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April 8, 2010

NC GOP Chairman Calls on Steele to Resign

The chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party has become the first member of the Republican National Committee to call on Michael Steele to step down as party chairman in the wake of a spending scandal.

Tom Fetzer, in a two-page letter to Steele dated Thursday, said that "the best service" Steele could render the party would be to "graciously step aside and allow the party to move on from this current quagmire."

His demand draws fresh attention to an episode, now nearing the end of its second week, that Steele had hoped was behind him.

An RNC spokeswoman, Katie Wright, responded that “Steele has maintained broad support from RNC committee members, who have been pleased with the proactive measures put in place for greater accountability. Most importantly the RNC remains focused on raising money and winning elections in North Carolina and across the country this fall."

Fetzer becomes the first RNC official to call for Steele's resignation this month, but it is not the first time that a national committee member has called for Steele's head. In March, 2009, an RNC member--also from North Carolina--said that Steele should step aside because of "eroding confidence" in his leadership.

That demand in 2009--from Ada Fisher, one of the three black members of the RNC--came after a series of early verbal stumbles by Steele. The effort to oust him went nowhere.

Most Republicans have said that it is unlikely that Steele will be forced out before his current term ends early next year.

But over the past two weeks, the former Maryland lieutenant governor's hold on his job has clearly slipped.

The triggering incident was an enormous wave of negative publicity over nearly $2,000 in party money that was spent by the RNC to entertain prospective young donors at a lesbian-themed topless club in West Hollywood. Steele was not present at the event, fired the staffer involved and has since forced out his top staff aide in a shakeup designed to move beyond the episode.

However, the spending flap has prompted wider criticism of Steele's management of the national party, which has been forced to trim some of its 2010 campaign plans in response to what some are calling a financial deficit. It also allowed long simmering opposition to Steele to surface again.

He now finds himself largely surrounded by a group of former campaign aides and longtime associates from his home state, a Maryland mafia that some critics dismiss as a collection of yes men and women and that others describe as enablers.

Several political consultants who had been working with Steele have parted company with him recently, amid reports that he refused to heed their advice. One of them, Alex Castellanos, called for Steele to resign, while an RNC member from New Hampshire said recently he was quitting the party committee in protest.

Even many Steele detractors, though, have said the party would be hurt more by a public effort to dethrone the RNC's first African-American chairman.

Perhaps the key to his survival in his post, according to some party insiders, will be the amount of money that donors contribute to the RNC over the next six weeks to two months.

Republican anger over the Democratic health care law helped push contributions to the RNC to a record level in March (though its Democratic counterpart raised even more). However, donor reaction--if any--to the negative publicity over the RNC's spending habits is only now being measured.

Since his surprise election in January, 2009, the story of Steele's performance as chairman has been a complex one, with a rise-and-fall-and rise-again trajectory driven largely by his own performance.

As recently as last fall, he was riding high after off-year elections that featured major Republican victories around the county. But he has slid over the past four months, the result of a series of events related to his efforts to make money on the side and, critics say, to promote himself at the party's expense.

But it wasn't until the latest events that the overall perception of Steele flipped, for the first time, from a glass-half-full image to a half-empty one. As a result, his job is on the line now in a way that it hasn't been before.

Posted by Paul West at 6:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Michael Steele

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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.
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