Josh Kurtz: Michael Row the Boat Ashore

By Josh Kurtz

TAMPA, Fla. – Michael Steele has always marched to his own drummer. That was true way back when, coming up as Prince George’s County Republican chairman, and it’s true now that he’s Maryland’s biggest political celebrity.

Steele seems to be enjoying himself at the GOP convention this week, dashing from media hit to media hit, mostly in the service of MSNBC – liberal MSNBC – where he is a regular commentator. But he can’t help feeling a little wistful, too: It was during his tenure as Republican National Committee chairman that the GOP chose to hold its convention in Tampa. Yet Steele has to watch somebody else, a shrimp named Reince Priebus, who defeated him in a contentious multi-candidate battle for chairman in 2011, preside over the gathering – and bask in the glory if Mitt Romney winds up being elected president, which is at least a 50-50 proposition right now.

“I would love to have been chairman for the convention because I started the process…and wanted to put together a bold and out of the box program,” Steele conceded this week while seated at a folding table in MSNBC’s makeshift green room, a few blocks and several security checkpoints from the official convention hall. But he had nothing but praise for the RNC officials running the convention, and said that when he ran into Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn – a Democrat who put together the city’s convention bid – they hugged.

You can’t say Steele isn’t doing well for himself. With MSNBC, he has a pretty prominent megaphone, which he has used at times to shout loudly about his own party’s faults. It’s still not inclusive or tolerant enough, in his view, and it has moved too far from its principles of freedom and liberty as originally espoused by Abraham Lincoln. That’s a criticism he has leveled consistently for the 15 or so years that I’ve known him.

As for MSNBC as a platform for his conservative views, Steele is unapologetic.

“That’s how I like to play,” Steele says, smiling broadly. “If you don’t know how to work with your competitors or your opponents in the political ring, you’re not going to be successful.”

And after all, he adds, they asked.

So all’s well that ends well, right?

With Steele, that’s kind of a loaded question. He’s only 53, and still politically ambitious. And there is a sense of unfinished business about him – both at the national level, as his wistfulness in Tampa reflects, but back home in Maryland as well.

Steele has had an amazing and unusual political trajectory, one that probably defied even his own expectations. From Prince George’s Republican chairman – a lonely job if ever there was one – and a failed bid for state comptroller in 1998, Steele became state GOP chief in late 2000.

Needless to say, Steele in that job was something different, and he seemed poised to shake up a moribund state party, despite the occasional whisper – one you still hear today – that he was more sizzle than steak. He quickly went to work, developing a 10-year plan for Republican gains in the state. He also sued to overturn Democrats’ new legislative map in 2002 – and succeeded.

It seemed only fitting weeks later when Bob Ehrlich tapped Steele to be his running mate – especially after Kathleen Kennedy Townsend chose a white Republican to be her candidate for lieutenant governor, infuriating African-American leaders who figured their time had finally come. And then the Republicans defied all odds and actually won.

Steele immediately drew national attention, as one of the few prominent African-Americans in the GOP. He got prime-time speaking roles at the Republican conventions in 2004 and 2008 – putting the phrase “Drill, Baby, Drill!” into the national lexicon at the latter confab, even though it is frequently and erroneously attributed to Sarah Palin. Only Steele could pull off using a slogan at a Republican convention that was purloined from the Black Panthers’ “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

But even as the Ehrlich administration was settling in, Steele fretted that his 10-year plan to expand the state GOP might fall by the wayside. And his fears were well-founded.

Ehrlich was never much on party building, and quickly became consumed by his feuds with Democrats in the legislature. Steele played the loyal lieutenant, moving around the state meeting with local officials. But he soon launched his own all-consuming political campaign, running for Senate in 2006.

It seemed at times during the ’06 cycle that he had a chance to pull an upset, especially after Ben Cardin beat Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary. But the political dynamics of a very Democratic year ultimately doomed his candidacy.

Steele’s next political gig, as RNC chairman, was not without controversy, especially when it came to issues of party management and spending. But the proof, as he always likes to say, is in the pudding, with Republicans picking up massive numbers of seats in Congress and in statehouses in 2010.

Success has many fathers, and surely Steele’s RNC was one of them. His “Fire Pelosi” national bus tour was in-your-face and effective. But in the eyes of his fellow GOP committee members he hadn’t earned a second term, so Priebus, the Wisconsin state chairman who had been one of Steele’s top lieutenants at the RNC, took over last year.

But like any cat – or any hip cat, as the man himself might say – Steele landed on his feet.

Teased that people must recognize him everyplace he goes, Steele shrugs and says, “They do, but I don’t [think of myself as famous]. You don’t let that stuff get to your head because it’s so fleeting.”

Still, Steele could fill out his days as an Inside-the-Beltway celebrity – earlier this summer, almost mischievously, he launched a consulting business with Lanny Davis, the Democratic lawyer who occasionally thumbs his nose at his party establishment the way Steele does. Between that and MSNBC, that’s enough to keep Steele on the radar of most D.C. insiders.

Yet Maryland still tugs at him. He was scheduled to speak to the Maryland convention delegation this week. He attended a recent retirement dinner for longtime Maryland National Committeewoman Joyce Terhes. He conferred recently with state House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell and state Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin about how the GOP can make gains in the legislature in 2014. State GOP leaders say Steele is especially outraged that Democrats are still able to rig the game through redistricting, and is scheming for ways the party can work around that.

He calls the Ehrlich-Steele upset of 2002 “a very powerful moment, a very instructive moment.” And he thinks the messages that propelled their campaign, particularly their railing against high taxes and Democratic monopolies in Annapolis, can still capture a great many voters.

But will Steele ever be the messenger?

“That,” he said, “is something for me to think about down the line.”

****************************
The death last week of J. Frank Raley, a former state legislator who was perhaps more responsible than anyone for making modern St. Mary’s County – if not all of Southern Maryland – what it is today went completely unnoticed in the state’s major media. The Southern Maryland Newspapers ran a moving and fitting tribute in its editorial pages and said it better than I ever could:

Imagine St. Mary’s without its chief architect

How ironic that Raley, whose early reputation was made – and whose political career was ended – crusading against casinos in Southern Maryland in the 1960’s, died just as state lawmakers were voting to expand gambling in the state. Raley himself would probably appreciate the irony of all those gambling supporters singing his praises at the funeral.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Influencers: The Readers Speak

Will Battaglia Run for AG in 2014?

Chrys-field

You Can Still Probably Bet Against Roscoe Bartlett

Ten Years After

Influencers, Part II

The Influencers, Part I

Left, Right and Center

Road to Succeed Pelosi May Run Through Maryland

A Change Is Gonna Come (And The Audacity of Nope)