By Ira N. Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC)
The Republican National Committee’s (RNC) selection of Michael Steele as RNC Chairman has elicited a wave of positive reaction from political pundits. Republicans, as could be expected, praised the pick; Democrats and progressives reluctantly agreed that the Steele victory was good news for the GOP. No one denies Steele’s oratory skills or his political prowess.
However, one quality that no one has examined is Steele’s moral backbone. When John F. Kennedy released his classic “Profiles in Courage” in 1955, he recounted stories of politicians who risked their careers by standing up for principles. Steele is an unlikely candidate for a future edition of Profiles.
Steele flunked the moral courage test on November, 7, 2006, when he was the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Maryland. As Election Day approached, one of Steele’s supporters, Emma Jean Thompson, distributed flyers in African-American neighborhoods, attacking Steele’s Jewish opponent. The headline stated, “Ben Cardin Promises to attack Jesus Christ, Pastors, Churches and Christians and to Take Away Blacks’ Freedom If He Is Elected.” The flyer listed issues, including same sex marriage and abortion, and stated that Steele is “for what Jesus says” and Cardin is “against what Jesus says.” The flyer went on to announce “Cardin VS Christ” and asked readers to “Vote for Michael Steele.”
Thompson, who is co-pastor of Integrity Church International in Landover, Maryland, attended Steele’s pre-election press conference. She made her attacks in the name of “Black Women in Maryland” and had the flyers distributed at Churches in Prince Georges County, Maryland.
On election morning 2006, stories about this flyer appeared in the Washington Post and in an Associated Press story. The publications also reported on how Steele intentionally misled African American voters about his party affiliation and endorsements of a number of prominent Democratic African American elected officials. The press gave Michael Steele and his campaign an opportunity to denounce the outlandish bigotry of his supporters, but he declined to do so.
Immediately after the election, Jewish community leadership privately contacted then Lt. Governor Steele to ask him to repudiate these anti-Semitic attacks. Steele stonewalled for more than two weeks. Finally near the end of November, Steele sent a letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington indicating that he did not approve or distribute these flyers. He repudiated the flyer’s “intolerance and insensitivity.” Reflecting the frustration of local Jewish leadership who had worked with Steele, a spokesman for the JCRC told the Washington Jewish Week: “We do wish the response would have been more timely,” but “better late than never.”
None of this makes Steele an anti-Semite or a bigot. What it does say is that when faced with a choice between political expediency and denouncing bigotry, Steele chose expediency.
The GOP faces some momentous challenges in the wake of a failed George W. Bush presidency and the historic election of President Barack Obama. The RNC could use a truly inspiring and moral leader. They could have done better than Michael Steele.