Josh Kurtz: Michael & Me

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It’s been a couple of weeks since the latest controversy erupted surrounding Michael Steele and his stewardship of the Republican National Committee. Inevitably, there will be others — no doubt soon.

For political people from Maryland, people who have known Steele for a long time, his tenure at the RNC has been simultaneously difficult and fascinating to watch. To beat a few metaphors to death, Steele is navigating in shark-infested waters, and to his credit, he hasn’t been eaten alive yet. On the other hand, he is swimming upstream — and that’s not easy.

Put another way — to dispatch with the inevitable reference to Mike Tyson, Steele’s ex-brother-in-law — the chairman seems to be punching above his class. That can be both admirable and dangerous, and in life, as in boxing, it can often end badly.

I’ve known Steele since 1996, when he was chairman of the Prince George’s County GOP and I was fairly new at the Gazette newspapers. I always liked him. For obvious reasons, and for reasons less obvious, he seemed like a breath of fresh air in Maryland politics — and in Republican politics in particular.

I covered Steele’s ill-fated 1998 campaign for state comptroller, when, despite support from the party establishment he lost the GOP primary simply because his opponent was named Larry Epstein. This, at a time when the state was mourning the recent death of longtime Comptroller Louis Goldstein (D). And when, in late 2000, Steele became state Republican chairman, we talked regularly. He was always candid and informative — and, of course, charming.

I think we must have had 20 phone conversations about who Bob Ehrlich (R), then a Congressman from Baltimore County who was running for governor, would choose as his running mate. Redistricting was also a favorite topic of ours, and Steele was one of several people who sued the state in 2002 to get some legislative district lines changed. His efforts to also change the Congressional boundaries proved less successful, however.

When Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002, taking Steele along with him as lieutenant governor, it surprised even Steele. As chairman, Steele privately talked about his six-year plan for success, figuring that with enough building blocks, the party could start winning in a serious way in 2006.

It is interesting to ponder now whether the state GOP might actually have emerged stronger if Ehrlich and Steele had lost in 2002, giving Steele a chance to put his party-building strategy into effect. Party building was something that fell by the wayside once Ehrlich and Steele took office.

Steele’s quick and rapid rise to national celebrity must also have taken him by surprise. It certainly surprised Ehrlich, who surely thought that, as the guy who had knocked off a Kennedy, as the first Republican elected governor of Maryland in 36 years, that he’d be entitled to some publicity.

But with a national GOP so desperate to promote its few minority leaders (remember the 2000 Republican convention, when the most prominent minorities were the dancers?), Steele’s ascent seemed almost inevitable. I remember, at the 2004 GOP convention, attending a party in his honor at an exclusive hip-hop club in New York. I don’t recall any similar gathering at that convention for Ehrlich.

From my perch at Roll Call, I also covered Steele’s 2006 Senate campaign, and I thought it had a lot of potential. I spent a day following Steele around Prince George’s County, saw him connect with African-American voters there, who the Democrats had taken for granted for so long.

I was also present at a surreal moment in the campaign, when Steele treated a dozen or so national political reporters to an “on background” lunch at a D.C. steakhouse, only to see his not-for-attribution criticisms of George W. Bush and national Republican priorities leak out. Soon after, Steele’s identity as the source of those comments was “outed” by star Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. When I taught journalism ethics at the University of Maryland a few years ago, I dedicated an entire class session to that lunch and its aftermath. Very surreal.

Steele wound up losing the Senate race, rather handily, to then-Rep. Ben Cardin (D). But he ran a good campaign, and I still believe that in a less-hostile political cycle for Republicans, he might have won.

Fast-forward to January 2009. The Republican Party is dispirited after two devastating election cycles, and a little spooked by Obamamania. Steele competes in a multicandidate race to become RNC chairman. In a contest of insiders that features a former South Carolina state GOP chief who belonged to an all-white country club (they still have those???), Steele’s candidacy makes perfect sense. He’s media-savvy, personable, unafraid to take on party orthodoxy when necessary, has a talented team of strategists around him, and, of course, he’s black. He seems like the perfect person to be the face of the Republican Party during the Age of Obama.

Well, of course, things haven’t gone exactly as national Republican leaders planned. Steele’s penchant for candor has sometimes resulted in his foot in his mouth. It’s clear that many party leaders don’t know what to make of him.

There have been questions about his lavish spending and other embarrassing mini-scandals surrounding the RNC that have nothing to do with him directly. Most of his team of consultants have abandoned him. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, and other party pooh-bahs, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (himself a former RNC chairman) and Ed Gillespie, another ex-GOP chief, are setting up political organizations to work around Steele and the RNC. He hasn’t quite figured out how the national party should take advantage of the Tea Party movement (though he’s hardly alone among GOP leaders). Stories of internal turmoil at the RNC persist.

But you know what? Under Steele, Republicans won gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey last year. They captured Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. They’re poised to make major gains in Congress this November and will take back several governors’ mansions, too. In the end, in politics, you measure success by sheer numbers alone. And Steele’s won-lost record should look pretty good.

What does Steele do then? Well, he could re-up for another term as RNC chairman — but it’s hard to imagine he has the stomach for that, or that the good ol’ boys club will want him back. It’s also hard to imagine Steele making a political comeback in Maryland.

Some people have posited that Steele really wants to be president of the United States. Well, that’s not likely to happen. But as Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Sarah Palin and any number of other Republicans have shown, you can enjoy a lot of political lives if you’re an articulate, provocative conservative. Steele should, at the very least, be in line for his own Fox News Channel show before too long.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.