Steele defends record in debate

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Michael Steele, the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee, defended his record Monday at a forum with four rivals who charged him with mismanagement and said the committee faces a major task of rebuilding its finances and credibility.

Steele was unapologetic through most of the 90-minute session. He pointed to the 2010 midterm elections, in which Republicans made major gains, including a takeover of the House.

"My record stands for itself," he said. "We won. I was asked to win elections. I was asked to raise money - $192 million over the last two years. We won. The fact that we're here right now celebrating that win, I think, says a lot about the record."

Steele's challengers sometimes couched their criticism gently, but their reading of his tenure was clear.

"It is time for some tough love at the Republican National Committee," said Ann Wagner, former Republican chairman in Missouri and ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush. She added: "It's broken and needs to be fixed."

Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican Party chairman, said the committee was at "a moment of crisis," while Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, once a Steele ally, said the RNC "must restore the trust and confidence" of donors and activists.

Maria Cino, a deputy secretary of transportation in the Bush administration who also has held high-ranking posts at the RNC, said the committee must "get our fiscal house in order."

Steele is an underdog in the race for RNC chairman. His two years at the helm have been marked by almost continuous controversy, including personal gaffes and misstatements and charges of financial management.

Gentry Collins, the former political director at the committee, resigned shortly after last year's election with a detailed blast aimed at Steele in which he said the failure to fully fund get-out-the-vote operations may have cost the party even larger gains in Congress. Collins was a candidate for party chairman but dropped out Sunday.

Steele's opponents sharply criticized the RNC's failure to fully fund those turnout operations. "We fell down as a national committee," Wagner said.

Steele explained Monday that he found other ways to accomplish the same goals. "Find me the state that didn't have a winning election and maybe their program wasn't funded," he said. "I think we won in all 50 states this year, and that's the goal, winning."

Many members of the national committee, as well as Republican strategists, expected Steele not to seek a second term. His decision to run puts party officials in the awkward position of having to fire its first African American chairman or keep one of the most controversial chairs in many years in place. Steele enjoys only limited support at present, according to canvasses of the committee by other news organizations.

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