Friends, foes frown on Steele's paid speeches

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele drew bipartisan criticism Tuesday after it was revealed that he is giving paid speeches, at up to $20,000 apiece, while still holding his full-time post as party head.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor, who was elected chairman of the party in January, has given a dozen speeches to corporate boards and colleges while collecting a salary of $223,500 as the leader of the party, the Washington Times reported Tuesday.

Former RNC chairman Richard Bond said he was "shocked" by the news, while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs joked about it at Tuesday's briefing. Democrats said their current party chairman, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, does not collect speaking fees.

Curt Anderson, a longtime adviser to Steele, said the party chairman has long worked as an "inspirational speaker" and continued to do so after taking the helm of the RNC. Steele had made much of his income through speaking engagements and as a lawyer before taking over the RNC, Anderson said.

"When a state party calls or a coalition group calls, or a candidate calls, none of those are paid speeches," Anderson said, adding: "The suggestion that he is less than a full-time chairman is crazy."

Former Republican Party chairman and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore said on C-SPAN, "It's not uncommon for people to have some outside employment as well as being paid as national chairman." The interview was circulated to reporters by Steele aides.

Marc Racicot, who chaired the Republican Party from 2002 to 2003, eschewed the party chairman's salary during his tenure to remain on the payroll of a law firm where he worked, although he stopped lobbying while leading the RNC.

A number of top Republicans, both in and out of Washington, declined to comment publicly on the matter but privately noted the conundrum of Steele: Tapped for the job in January by a party eager to have a charismatic African American as one of its main public figures, he has become a lightning rod for controversy.

Remarks earlier in his tenure drew sharp attacks from Republican figures such as talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who urged Steele to focus more on fundraising and winning elections.

"I don't want to criticize one of my own," said Bond, who was party chairman in 1992 and 1993. "He's had a very difficult time."

Some strategists suggest that Steele has been weakened as a party spokesman through some of his comments, including a remark Monday that Democrats were "flipping the bird" at Americans by pushing health-care legislation through the Senate.

At the same time, even those critical of Steele acknowledge that Republican gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey last month, both aided by Steele's fundraising, have bolstered confidence in his leadership.

"The races in New Jersey and Virginia were a tide change for the Republican Party," said Katon Dawson, the ex-chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Dawson, who lost in the chairman's race to Steele, said "he'll be judged by the midterms."

One member of the RNC, which has representatives from each state, said privately that Steele's speeches were a "bad idea" but predicted they would have little impact on his keeping the chairmanship until the end of his two-year term next year. The full committee, which will meet in January in Honolulu, could pass a resolution curtailing Steele's ability to give speeches or even consider replacing him, but is unlikely to do so.

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