What would you call a man born into poverty who became a success in spite of many obstacles? You'd probably call him an inspiration and invite him to speak at your next business convention.
Suppose that man from humble roots is black? He might be a keynote speaker at the next NAACP gathering or the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Except that this man is not a Democrat. He's a Republican and a conservative. What would you call him now -- an ''Oreo,'' an ''Uncle Tom,'' a ''token''?
Maryland Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele, who is running for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes, has been called these names -- and worse -- by Democratic leaders in his state.
Their problem, which is the problem most Democrats have with blacks who have Steele's work ethic and political pedigree, is that he became a success without their help.
A profile of Steele in the April issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine by writer Jim Duffy reveals the source of Democrat angst. Steele didn't waste time singing ''We Shall Overcome.'' He overcame. His mother, Maebell Turner, born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, dropped out of school to work in the tobacco fields. While still a teenager, she and her mother moved to Washington, D.C., where she got a job in a laundromat. She worked there for 45 years. She married what Duffy describes as an ''abusive, philandering alcoholic'' who died at age 36, leaving two young children behind.
Steele was born in 1958. He lists his mother, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan as his three heroes.
Steele says his mother was urged to accept welfare when his father died, but that she refused. Years later, he asked her why. Steele quotes his mother as saying, ''I didn't want the government raising my children.'' Eventually, Maebell married Steele's stepfather, John Turner, a truck driver. They managed to send her children to Catholic school, which Steele credits with contributing to his success.
He was admitted to Johns Hopkins University, but when his grades were substandard, he was invited not to return. His mother urged him to go back. Three times he petitioned the dean of students to give him a second chance. Three times the dean refused.
Steele persisted, and the dean told him to enroll in four summer courses the dean would select at George Washington University. Steele did, and when he brought back straight A's, he was allowed back into Hopkins, from which he graduated. He later earned a law degree at Georgetown University.
''Hopkins gave me a second chance,'' Steele told Johns Hopkins Magazine. ''But before it gave it to me, it told me to straighten up, to recognize your priorities and to do what you're responsible for. ... That sounded a lot like my mom.''
This is not the modern Democratic Party message, which teaches victimhood and government dependency, telling blacks they can't make it on their own. Steele rejects such thinking. He tells blacks their best political future lies in the Republican Party, through which they can build vibrant businesses and decent schools.
The Baltimore Sun, with which Steele and Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. have a running feud, said of Steele during the 2002 campaign: ''Michael S. Steele brings little to the ticket but the color of his skin.'' In response, Steele said, ''It's an ignorant statement meant to diminish what I represent.'' He became the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland history.
Liberal Democrats are worried about success stories like those of Michael Steele, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas. While discussing the demographic makeup of the Supreme Court in a Nov. 1 editorial, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel implied Justice Thomas isn't really black and that he ''deserves an asterisk because he arguably does not represent the views of mainstream black America.''
I have news for those who think this way. The so-called ''mainstream'' of black America, as represented by race-hustlers like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, doesn't represent the best interests of black America. The work and personal ethics of people like Steele, Powell, Rice and Thomas do.
Michael Steele should be elected to the United States Senate from Maryland, not only because he is qualified, but because he would provide a sharp contrast to the Democratic Party and its plantation mentality. Currently, the only black in the Senate is Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democrat.
Steele's inspiring story should serve as an example not only to blacks, but to all Americans.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist and a host on Fox News Channel. Readers may leave e-mail at www.calthomas.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Thursday.