Rep.-elect Michelle Steel saw firsthand how crushing taxes hurt her mom’s Los Angeles clothing shop, and she’s determined to stand up for small businesses in Congress.
Steel got her start in politics in 2006 by successfully running for the California State Board of Equalization that hit her mother with an “unwarranted” tax bill years ago. She prides herself as being a taxpayer advocate who worked to return security deposits owed to small businesses worth $400 million in that role.
Now, she’s focused on repealing the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions — part of President Trump’s tax-cut bill in 2017 — which has hit Californians hard. She also wants to cut taxes and regulations on small businesses that she calls the “backbone” of the American economy.
“When they prosper, the economy is going to grow,” Steel, 65, told Fox News in a recent interview.
Steel will be sworn in Sunday as part of a history-making class of GOP freshman members of Congress who defied all expectations in November by flipping 13 blue seats.
The GOP gains were most evident in the Golden State, where Steel, Young Kim and David Valadao ousted sitting House Democrats for the first time since 1994, and GOP Rep. Mike Garcia held onto a fourth toss-up seat that he flipped in May during a special election.
Steel is among the record-breaking freshman class of 18 Republican women. She also makes history with Kim and Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., as the first Korean American women elected to Congress.
But Steel is no stranger to winning. She was elected twice to the Board of Equalization, where she represented 9 million people in her region, making her the country’s highest-ranking Korean American office-holder. Then she was twice elected Orange County supervisor, where she spent 2020 leading the coronavirus response.
“This is my fifth election and I won all five,” Steel said of her ascension to Congress.
Steel was born in South Korea to parents who fled North Korea and raised in Japan because her father was a diplomat. Fluent in Korean and Japanese, Steel initially came to the United States when she was 19 to improve her English skills. But when her father passed away, her mom and sisters moved to the U.S. to start a new life.
She said her success as a first-generation immigrant is a testament to the American dream and the trust that voters put in her to carry out common-sense reforms to make government better.
“The American dream is still alive,” said Steel, a wife and mother of two children. “I see a lot of our younger generations that really blame America, and they don’t know what they have.
“I want to show them that you have to appreciate how great America is. … This is a great country: With my accent, running for five times and [winning] all five.”
Steel defeated one-term Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda to win the 48th Congressional District seat in coastal Orange County. She campaigned for the highly competitive seat while being at forefront of the coronavirus response as chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
“Since the pandemic came, it was very tough balancing my work full-time and campaigning. I was just praying, ‘God, just give me 48 hours,’ because 24 hours was not really enough,” Steel said.
Steel said she supported social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and protecting vulnerable populations, but she fought against mask mandates, calling them unenforceable. She questioned the science behind them at one point.
She called out Newsom’s hypocrisy for getting caught at a dinner party at the luxurious French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley, while telling others to stay home. “Do what I tell you to do, but don’t do what I do,” Steel said of Newsom’s blunder, for which he has since apologized.
Steel, whose husband Shawn Steel is a former California Republican Party chairman, believes in securing the Mexican border with a physical barrier, lowering taxes, opposing abortion, fighting socialized medicine and ending “sanctuary” cities and states.
Under her leadership, Orange County was the first to introduce a resolution in 2018 opposing a state law that prevents local law enforcement agencies from using their resources for federal immigration enforcement. Steel, who says the law allows “illegal criminals” to be set free instead of deported, got heat for her stance.
“They were attacking me [saying] ‘You are a first-generation immigrant and you’re going against immigrants.’ I said no. Public safety comes first,” Steel said.
In Congress, Steel will have to overcome strong GOP opposition if she wants to repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions. Up until Trump’s tax bill, taxpayers could deduct the full amount of their state and local tax bills on their federal taxes. The deduction really helped residents in high-tax states like California and New York.
But Republicans three years ago put a cap on the amount of non-federal taxes that could be deducted at $10,000. Democrats and some Republicans in high-tax states have been trying to repeal the cap to no avail as Republicans in the heartland argue they shouldn’t be helping out blue states.
Steel said the repeal is needed because too many people are suffering.
“It’s not really a bailout because we used to deduct everything to begin with,” Steel said. “We really have to help people to keep more money in their pocket. So we have to look at individuals and not at states. You try to punish the state, but that’s going to hurt the constituents. We really have to work on that.”
Years ago, Steel’s mom didn’t have the know-how and resources to fight a new California tax bill as she was closing up her menswear clothing store to open a sandwich shop. She eventually acquiesced and paid the extra taxes that she didn’t owe, plus interest and penalties, Steel said.
That experience helped shape Steel’s political career and is the driving force behind the taxpayer advocate mantra she’s bringing to Washington.
“I want to help small businesses,” Steel said. “That’s the way my political life started.”