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Way Back in 1998, Man of Steele Wasn’t Quite So Invincible

Today, he is a political superstar of the highest order, snagging a prime-time speaking gig at last year’s Republican National Convention. GOP powerbrokers have pledged to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million for his nascent Senate campaign. [IMGCAP(1)]

If, as expected, he runs for Senate, he’s facing a field of potential Democratic opponents that includes two Members of Congress, the former leader of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organization and two millionaires.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) couldn’t beat a couple of nobodies named Larry Epstein and Timothy Mayberry in a Republican primary for state comptroller.

“I’ll bet if you asked the average Maryland voter if they knew that Michael Steele ran for comptroller in 1998, they would say, ‘Huh?’” said Jim Dornan, a GOP consultant who has worked several races in the Free State.

But run he did. Steele, then a 39-year-old attorney, boasted little political experience going into the comptroller’s race: He was chairman of the Republican Party in the Democratic stronghold of Prince George’s County, which is akin to being an admiral in the Swiss Navy.

Prince George’s “didn’t have much of a Republican primary vote,” recalled Kevin Igoe, a GOP consultant who lived there at the time. If Steele was known at all beyond the borders of Prince George’s, it was as Mike Tyson’s brother-in-law.

Like most everyone who ran for comptroller that year, Steele became a candidate late — very late — in the election cycle.

For months before the July 6 filing deadline for the 1998 election, it looked as if the comptroller’s race would be a ho-hum rematch of 1994, between Mayberry, a banker, and the legendary Louis Goldstein (D), who was widely considered the most popular politician in Maryland history, who had served as comptroller for 40 years.

But on the night of July 3, Goldstein, who cheerily finished every speech he delivered with the bromide, “God bless y’all real good,” dropped dead beside his swimming pool at the age of 85. His death threw state politics into a frenzy, as parties and pols scrambled over the July Fourth weekend to adjust.

“We had a lot of conversations in that 72-hour period,” Steele recalled in an interview Monday.

So just hours before the filing deadline, Steele, and a whole host of others, jumped into the comptroller’s race. Steele ran with the endorsement of Ellen Sauerbrey, the 1994 Republican nominee for governor who was the favorite for the GOP nomination that year as well.

“He’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s a hard worker and he’s willing to stand up for what he believes in a county where being a Republican is not easy to do,” Sauerbrey said at the time.

The fact that Steele is black, Sauerbrey insisted, was a happy coincidence. Then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D), whom Sauerbrey was trying to defeat, called the endorsement “tokenism.”

Steele said he went into the primary “with my eyes wide open.”

Another last-minute entry into the comptroller’s race was Epstein, a CPA from Baltimore County who had been the Republican sacrificial lamb against Goldstein in 1990. Epstein didn’t want to challenge Goldstein in 1998 because the two had become friends on the campaign trail eight years earlier.

The two-month Republican primary for comptroller was almost entirely overshadowed by the Democratic primary, which brought the colorful former Gov. William Donald Schaefer out of retirement and ended — temporarily — a long-running feud between Schaefer and Glendening.

By contrast, the GOP race was seen largely as a contest between Steele and Mayberry, the favorite of party conservatives, who was bitter that Sauerbrey and most of the rest of the Republican establishment had forsaken him.

“I was the only one with the courage to run against Louis Goldstein,” Mayberry complained to The Associated Press shortly before the primary. “Then this guy pops up at the last minute and it’s a politically motivated endorsement.”

As the election neared, Steele did not sound as if he were confident of victory. He told an interviewer that if he lost, he would undoubtedly try to run for office again.

“Politically, I think Maryland and I have a future together,” he said.

Steele did lose, finishing third in the crowded primary, with 21 percent of the vote. Epstein and Mayberry each took 23 percent, with Epstein finishing just 300 votes ahead of Mayberry in the initial count. In a subsequent recount, the margin of victory was reduced to a mere eight votes.

Republican analysts saw several different reasons for Epstein’s upset victory. For starters, Sauerbrey had a competitive primary, and she was pulling voters from her Baltimore County home turf, which she shared with Epstein. What’s more, Steele’s base in the Washington, D.C., suburbs was relatively small in a statewide GOP primary. And equally significant, some voters may have simply thought that Larry Epstein was Louie Goldstein.

“If Michael had gotten in earlier, or if the campaign had lasted a little later, he probably would have won,” said Dornan, who was Sauerbrey’s campaign manager in 1998. “He definitely ran the best campaign of the bunch of them.”

But Dornan conceded that while Steele’s political potential was evident back then, he was also a very green candidate.

So how do you go from losing to Larry Epstein and Timothy Mayberry to being recruited to run for Senate by President Bush and a host of Republican luminaries?

In late 2000, Steele became the state GOP chairman. And in mid-2002, he was tapped by the Republican gubernatorial nominee, then-Rep. Bob Ehrlich, to be the candidate for lieutenant governor. Ehrlich and Steele went on to an upset victory that November and Steele, a forceful partisan advocate who also came to symbolize the Republicans’ efforts to recast themselves and broaden their appeal, was given part of the credit.

As one of the very few black Republicans elected statewide, he immediately was thrust into the national spotlight.

As for Epstein and Mayberry, they largely faded from public view. Mayberry, who could not be reached for comment, unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) in the 2000 Congressional primary. Epstein did not respond to messages left at his accounting office in Baltimore County.

During a conference call with reporters two weeks ago, when he announced the formation of his Senate exploratory committee, Steele mused on the circumstances of his political rise.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I certainly never thought I’d be the lieutenant governor of Maryland. But the opportunity presented itself.”

Steele also said the 1998 experience will help him next year.

“There was no downside in that race for me,” he said.

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