WASHINGTON -- As the presidential primaries turn to South Carolina, the first state with a significant African-American voting bloc, the politics of race are coming into sharper focus.
The state has a long history of nasty campaigns, usually exploitive of the fears of white voters. It's the birthplace of Lee Atwater -- famed Republican operative and creator of the infamous Willie Horton ad -- and it's the site of one of the worst smear jobs in presidential campaign history: the 2000 whisper campaign that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had fathered an illegitimate black child.
But as the political world waits to see if there will be a repeat of those dirty tricks, it's worth noting that South Carolina doesn't have a monopoly on race-baiting politics.
During his run for lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2002, Michael Steele was the subject of both endless fascination and insinuation. A rising African-American Republican, he recalled in an interview with "Candidate Confessional" being called an Uncle Tom and having his own neighborhood overrun with yard signs essentially calling him a sellout.
But one incident in particular remains unsettled lore.
The incident took place at some point during a 2002 gubernatorial debate at Morgan State University, which Steele attended. “After the debate ... we’re all standing around in the auditorium afterwards and I look down at my feet and someone had tossed or rolled Oreo cookies … at me and I’m like what the hell is this bullshit, you know?" Steele told Candidate Confessional.
Oreos -- black on the outside, white on the inside -- were a pretty overused putdown of black GOP members.
Steele’s allegations didn’t get a lot of scrutiny at the time. But reporters revisited the incident a few years later when Steele ran for a U.S. Senate seat. The Baltimore Sun pointed out that Steele’s version of events had differed from another witness, an aide to the governor. Whereas Steele had said the Oreos came after the debate, the aide recalled the Oreos flying at the beginning. “It was raining Oreos," the aide said. "They were thick in the air like locusts. I was there. It was very real. It wasn't subtle."
To add to the intrigue, there were those who denied the incident ever happening at all. A member of the clean-up crew told the Sun that they hadn't found any Oreos after the debate. In an item in Poynter on the coverage of the incident, former Sun reporter and current host and executive producer of Serial, Sarah Koenig didn’t recall seeing any Oreos flying during the debate. “The air was not thick with anything except political bullshit," she said.
Today, Steele is still sticking with his story. In response to an email with links to the Sun and Poynter pieces, he said the following:
The Baltimore Sun article is bullshit. Remember this is the same Newspaper that discounted my nomination as 'bringing nothing to the ticket other than the color of my skin.' I forgot to mention that little tidbit of racism. You can Call Gov. Ehrlich, Greg Massoni—who were there. There were many others standing around when it happened which is why I’ve always been amused when the Sun and others said they could not ‘verify' it happened. We can have another conversation about race and the media in my campaign, lol.
Steele provided contact information for Massoni, a former press secretary to his old boss Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. In a response to an email inquiry, Massoni wrote: “I was there and unfortunately saw first hand that Oreo Cookies were thrown at Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele.”
Steele was clearly upset by the incident, as well as those that would follow during his subsequent runs for office. And during the interview, he made it clear that they had an effect.
“You can’t be black when you’re a candidate,” Steele said.
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