The Prince of Darkness — a.k.a. Joseph Steffen, 52, reputed political dirty trickster turned political blogger — cackles darkly. The onetime staffer who resigned from then-Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration in a 2005 gossip scandal is amused and amazed at new accusations of political pranksters tied to Ehrlich.
If the allegations are correct, “these people are idiots,” Steffen says. “If you’re going to do it, do it right. It just burns me up from a tactical standpoint.”
Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick and consultant Julius Henson were indicted in June for alleged election law violations tied to 110,000 robocalls on Election Day 2010 in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, when Ehrlich (R) ran against Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). The calls told recipients to “relax” because O’Malley had already been “successful.” Prosecutors said it was a scheme to suppress the black vote.
Henson and Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer for Schurick, say the calls were meant to inspire Ehrlich supporters to vote. “I don’t think [Steffen] knows what he’s talking about,” Henson says.
Schurick and Henson pleaded not guilty. A trial is set for September. Ehrlich has said he was unaware of the calls.
“It took them 10 years to get me,” Steffen says. “It took them 15 minutes to get the robocalls.”
Steffen faults not just the execution but also the premise: “The Republican Party in Maryland needs every vote they can get. I mean, open up to these people, don't try to suppress them.”
Steffen’s fall occurred after he was drawn into an online conversation with someone posting as MD4BUSH. Steffen wrote of an effort to give “real float” to a rumor about O’Malley having an extramarital affair. A Post reporter learned of the exchange, and Steffen resigned.
“It was a hell of a humbling lesson, but I needed it,” he says.
He got his nickname from Ehrlich, who has said it was inspired by Steffen’s habit of leaving the lights off in his office. Enemies said the name referred to underhanded stunts. Steffen still will not discuss specific dirty tricks he has been accused of, such as anonymous negative campaign fliers. Ehrlich has denied that his campaigns engaged in such activity.
“I was a partisan attack dog,” Steffen says. “There’s a lot of things that went down that I feel horrible about.”
Many speculate that MD4BUSH was a Democratic operative. Steffen calls it “karmic blowback” that he was brought down by what might have been a dirty trick. “I hold no grudge against MD4BUSH,” Steffen says.
After the scandal broke, Steffen says that for two years he had to rely on friends for money and places to stay. Now, he does research for political and business consultants and writes his savvy, sardonic blog, Darkness Rising. He says he’s the happiest he has ever been. “I would not want to go through what I went through again, but I would not trade it for the world. I feel I’ve grown as a person.”
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