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GOP chairman Michael Steele is out front, attracting detractors

By Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A01

The camera pans across a bucolic river and a sunny cornfield, an American flag flapping in the breeze, as narrator Michael S. Steele waxes about the freedom to dream and achieve. Then, with the Statue of Liberty sweeping into the shot, comes a dire warning that freedom is fragile: Democrats, he says, are "experimenting with America."

The camera zooms in on a bespectacled Steele, who asks viewers for donations. "Our freedom," he says with a smile, "it's worth fighting for."

The television advertisement, which aired in selected markets last month, is vintage Steele -- affable, charismatic and seizing the spotlight. But the ad's star is not running for anything. He's the chairman of the Republican National Committee, with a mandate to promote his party rather than himself.

Steele has put a public face on what had been largely a behind-the-scenes job, hoping to foster what he has called a "hip-hop" Republican renaissance. That high profile has been accompanied by a record of lavish spending and a string of gaffes, leading some party activists to complain that Steele revels in the perks of the office while neglecting some of the onerous work necessary to reclaim majorities in the House and Senate. This narrative grew more damaging last week with the disclosure that RNC staffers approved a $1,900 bill at a Hollywood nightclub that features topless dancers mimicking lesbian sex acts while wearing bondage gear.

Still there have been no calls for Steele's ouster, and some top Republicans have calculated that there is no upside in forcing out the first black chairman of a party largely dominated by white Southerners -- especially not while the GOP is winning under his watch. Steele claimed credit for recent Republican victories in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, telling reporters in January: "I won two governorships and a host of special elections."

Steele, through a spokesman, declined several requests for interviews.

Some Republicans question Steele's contribution to the party's recent successes. Nevertheless, "to the victor go the spoils," said Ron Kaufman, a former RNC chairman who worked against Steele in the leadership race. "Is the party better off today than the day Michael Steele got elected? It's very hard to say no, on almost every level. . . . The bottom line is the coach gets the credit. They're paid to win, and we're winning."

Yet some prominent party leaders, including three former RNC chairmen, are sidestepping his operation with independent efforts to help Republicans win in the critical November midterm elections. And they are raising millions of dollars from the party's biggest donors, some of whom have stopped giving to the RNC amid the furor over Steele's leadership.

Mark DeMoss, who joined the ranks of big RNC donors after giving $15,000 in 2008, said he would not contribute to the RNC this year because he was offended by an internal fundraising strategy that surfaced last month featuring a caricature of President Obama as the Joker and linking Democratic leaders with socialism.

"I am ashamed," DeMoss said of the PowerPoint presentation. "It was an example of incivility . . . It's representative of a growing mind-set within Republican circles, and I don't want to associate with that."

Then came the nightclub story. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, e-mailed several hundred thousand supporters last week urging them not to give money to the RNC. "What I see is a pattern that suggests that they're tone deaf to the values and concerns of so many of the people they're looking to for financial support," Perkins said. "There are some cultural issues at the RNC."

Stepped out of a crowd

To understand how this one-term lieutenant governor from Maryland became his party's national chairman, go back to the day he was selected, Jan. 30, 2009. It was one week after Obama's historic inauguration, and many in the Republican Party were demoralized and seeking new direction.

In a crowded field of candidates for the chairmanship, Steele stood out -- a 6-foot-4, dapper, television-friendly former politician who spoke eloquently of expanding the party's base to include more blacks and Latinos. He offered a break with history as the first African American chairman of what he referred to over and over again as the "party of Lincoln."

"The party has really wallowed in the sewers of racial politics in the country," said NAACP President Ben Jealous, a longtime Steele friend. "Mike Steele is their chance to get back on higher ground."

Steele was distrustful of the staff he inherited and the Beltway strategists who cycled through the committee. "When they drink that Potomac River water awhile, it changes them, and Michael has tried never to drink that water," said John Kane, a close friend who ran the Maryland Republican Party when Steele was lieutenant governor.

So less than a week after his election, Steele asked each staffer to submit a resignation letter. They were told the chairman would decide who could stay, former aides recalled. He let dozens go.

In his early months, Steele, who had been a Fox News Channel commentator, gave several interviews that led to damaging blunders. On CNN, Steele dismissed Rush Limbaugh, a popular voice for the right, as an "entertainer" and said Limbaugh's radio talk show can be "incendiary" and "ugly." He told GQ magazine that abortion was "an individual choice," going against his party's antiabortion platform.

Meanwhile, he was making cosmetic changes to the party operation. Steele disliked the dark-wood furnishings in his office, telling GQ it was "way too male for me." So he had the RNC spend $18,500 on a new wooden desk, armchairs, a couch and art for the walls, according to aides.

When Steele hit the road to meet local volunteers and operatives, he often brought a photographer to document it all. At party headquarters in Washington, the hallways were decorated with jumbo-size pictures of Steele shaking hands.

Steele declined several requests for interviews for this report because he believes he has received unfair scrutiny from The Washington Post dating from his political career in Maryland, his spokesman Doug Heye said. "Profile after profile after profile by The Washington Post that almost borders on stalking," Heye said. "At a certain point you just stop taking it seriously."

This report is based on Steele's public comments and interviews with more than three dozen RNC members, donors, party strategists and state officials, as well as Steele's friends, political opponents and current and former aides. They portrayed a complex man who, like most people, is a combination of traits, not a 100 percent industrious political strategist or a feckless self-promoter.

Many of those interviewed spoke on the record, but in some cases they asked not to be identified to speak frankly or relate private meetings. One such meeting involved a visit Steele made to Capitol Hill a few days after his election that some said set the wrong tone. Calling on the party's congressional leaders, Steele showed up with an entourage that rivaled the president's: two sport-utility vehicles with a half-dozen aides and a driver, according to a congressional aide who was present.

By last fall, his relationship with congressional leaders had soured so much that they lashed out at Steele in a private meeting for outlining a policy agenda on health care. According to Republican aides present, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) forcefully told him: "Quit trying to set policy. Your job is to build the party."

Donations go fast

The typical party chairman, particularly when his party is out of power, focuses on building an effective infrastructure and raising money to help candidates. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Steele does not spend hours poring over the latest polls, recruiting Republicans to run for office or calling major donors for money, his associates said.

An exception is Virginia. Steele won praise for his work on behalf of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was elected in November in a landslide. At Steele's direction, the RNC invested more than $9 million in the state, helping fund field operations and get-out-the-vote efforts that helped GOP candidates sweep the statewide races.

"Michael Steele understood you don't just wake up on Labor Day and say, 'Hey, we're going to run a grass-roots campaign,' " said Phil Cox, McDonnell's campaign manager. "They brought a sense of urgency to the ground game, and it showed."

In another metric of success, the RNC is raising money -- lots of it. The party has collected $96 million since Steele was elected, Federal Election Commission records show. But Steele has received a torrent of criticism from party insiders because of the "burn rate." The RNC had more than $22 million on hand when Steele arrived. Since then, the latest FEC filing shows the party spent more than it raised. The RNC has just $9.5 million in the bank as it begins a year with 37 gubernatorial races and dozens of competitive Senate and House contests.

In 2001, by comparison, when George W. Bush was in the White House, the RNC raised $82 million and began the 2002 midterm cycle with $29 million in the bank. And in 2005, the RNC raised nearly $102 million and began the 2006 cycle with $34 million on hand.

A discomfiting number of major donors who gave to the RNC during the Bush years are instead giving to congressional committees and other campaign groups. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former RNC chairman, is raising tens of millions of dollars for the Republican Governors Association, which announced last week that it had $31 million on hand. And two other former party chairmen, Mike Duncan and Ed Gillespie, are behind American Crossroads, a new group that aims to raise more than $50 million to help congressional candidates this fall.

Lawrence Bathgate, a past RNC finance chairman, said Steele has asked him for donations. Bathgate said he instead donated to the governors group and individual campaigns. "If my money will help some Republican get elected to the Senate or the House and if we can make some gains, that's better for my country than giving it to the RNC to see what they're going to do with it," Bathgate said.

Heye said the RNC supports groups such as American Crossroads. "We need as many people and as many organizations fighting back as possible," he said.

Under Steele, the RNC has a record of lavish spending with its donors' money. The 2009 Christmas party at the Newseum was catered by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's new restaurant, The Source. The winter meeting was held at a beach resort in Honolulu. The RNC budget grew in almost every expense category -- private jets, limousines, hotels, flower arrangements, catering services.

Heye said the Democratic National Committee, led by former Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, has spent similar sums of money on private car services and fancy hotels, but has not faced the same criticism. "The media has been absolutely derelict in their duty," Heye said.

Even Steele's detractors defended some of the RNC's expenditures. With the party out of power, they say, donors can not be entertained at the White House, so the RNC must shell out for classy events to raise money. But they said there is a problem with appearances, particularly with the private charter flights.

"The reality is that we're being portrayed right now as the party of limousines, $600 hotel rooms, lavish meals," said Katon Dawson, a top operative from South Carolina who lost to Steele in the chairman's race. "I understand there are things you need to do that are necessary for top donors, but we've fought real hard not to be portrayed as that."

The infighting over the RNC's finances could be dismissed as inside-the-Beltway fodder of little interest to voters -- except for two scandals, just four weeks apart, that broke through the noise.

In early March, a leaked 72-page PowerPoint presentation revealed the blunt appeal to fear the party uses to raise money. Steele condemned the presentation after it surfaced. Even so, Heye said "no one was fired."

Then there was Voyeur. Steele was not at the Hollywood nightclub. He did not pick up the $1,946.25 tab for an after-party for young donors. Nor did he authorize his staff to reimburse the GOP consultant who did. But Steele, who has made himself the face of the RNC, still found himself engulfed in the scandal and responded with new procedures.

"At the chairman's direction, we've put through firmer controls in place to ensure that this doesn't happen again. And that goes to what kind of expenses are allowed and the review procedures when those take place," Heye said. "Every expense will be scrutinized."

The messenger

Steele's supporters say he believes he can best build the party by being an effective messenger. He sees his party as a consumer brand that needs to be marketed through as many appearances and blog entries and photo spreads as possible, associates said. "He's there to carry our message," said Dick Wadhams, the Colorado GOP chairman.

Seizing the spotlight carries risks, though. As chairman, Steele is paid a salary of $223,500. But he has drawn criticism for also delivering paid speeches at universities and for trade groups, charging as much as $20,000. Although Steele is allowed by RNC rules to earn other income, three of his predecessors -- Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Jim Nicholson and Rich Bond -- have publicly suggested Steele is leveraging his position for personal gain.

"Mike is a working man from a working family," Jealous said. "If he had the wealth of a politi-crat, if he were a billionaire, he would happily work for a dollar a year. But he's not, and people should not begrudge him taking steps to support his family."

He is selling a new book -- the source of another kerfuffle. "Right Now" is a 12-step blueprint for Republicans to regain power. But during a promotional interview in January (before the recent health-care debate), Steele said Republicans won't win back the House this fall, a comment that caused agitation on Capitol Hill.

"Get with the program," he thundered back on KTRS, a St. Louis radio station. "I'm the chairman. Deal with it."

In the weeks since, Steele's relationships with Republicans in Congress have improved, Heye said. "It's been night and day."

Steele speaks of Washington with contempt and has few friends among the insider set. But he is a popular draw for party activists outside the Beltway. When he visited Denver last year to speak at a fundraiser, he drew an overflow crowd to the downtown Marriott. "We had to turn people away from the dinner because so many people wanted to come," Wadhams said.

Steele often says he is most comfortable with the conservative grass roots. He became the first national GOP leader to sit down with organizers of the "tea party" movement in February and has been seeking ways to mobilize their energy to help Republican candidates in November.

Steele is not on the ballot, but his fate could be determined at the polls. His term ends in January, and he has not said whether he will seek a second term.

"Look, my style is not something you get used to very easily. I know that," Steele told reporters in Hawaii earlier this year. "But at the end of the day, the members of this party, and this is what they reinforced to me, charged me to do two things: raise money and win elections. On those two fronts, I think we're doing okay."

As Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican strategist, said, "We only keep score in politics every two years. . . . If we win a bunch of seats, he's going to be fine. If we don't win a bunch of seats, he's not going to be fine."

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