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Maryland Senate Hopeful Gains Backing of Hip-Hop Mogul, Calls for Wage Hike

Republican Michael Steele called Thursday for a higher minimum wage and more federal action to fight poverty at a fundraiser headlined by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, told a crowd of about 300 at a posh evening reception that the government should put more focus on fighting poverty, especially in Gulf Coast areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

"We're not just going to talk about poverty" if elected, he said, but would "relieve this nation of the scourge of poverty."

Steele was endorsed by Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and head of Phat Farm clothing lines.

"Every time we have a discussion, it boils down to the same two things: education and opportunity," Simmons told the crowd.

Steele's call for a higher minimum wage puts him in opposition to his running mate four years ago, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Ehrlich vetoed a minimum wage hike passed by the Democratic legislature, though lawmakers overrode the vote last winter, putting Maryland's minimum wage at $6.15.

"Unlike a lot of Republicans, I believe we need to raise the minimum wage," Steele said to cheers from the crowd. But he added that a national wage hike should be coupled with lower taxes for business owners.

Steele also said, "There are not enough people from either party who will even say anything about poverty."

Steele's campaign aides didn't say how much the event raised, though guests paid from $35 to hear the speeches to $500 to attend a reception beforehand with Steele and Simmons. Attendees dined on shrimp, chicken and fruit and cheese at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, where an ice sculpture of a man holding a "Steele in 06" sign was on the buffet line.

Earlier in the day, Simmons joined Steele at a back-to-school rally for children at the Laurel Boys & Girls Club.

Steele introduced the entrepreneur as "my buddy Russell Simmons" to several dozen schoolchildren, most of them black. Steele said he became friends with Simmons two and a half years ago because the two share interests in minority entrepreneurship and housing.

"We want to make sure you have the strongest foundation to stand on," Steele said.

Simmons hugged the lieutenant governor and told the children to "take school seriously."

"I just came to remind you already have every blessing you'll ever need," said Simmons, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans.

"To be happy is only your own choice. To be successful in the world is only your own choice."

Simmons isn't new to politics. Last year in New York, he endorsed Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg's re-election. And in 2003, Simmons famously negotiated with New York's governor and top legislative leaders on mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Steele is seeking to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes in a state where Democratic Party registrations outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. For some adults who watched the Boys & Girls Club event, Simmons' appearance with Steele made them more likely to consider voting Republican this year.

"I think it's pretty cool" that Simmons appeared with Steele, said 33-year-old Vernon Branch of District Heights. "A guy like Russell Simmons, I grew up watching him in New York. For a guy like Michael Steele to be associated with him, I think it's a beautiful thing."

Robert Crawford, 53, teaches boxing and martial arts at the Boys & Girls Club and said he thought Simmons' appearance would impress young black voters far more than Steele's earlier fundraisers with white Republicans, especially President Bush.

"I just find it interesting that he's a Republican and he's got Simmons behind him," said Crawford, 53. "Young people will really be impressed. That'll be a real feather in Steele's cap."