but because he was a vicious criminal who was a convicted murderer let out on furlough by then-Mass. Governor Michael Dukakis. Here’s what happened while he was out on his weekend pass:

Horton showed up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on April 3, 1987. Clifford Barnes, 28, heard footsteps in his house and thought his fiancée had returned early from a wedding party. Suddenly Willie Horton stepped out of the shadows with a gun. For the next seven hours, Horton punched, pistol-whipped, and kicked Barnes – and also cut him 22 times across his midsection. When Barnes’ fiancée Angela returned that evening, Horton gagged her and savagely raped her twice. Horton then stole Barnes’ car, and was later chased by police until captured.

And the ad, run by a group unaffiliated with the Bush campaign, barely ran–except for its repeated play by the news media.

Nor, Steele said, was there anything incongruous about donations he took from others who have offended black audiences in the past, including Republican Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) as well as Alex Castellanos, the man behind the racially charged “White Hands” ad that then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) used to attack his black challenger.

Is Steele really supposed to eschew money from anybody who has ever “offended black audiences in the past”? Again, that would pretty much be any Republican. And I mean any Republican:

Steele also has received support from former Reagan administration education secretary William J. Bennett, who was criticized for suggesting that aborting black babies would help reduce crime, and former first lady Barbara Bush, who turned heads when she mused that mostly African American evacuees from Katrina living at a Houston shelter “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Steele accepted $1,000 from Castellanos, the man behind the “White Hands” ad.

Barbara Bush?! Really?

The Bennett story is fast becoming the modern Willie Horton. He was arguing by analogy against aborting black babies.

It’s hard to defend the racial overtones of Castellanos’ ad–althought mentioning it twice in detail in one article seems a bit much. Still, it undeniably tapped unto a very real concern about the affirmative action controversy.

But Steele said any attempt to attack him for taking these donations just highlights a double standard he believes that black Republicans face because they are “inconvenient” for Democrats, who have had the support of the vast majority of black voters for the past half-century. “When I look across the aisle, I see a Democratic leader who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” Steele said, referring to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.). Byrd has said his Klan membership, when he was a young man, was “a major mistake.” “That doesn’t stop Democrats from taking his money,” Steele said.

Conservative black commentator Armstrong Williams agreed. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him accepting that money,” Williams said. “These people have supported him. That’s his base. Let’s say someone is racist, or has been racist in the past. If they give money to a black candidate, wouldn’t that show progress on their part?”

Although there might be nothing explicitly wrong with Steele taking that money, said Weldon Latham, a black lawyer in the District with long ties to the Democratic Party, Steele shouldn’t expect that there will be no political consequences. “He can’t expect African American support just because he’s an African American,” Latham said. “People are going to want to know where he stands, and who stands with him.”

All true. Still, it’s hard to see how he benefits from turning down money and expertise when almost any prominent Republican operative is going to have been affiliated with something that could be seized upon by the professional race mongers of the NAACP, Rainbow-Push, etc.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Well, let’s take a look at the previous story for a comparison… Hillary Clinton hiring Peter Daou as a blogging consultant isn’t big news. If she’d hired, say, Hugh Hewett or Michelle Malkin as her blogging consultant, or Jeff Gannon as her PR flack – that would be news.

    Likewise, Steele getting help from Republicans isn’t news. But Steele getting help from the guy who created an incredibly divisive ad, which became pretty much a symbol of the ‘vote Republican to defend yourselves from black folks’ subtext of the Reagan era, is.

    Yes, it’s been a long time since then. And yes, the article harps on GOP names in general. But I don’t think you realize just how appalling that ad was to a lot of blacks.

  2. James Joyner says:


    Well, the ad was for Bush 41, who followed Reagan, so I’m not sure how emblematic it was of the Reagan era.

    The ad has been made “appaling” in retrospect only because of the effectiveness of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other professional race mongers. At the time, the ad was largely non-controversial.

    It’s much the same as the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas story. At the time, the polling rather clearly showed that most people believed Thomas and thought Hill uncredible. Thomas went on the bench and his supporters went away. The professional feminist machine kept going and, before long, the tide turned.

    I mention the Daou-Clinton story because it’s an interesting development in the intermingling of blogging and political campaigning, not as a sign of anything sinister.

  3. Fersboo says:


    A little off topic, but I understand there is a set of videos here that are making (liberal)heads explode.

  4. I heard Steele’s opponent was supported by people in a party that overwhelmingly opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s and Steele is getting money from people in a party that overwhelmingly supported the legislation.

    Part of the Steele campaign is that you can be black and politically think for yourself. Radical idea, but I think it might catch on.

  5. Jim Maner says:

    I remember watching the Willie Horton ad. I did not know he was black until the NAACP said so. I have yet to understand how his race was important. Few women would want to be raped by a white.

  6. madmatt says:

    Lets just say it was people who were buying klansman David Dukes mailing list that were supporting a black candidate…should black people know about that? Oh wait they are the same people!!!!!

  7. legion says:

    Reagan was still president while Bush 41 was campaigning, so I kinda lump that time period together. And the Horton ad wasn’t controversial nationwide because it wasn’t shown nationwide. If I recall, it was only shown in the NE region (possibly only around MA), since only those locals would be familiar enough with both Dukakis’ history and the Horton case. I don’t remember if it was pulled or just had a short run by design, but word spread in the black community – yes, due to the NAACP, et al – but the damage was done (at least regarding the GOP’s image among black). And how can you call those people ‘professional race mongers’ but not people like Floyd Brown and Alex Castellanos?

    Finally, I don’t think it’s anything sinister either, but incredibly tin-eared for someone who’s supposedly trying to bring black voters into the GOP…

  8. James Joyner says:

    And how can you call those people ‘professional race mongers’ but not people like Floyd Brown and Alex Castellanos?

    Jackson, Sharpton, essentially make their living exploiting racial tensions on a daily basis. If that’s what these two do, then I’ll gladly apply that label to them.

    I don’t know anything about Brown (indeed, I never knew his name, I don’t think, before this piece) and little about Castellanos. My guess is that they’re just political hitmen, going after an opponent’s weakness. The Horton thing, at least, was about Democrats/Dukakis being “soft on crime” rather than race. Clearly, the Castellanos ad was about race, although within the context of a specific public policy dispute.

  9. McGehee says:

    Lets just say it was people who were buying klansman David Dukes mailing list that were supporting a black candidate�should black people know about that?

    Absolutely. Now demonstrate what the question has to do with this?

  10. Black Girl says:

    not to derail the genius… but the offense about Bennett is that his analogy claims that Black people have an inborn propensity towards crime (aborting black BABIES…yeah i clutch my purse every time i see a little black child WHAT?!)… the offense was not particularly about aborting black babies. u.s. government was quite efficient about that in the 60s when they sterilized dozens of black women without them knowing.

    carry on.