Michael Steele's personal history is filled with seeming contradictions and unexpected twists.

Raised by Democrat parents in Washington, Steele, 43, went on to join the Republican party as a young adult. After two years of study at an Augustinian Friars seminary in the 1980s, he abandoned a career as a priest to go to law school.

But perhaps the biggest anomaly about Steele is that he is a black Republican from overwhelmingly Democratic and majority black Prince George's County.

That may be his biggest asset.

Republicans and Democrats alike say it was a shrewd move by Robert Ehrlich to pick Steele as his running mate for governor because it gives the party an inroad with a traditional Democratic bloc -- black voters.

"Michael's been breaking barriers ever since he stepped into the political arena," said Audrey Scott, the lone Republican on the Prince George's County Council.

Steele was elected head of the state Republican party two years ago, becoming the only black GOP party chairman in the nation.

He grew up in Washington, attending Catholic schools and eventually Johns Hopkins University. He studied for the priesthood at Villanova University, but left to attend Georgetown University law school, earning a degree in 1991. He practiced law for six years and now runs a business and legal consulting firm.

Affable and articulate, Steele has close personal ties that blur party lines. It's a trait he's had since his childhood, according to his stepfather John Turner, 70.

"He was always jolly and talkative. He talked to anybody and everybody," Turner said.

He now lives in Largo with his two sons and wife, a one-time executive at Riggs Bank, and attends St. Mary's church in Landover Hills. His sister, Monica Tyson, was married to boxer Mike Tyson but filed for divorce earlier this year.

Steele was active in party politics for several years, serving as chairman of the Republican Central Committee for Prince George's County from 1994 to 2000 and was a delegate to the GOP presidential convention in 2000. He also ran for comptroller in 1998, losing in the Republican primary.

When he ran for state party chairman in 2000, Steele downplayed race in his platform. But he has tried to reach out to black voters since then, saying there is room for them in a party that is traditionally majority white, according to current Prince George's GOP chairman Richard Landon.

That includes Steele's advocacy for single-member districts for the General Assembly during the recent redistricting process.

The plan allows Delegates to run in their own district instead of the current system, where three House lawmakers elected at large in one district. In smaller individual districts, the theory holds, minority candidates have a better chance of winning seats because minority votes would not be diluted in a larger electorate.

"He's got a lot of bright ideas for the party," Landon said. "I think he will add a lot to the ticket."

Ehrlich has made clear he plans to target voters in the Washington region, including blacks who Republicans say have been ignored by the Democrats despite their loyalty to the party.

Prince George's County is overwhelmingly Democrat, according to voter registration figures that show 295,700 Democrats and 56,500 Republicans as of June 28th. It's also largely black, with roughly 500,000 black residents out of a total population of 800,000, according to the 2000 census.

Having Steele as a running mate will help Ehrlich get his message out in the county, said Delegate Rushern Baker III, a black Democrat who heads the county's General Assembly delegation and is close friends with Steele.

"Michael is going to bring a large credibility to the ticket in terms of people from Prince George's County," Baker said.

But Steele will have to make sure that the Ehrlich campaign and state Republicans keep their message of inclusiveness, said Virginia Kellogg, head of the Prince George's Black Republicans. She says she's been frustrated in the past that the state GOP hasn't reached out to black Republicans.

"The Republican party has got to make sure that we black Republicans feel included. With Michael Steele on the ticket we're looking for that inclusiveness," she said.