« Steele's urban hip hop GOP gets parodied | Main | Rod Rosenstein could stick around »

March 7, 2009

Republican Steele's biggest challenge isn't on television

The media have piled on poor Michael Steele.

From Rush Limbaugh’s radio network to the columns of the Baltimore Sun, the Republican national chairman got pummeled for his dumb remark on a comedy show that nobody watches. A few days after Steele’s appearance on D.L. Hughley Breaks the News, CNN quietly announced that it was dropping the program.

But Steele’s biggest challenge won’t be found in a TV studio. Instead, it lurks within the insular world of party politics.

As soon as he became chairman, the former Maryland lieutenant governor cleaned house at the national headquarters. Perhaps as many as a hundred people were let go.

Even some loyalists now fear he cut too deeply. And in his hunger to grace the airwaves, he hasn’t taken the time to plug those holes.

As a result, doubts are growing about Steele’s management skills, always the biggest question mark to many insiders.

It may sound more like the problems of a corporate CEO. But that’s what a chairman is.

Scoring points on the Sunday morning shows (where, incidentally, Steele’s been error-free so far) is less important than keeping the machinery humming. Doing the grunt work—banking hundreds of millions in donations, upgrading voter databases, launching opposition research, overseeing a large staff—provides the true measure of success.

A crushing recession figures to complicate Steele’s effort to attract contributions for the 2010 campaign. The enemy, meantime, has a popular leader in President Barack Obama, who helped Democrats build an edge in areas where Republicans once excelled: technology and finance.

“Michael’s biggest problem, obviously, during the chairmanship race, was, did he have the management skills, the leadership skills, to do the job?” said a member of Steele’s transition team. “People are starting to say, ‘Aha, he wasn’t ready.’”

“Personally, I wouldn’t have left my office until I had a chief of staff. He’s sitting here, five weeks later, with no chief of staff, no finance chairman, no political director, no national finance director, no legal counsel. Those are pretty big positions.”

Steele’s defenders argue that he was wise to order a month-long review of the national organization.

“Especially in light of the fact that we got our clocks cleaned for two straight elections, it would have been absolute malpractice to come into the RNC as if nothing had happened,” said Wisconsin state chairman Reince Priebus, who heads Steele’s transition team.

At the same time, Steele’s erratic performance as a spokesman has attracted an excessive amount of negative publicity. It damaged his perceived strength as a talking head, honed largely as a commentator within the friendly confines of Fox News Channel.

Steele says his job is to help craft a message and balance the opinions of various figures within the party. But in an NBC interview, he acknowledged that “I wasn’t that effective at it this week.”

The worst blunder--dissing Limbaugh while trying to sound hip--was “a rookie mistake” that Democrats were quick to exploit, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But (Steele) will figure it out.”

If he doesn’t, an all-too familiar Republican scenario could play out again.

It goes like this: In an effort to project a more diverse image, the party has developed a tendency--a very cynical and self-destructive one, in the eyes of some Republicans--to promote women and minorities before they’re ready for national scrutiny.

As a result, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been ruined. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will need a long time to recover from his disastrous debut as a national spokesman.

And Steele? The jury is still out. Republicans hope he can get his act together, though some think that he doesn’t take criticism well and doesn’t seem to recognize when he’s made mistakes.

One thing is obvious already: Whether he rises or falls, the whole media world will be watching.

Posted by Paul West at 8:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Michael Steele


Come on, Steele is a charismatic figure who's incompetent. He won't last another year.

Come to think of it, what has Michael Steele EVER managed? Even if he needs to review the inner workings of the RNC before making changes, he needs a chief of staff and other high level doers. Not naming anyone is a sign of inexperience that doesn't bode well for Republicans.

Has Steele finished his Death Penalty Report yet?

Instead of reporting on the Republican response to record spending, destroying the secret ballot (card-check), or any number of items, they're more interested in who Michael Steele likes or dislikes, that Michelle Obama wore a sleeveless shirt in the winter *gasp*, or what songs Obama's speechwriter listens to. Does this strike anyone else as ridiculous?

We're at a serious juncture in history. In this poster's opinion we're faced with a choice. A choice to become a complacent limited capitalist democracy with very little flexibility among classes (sort of status quo for everyone forever) or we can continue to be a nation that rewards the entrepenuerial spirit, innovation and allows people to work hard, work smart, and prosper. People differ in which they want.

In this overarching battle royale of ideals, we find ourselves figuring out why Michael Steele called Rush Limbaugh a buisnessman, why Barack Obama thought a NYT reporter was joking, and covering the aide to a Democrat congressman who passed while ignoring the passing of a delegate and county council president from Harford.

Maybe the problem isn't Michael Steele, Barack Obama, etc. Maybe the problem is the way they're covered.

Mr. Steele’s biggest obstacle is neither his inability to control his tongue nor his inability to manage his party.

He may move beyond his rookie gaffes, and sooner or later he’ll repopulate RNC headquarters with a fresh coterie of superannuated college Republicans, but he cannot hide from his recent record as a senate candidate.

If the 168 Republican National Committee members adequately vetted him, they knowingly chose for their party chairman a poltician who, together with his GOP ticket running mate, former-Gov. Bob Ehrlich, paid over $400,000 from campaign funds to Allied Berton, at the time a forfeited company controlled by a close Steele associate, with no logical explanation. The money paid to Allied Berton was donated in large and small amounts from friends and supporters, at least some of whom were regular people like your neighbors and mine, not just vested interests and institutional contributors.

This is not cable chatter; it’s a lot of money, and Mr. Steele and Mr. Ehrlich concealed the payments in a sneaky manner, spread through four different state and federal accounts in the final weeks of the 2006 campaign. Now that it’s been reported, GOP donors will want to know how Mr. Steele plans to spend their money going forward. Will he continue to pay donors’ money to companies like Allied Berton?

In today’s blogged, Twittered, and Youtube’d world, questions like that won’t go away, and before long, no matter how badly they do not want to, Mr. Steele, with or without the help of Mr. Ehrlich, is going to have to account in detail for the $417,000 paid to Allied Berton. If he cannot substantiate that money paid for actual goods and services, Mr. Steele and Mr. Ehrlich could be in lots of trouble.

But what if the information WBAL tv’s Jayne Miller reported Ehrlich operatives suggested is confirmed, that all or part of that $417,000 paid for the 2006 Election Day ploy to bus in ex-convicts from Philadelphia to pose as campaign volunteers and distribute fake endorsements featuring popular African American Democrats? Thanks to Mr. Steele’s new position, such a revelation would warrant a fresh and detailed look at that sordid episode—before a national audience this time.

Inevitably it would lead to a discussion Republican party stakeholders really don’t want to have—a discussion about how at the very moment the rest of the country is maybe, just maybe, getting it right on race, the 21st century descendant of the party of Lincoln can’t get beyond its own awkwardness and discomfort to broaden its appeal to the overwhelming majority of us, Americans of all stripes who have crossed the racial divide.

Because the Ehrlich-Steele bussing/fake endorsement ploy is a metaphor for the GOP’s racial conundrum. Absent the genuine article, Maryland’s two most prominent Republicans in recent memory went for the ersatz, which was about as phony as an “off the hook” Mr. Steele today’s national Republican chairman, imagining his “conservative party that stands on principles” can somehow find relevance in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings,” whatever that might mean.

There is one way for Mr. Steele to avoid a detailed accounting of the $417,000 paid to Allied Berton, and thereby the racial discussion his party does not want to have: That would be his resignation.

- Steve Lebowitz

Most likely the fired staff persons are partly behind this communications fiasco. He didn't watch his back when he fired the GOP life blood. What did he expect? Thanks.

Steve, if you repeat the same thing 400x, it does not necessarily make it true. Joe Steffen tried that with a fake rumor. Now you're trying to take a few facts and then add your own gossipy twists for something from years ago.

How about Sheila Dixon?
Nathaniel Exum?

“Johnathan” – What do you make of these facts?

1. Steele & Ehrlich paid $417,000 to Allied Berton LLC in the final weeks of the 2006 campaign:

Bob Ehrlich for MD 09-07-06 $34,241 food, transportation
Bob Ehrlich for MD 09-11-06 $11,646 transportation
Bob Ehrlich for MD 09-15-06 $40,000 salaries and other compensations
Bob Ehrlich for MD 09-29-06 $2,870 rent and other office expenses
Bob Ehrlich for MD 10-09-06 $30,000 salaries and other compensations
Bob Ehrlich for MD 11-01-06 $100,000 salaries and other compensations
Bob Ehrlich for MD 11-01-06 $10,721 rent and other office expenses

Steele for MD (FEC) 10-08-06 $15,000 political consulting
Steele for MD (FEC) 10-23-06$30,000 political consulting
Steele for MD (FEC) 11-04-06 $13,600 political consulting
Steele for MD (FEC) 11-07-06 $6,000 political consulting

Kristen Cox for MD 11-03-06$73,101 media (radio, tv, newspaper, billboards)

MD GOP Fed Acct 11-01-06 $50,000 vehicle rentals\volunteers

2. In the wee hours of Election Day 2006, Ehrlich and Steele filled 6 busses with indigent men recruited from a Philadelphia program for ex-offenders on the promise of 3 square meals and $100 each, delivered them to Maryland where Kendel Ehrlich gave them a pre-dwan pep talk and then sent into predominantly African American precincts to hand out literature suggesting popular African American Democrats endorsed Ehrlich and Steele.

3. Allied Berton LLC had been a forfeited entity for almost 12 months when Steele and Ehrlich made the payments totaling $417,000. Its owner applied for reinstatement a few weeks ago after news reports of Steele’s campaign irregularities emerged.

3. According to Allied Berton’s website, which lists a residential address at its place of business, it is an international commodities trading firm. Check out and form your own opinion about what kind of entity it might be.

4. Allied Berton’s owner, Sandy Roberts, has been quoted in news reports as Michael Steele’s confidante, and he hosted a tribute to Mr. Steel in New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention. The Ehrlich-Steele administration certified his firm, Olympic Supply, as a retail minority business enterprise even though he had no prior retail experience. That action paved the way for him to open multiple lucrative concessions at BWI in partnership with mega airport retailer Hudson News. The Sun reported that a Maryland DOT audit found grounds to question his independence from Hudson News, and a compliance audit is underway.

- Steve Lebowitz

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):


Headlines from The Baltimore Sun
About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Breaking News newsletter
When a big news event breaks, we'll e-mail you the basics with links to up-to-date details.
Sign up

Blog updates
Recent updates to news blogs
 Subscribe to this feed
Charm City Current
Stay connected