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Former Lt. Gov Steele Talks to Osher about RNC, Politics

Michael Steele, former Maryland lieutenant governor and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, had, by any measure, a challenge before him when he spoke to an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class at Johns Hopkins Montgomery County.

It’s safe to say most students in Prof. Michelle Bernard’s Public Policy course are Democrats or lean that way. Yet many still said they were impressed by Steele’s lecture to the class, even if they don’t agree with his politics.

“He was incredible,” said Cicily Iacangelo, an Osher student. “Based on the leanings of the class, he really handled everybody really well.”

Steele graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1981 with a degree in international relations. After spending three years in a monastery and having a career as a lawyer, Steele was elected Maryland’s lieutenant governor, serving from 2003-2007 and holding the distinction of being the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland.

He was later elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, a role he held from 2009 until his ouster in 2011. He is now an analyst for MSNBC.

Prof. Bernard invited him to speak because she said she believes class discussions should reflect the political diversity of the nation and the class.

“Although the majority of the students in class are left-of-center, there are a few students who identify themselves as ‘closet Republicans,’ ‘Lincoln Republicans’ or as conservatives,” Bernard said.  “This year, one member of the group told me he listens to Rush Limbaugh's radio show every day, and yes, he lives in Montgomery County! One of the things I've learned in politics, policy and life is that it is very hard to demonize someone once you meet and actually talk with that person.”

To prepare her students for the class, Bernard assigned the reading of the 2012 Republican Party platform.

“I had nothing to do with that,” Steele said, alluding to his ouster as chairman of the RNC.

Bernard also had her students read the Democratic Party platform.

“I had nothing to do with that one either,” Steele said, eliciting laughter from the Osher students.Photo of Michael Steele

From there, Steele told the Osher students about his background and his close relationship with his mother. She taught him the value of community service; Steele decided to turn that into public service and dove into politics.

“It’s like this great drug,” Steele said of politics. “You just ingest it, and it’s legal.”

He said he learned the importance of grassroots politics and came to treasure his mother’s advice: “Just shut up and listen.”

He talked about his inspirations: his mom, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, former D.C. official Joseph Yeldell, and a young Marion Barry.

Steele talked about his struggles as chairman of the RNC, a time he called his “hell on earth. And I say that with affection.” He said the party he joined when he was 17 and the party he was leading were two different parties, and he struggled to reconcile the two. He said he had a tough time making the GOP relevant to a new generation.

Bernard led the class through a spirited question and answer session, where Steele fielded questions and spoke about the sequester, the gun debate, immigration, the Affordable Care Act and the Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court case.

One student asked Steele whom he predicts will lead the party in the future. Steele rattled off names including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, House Speaker Eric Cantor, former vice presidential candidate and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

Some Osher students cringed upon hearing some of those names, but they also admired Steele’s perseverance with a mostly Democratic crowd.

Osher student Marty Adler said he appreciated hearing from someone with viewpoints different from his own. He would rather not listen to speakers “preaching to the choir,” he said.

Osher student Mort Schwartz said Steele offered up an “absolutely brilliant, smooth presentation.  He pointed out both sides are at fault with the problems of sequester.” Schwartz said he learned “how you can be reasonably honest with a hostile audience with humor and intelligence and not arrogance. He defused it with humor. It was a real lesson on schmoozing.”


Johns Hopkins Montgomery County asked Bernard why she decided to invite Michael Steele to her class, what she hoped her students gained from listening to someone they might not agree with and more. Here are excerpts from her responses:

Rather than rushing to judgment about an individual because of the stereotype associated with one's political affiliation, as Americans, we need to take the time to talk with others we may disagree with and then try our best to find areas of common ground so that we can move the nation forward together.  Additionally, I think that we can teach one another.  There are arguments that members of the two major political parties make that are good for the country, but if we don't talk with one another and do our best to learn from one another, nothing will change. …

I wanted to provide my class with an opportunity to ask Michael how the party of Lincoln devolved into what it is today.  My students listened to Michael and he listened to them.  That's how we start to change the nature of political discourse in our great nation.  Everyone learned something and the State of Maryland and the nation is better because of it.  …

This year, I decided that I would be the "moderator" of each class (think of John McLaughlin on The McLaughlin Group or David Gregory on Meet the Press) and would lead discussions between guest speakers and my class.  Additionally, I decided to split the class in halves.  Each week, half of the class would represent Democrats and the other class would represent Republicans (you alternate what side you are on every week).  I assigned readings to prepare for class based upon what side you would be representing that week. …During class, each group was challenged to play Devil's advocate and make arguments/pose questions to the guest speaker channeling either Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes on the left and Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter on the right. Ninety-nine percent of the class was happy on the weeks they were Democrats and were assigned materials from the Center for American Progress and most people were unhappy when they were assigned to the right.  But here's what was magical about my experiment: Everyone in class was forced to think about things in a way different from what they are accustomed to.  This is how change begins.  It's been a great experiment and is the way we will move the nation forward.  We'll find areas of common ground and move forward.  Also, if you can understand what your opponent thinks and why, you are in a better place to try to convince them of the error of their ways or devise an offensive, winning strategy to defeat their proposed policies.