Democrats Question Fundraising Source of Maryland Senate Hopeful Steele

Two men associated with past campaigns that some regarded as racially objectionable are helping raise money for Republican Michael Steele's run for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Maryland Democrats say the association could hamper Steele, the state's first black lieutenant governor, and his attempt to attract a portion of black voters to the Republican banner.

A fundraiser Thursday for the lieutenant governor's Senate campaign was thrown by Floyd Brown, producer of the Willie Horton advertisement, which helped scuttle the Democratic presidential bid of Michael Dukakis in 1988 by tying the Massachusetts governor to the release of a black convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

At an earlier event, Steele received money from Alex Castellanos, who was behind a "White Hands" ad used by then-Sen. Jesse Helms in a 1990 election in North Carolina where he narrowly defeated black Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt. The ad showed a pair of white hands tearing up a letter as the narrator said: "You needed that job...but they gave it to a minority." The advertisement drew scathing criticism from Democrats, who called it a blatant racist attack on Gantt.

Both campaigns were described at the time by critics as cynical attempts to inject racism into campaigns to benefit Republican candidates.

Maryland Democrats say Steele should not be taking money from the men behind those ads.

"Why would he go for money to those who have done us harm?" asked Elbridge James, a former leader of the Montgomery County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But Steele told The Washington Post he sees nothing wrong with his fundraising activities.

"I appreciate all the support I get from members of my party," he said. "The way I look at it, if I am in the United States Senate, I'll be a voice at the table that's probably not been appreciated that much in the past."

National Republican leaders recruited Steele to run for the Senate when Democrat Paul Sarbanes announced he would not seek re-election. GOP leaders believe Steele offers them a rare chance at winning a Senate seat in Maryland. Steele was promised plenty of help raising money by national GOP leaders, and top party officials from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on down have already been headliners at his fundraisers.

Steele's hopes for victory are based on peeling away a portion of black Marylanders who vote overwhelmingly Democratic in Maryland.

Isiah Leggett, former state Democratic chairman, says accepting support from people such as Castellanos and Brown will make it heard for Steele to make inroads among black voters.

"He should be smart enough to see the inconsistency there," he said.

Steele said Democrats are trying to apply a double standard.

"When I look across the aisle, I see a Democratic leader who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said, referring to Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd from West Virginia, who has said his membership in the Klan as a young man was "a major mistake."

"That doesn't stop Democrats from taking his money," Steele said.