Steele has told the story often, with some variations, as a motivational tool for others and as an example of his perseverance. He says he badgered Hopkins dean Michael Hooker into giving him a second chance. Steele took makeup classes at George Washington University summer school, was readmitted to Hopkins that fall, and graduated in 1981 with a major in international relations.
Just out of college and searching for his place in the world, he followed a calling he had felt since childhood. He entered an Augustinian pre-novitiate program at Villanova in 1981. “I knew what I was giving up,” he told the Hopkins alumni magazine in 2005. “It wasn’t like I had no clue about life, like I didn’t have any idea what poverty, chastity, and obedience would mean in a world that was throwing wealth and sex in your face every day.”
He eventually gave up his white robe and put himself on a track to become a lawyer. “It came down to, ‘Am I called to serve the people of God as a priest or in a business suit,’ ” Steele told the Baltimore Sun in 2002. Reverend Francis J. Doyle—his spiritual director at the Augustinian novitiate house in Lawrence, Massachusetts—told the paper in 2006 that Steele “gave himself very sincerely to the whole process of discernment.” He left the program after a year and a half, the Sun reported.
Steele returned to Washington, got a law degree from Georgetown in 1991, and joined Cleary Gottlieb as an associate. He left the Washington firm after six years when it was evident he wouldn’t make partner. He worked briefly as in-house counsel for the shopping-center developer Mills Corp., then formed his own consulting firm, the Steele Group, but struggled to make money. In 2001, after missing mortgage payments on his Largo townhouse, he was threatened with foreclosure.
Money problems had become such a big part of his life that the following year, when he was offered the chance to become Robert Ehrlich’s running mate as Maryland lieutenant governor, Steele’s teenage son, Michael, had one question for his father, according to the Washington Post: How much does it pay? During the campaign, Democrats attacked the Republican Party for giving candidate Steele a $5,000-a-month consulting fee.
The setbacks he encountered in the private sector mirrored the arc of his climb through the Republican ranks. He moved to suburban Maryland in the mid-1980s while a law student and became a party activist. State Republican chairman Audrey Scott still remembers the eager volunteer who started at the bottom in Prince George’s County. “If you needed to wave signs, if you needed to stuff envelopes, he was never above it,” she says.
Steele tells another story about joining the GOP. Attending his first party dinner in 1988, he was disappointed to find himself shunned by almost everyone there.
“Now, it’s not like I didn’t stand out at this event,” he wryly said to the Hopkins magazine. “For one thing, I was the tallest person in the room.”
When he told his friends about it, they were incensed, Steele says. “They were like, ‘See, I told you these Republicans, they don’t give a damn. They just don’t like blacks.’ ”
He had been raised in a Democratic family, and college classmates have described him as liberal back then. Steele says Ronald Reagan inspired him to become a Republican. Reagan’s traditional social values were in sync with those taught by his mother, who rejected welfare because, Steele said she told him, “I didn’t want the government raising my children.” He views public service and his involvement as both “a passion” and “a calling.” Says Steele: “This is an extension of the vocation that I pursued in the monastery.”
His determination to push through the rejection from fellow Republicans strikes some as evidence of a determined work ethic and others as opportunism. University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, who has followed Steele’s career, points out that for an aspiring black politician, the Republican Party offers at least one advantage: “The line is shorter.”
By 1994, Steele had become chairman of the county central committee in Prince George’s, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by better than five to one. When he helped defeat a 1996 Democratic ballot initiative to repeal the county’s property-tax cap, senior Maryland Republicans took notice. They encouraged him to run for public office.
His first try—in 1998, for Maryland comptroller—was a bust. Despite the support of top party leaders, he finished third in the Republican primary. That fall, frustrated in a bid to become chairman of the state Republican Party (a job he got two years later), he considered running for Congress. News of his plan leaked when former boxing champ Mike Tyson—then married to Steele’s sister, Monica—blurted it out to reporters at the Rockville courthouse after pleading no contest to assault charges.
For someone whose entire career has played out in the local area, Steele long remained a stranger to the national political scene in Washington. That may help explain why he’s still viewed warily by many on K Street and in Congress.
Last summer, at a private meeting with Republican congressional leaders, Steele was dressed down over what Senate Conference chairman Lamar Alexander regarded as Steele’s invasion of their turf: making policy for the party. Former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich—who served four terms in the House and keeps in close touch with former colleagues—says Hill Republicans are still trying to figure Steele out. “They didn’t know him,” Ehrlich says. “He just sort of came out of left field.”
As chairman, Steele has earned more than his share of criticism, but he’s made a name for himself—and built a following among rank-and-file voters around the country. The same probably can’t be said of his predecessor in the party post, a Kentucky banker named Mike Duncan, or even his more accomplished Democratic counterpart, former Virginia governor Tim Kaine.
The job that brought Steele to national attention had even less going for it than the one he holds now. It’s no accident that politicos refer to a lieutenant governor as “lite governor.” Some states don’t even have the position, and Maryland’s is among the weakest in the country. It’s left completely to the governor’s discretion, under the Maryland constitution, to decide what duties, if any, the lieutenant governor gets to perform.