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CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. — This is what a nightmare looks like for Senate Democrats: a roomful of black people, most of them lifelong supporters of the Democratic Party — and many of them committed to, or seriously considering, voting for the Republican in a close election.
It’s lunch hour Friday at the St. Paul Senior Living Center, a sparkling new facility for middle-class retirees, made possible by a partnership between local businesses and church leaders. A perfect place,
in other words, for any Republican to drop by.
But the man moving from table to table, greeting diners with a striking combination of deference and enthusiasm, isn’t just any Republican. He’s Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the GOP’s great black hope, the Republican with the best chance of winning a Senate election in Maryland since 1980.
After enjoying a meal of fried chicken, potato salad and greens — lunch at St. Paul, one resident confides, is a lot better than dinner — Steele stands in the middle of the dining room and pays tribute to his hosts. He is humbled, he begins, to be in the presence of black America’s greatest generation.
“It makes my heart fill with joy,” Steele says. “I see a generation of African-American men and women who put it on the line. You put it on the line for me, and now I stand here, the only African-American lieutenant governor. You put it on the line for our children. ... You all contribute to the progress in our country.”
Listening to Steele, William Wiggins nods thoughtfully. A retired union leader for museum workers at the Smithsonian Institution, Wiggins is the prototypical Democratic voter of the past 40-odd years.
Wiggins marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and remembers the murder of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., one year later. He recalls thinking, when Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 general election campaign in that same Mississippi town, “the Republican Party is not for me.” He chastises “young black Republicans, most of them involved in business — they don’t know and they don’t understand the past.”
But Wiggins is likely to vote for Steele in November — especially if the lone black Democratic Senate candidate, former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, is not on the ballot.
“He’s more liberal than the present Republicans,” Wiggins says of Steele. “His views suit my views. He’s definitely, I’d have to say, a new Republican.”
Lucy Anthony, another lifelong Democrat sitting a few tables away, puts it more succinctly.
“When you have someone from our community, you need to back them,” she says.
A Political and Mathematical Calculation
It may be overly simplistic to say that Steele’s strategy for victory is based solely on scrambling Maryland’s normal political math — on picking off as many black voters as possible in a state where Democrats have routinely enjoyed 90 percent black support. But a recent day with Steele in the middle-class black enclave of Prince George’s County shows just how potent a candidate he can be.