Exit, Stage Right: The End of the Michael Steele Era

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 14 2011 7:36 PM

Exit, Stage Right: The End of the Michael Steele Era

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. -- They had come from dozens of newsoutlets -- 100 reporters, descended on the plush Gaylord Hotel and Resort, justsoutheast of Washington. They had come to witness the last political act ofRepublican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. They wouldn’t admit it,but the Republicans here were convinced of it.

"I'm not sure what Chairman Steele is going to do," saidMike Duncan, the man who lost the job to Steele in 2009. "I know the eyes ofthe world are on him today." (He was observing and talking to reporters todayas the chairman of American Crossroads, the most-feared of the GOP’s thirdparty groups.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Doug Heye, who’d been Steele’s very busy spokesman until twoweeks ago, was still working the meeting for the RNC. He hadn’t spoken toSteele about re-election, he said, since he’d told him not to seek it. He knewSteele would lose. "That’s what al-Jazeera is here for," he said, indicatingone of the media outlets that do not often get credentialed for RepublicanParty meetings.

Steele gave the political press one of its best, saddest,and funniest enduring stories. This was the problem with him, even if it was aproblem Republican National Committee members had sort of asked for. He was acelebrity in his own right, an African-American politician whose 2006 race forU.S. Senate had made the cover of the New York Times Magazine (a nicety grantedto Marco Rubio last year). Magazine reporters wanted to shadow him and profilehim. Cable news and urban radio wanted to book him. And then he would honorthese requests, and things would go horribly wrong, and he’d wind up gettingmade fun of by Jon Stewart or – so much worse – Jay Leno.

When today’s vote began, Steele was already counted out.There were too many RNC members who’d promised to vote for someone else, someof them explaining their votes with horror stories about things Steele hadbotched. Speaker of the House John Boehner and former Vice President DickCheney had endorsed Maria Cino, a longtime party fixer and Bush administrationveteran, and the fact that these men were dissing the chairman of their partywas an afterthought.

So Steele got a chance to defend his record, and he took it,awkwardly. As the session began, RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen read the party’slatest financial report, which revealed a $21.3 million debt and less than $2million cash on hand. Pullen finished, and Steele took the stage.

"The numbers you have just heard are not just numbers on apiece of paper," he said. "There’s real effort behind those numbers. I amgrateful, as chairman, to have served with one of the best RNC committees in along time." He praised the members for their 2009 victories, then promoted hisown role with factoids like a 40 percent open rate for e-mail appeals, a 50percent surge in traffic for the GOP.com redesigned under his tenure.

And it was on to the vote. Steele went in expected to comein second place to Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, 38 years old and ahead and a half shorter than him. That was what happened: Priebus with 45votes, and Steele with 44, the most votes the incumbent would get all day.

Priebus had been the general counsel of the RNC under Steele. There was nochance that Steele would swing votes his way to help him out. So threecandidates – Maria Cino, Missouri activist Ann Wagner, and Michigan RNCcommitteeman Saul Anuzis – fought for the chance to cut a deal, to become theanti-Priebus.

So Steele had power, for a little while longer. A secondround of balloting gave him only 37 votes, and he retreated to a well-guardedroom near the floor of the meeting. An aide was dispatched to bring hisfaithful aides into the room, away from the attention of the media. They stayedquiet as they came out, as did he, and they heard the next results Priebus upto 54, Steele down to 33, and Ann Wagner rising from last place to third.

Steele slipped back into the private room; soon after, AnnWagner slipped in. The privacy held up, but the secrecy melted down, andcameramen appeared outside the room just in time for the staggered exists ofboth candidates.

"Is there a deal?" one reporter shouted.

"No," said Steele, smiling, with just enough humans aroundhim to block nosy reporters.

He was right: There was no deal. Priebus rose to 58 votes,and Steele and Wagner fell to 28 votes each. Maria Cino had jumped to secondplace. And Steele’s final moments as RNC chairman began with him avoidingreporters like they were made of poison, jumping from secured location tosecured location, as the pretenders to his job got their meetings.

Steele got a kind of break when Saul Anuzis, mystifyingly,held a pow-wow in plain view of reporters and cameras, in front of one of theresorts’s giant windows. Cameras descended into the circle of aides, and theywere blocked with hands and iPads. The news, however, was in Steele’sfortresses of solitude. When he switched rooms, he said he was not droppingout. When he left them to return for the next ballot, he smiled an anything-to-stop-me-from-punching-you smile at the reporters hounding him about his plans.

"The crowd keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, andbigger, and bigger, and bigger!" he said, picking up speed as he got to the RNCmembers-only meeting floor. He finally gave the majority of members what theywanted. He dropped out and endorsed Maria Cino.

"And now," said Steele, "I exit stage right."* That was where his supporters were waiting for him. He hungaround for the rest of the votes, away from the press, and inaudible in the dinof the meeting.

Outside, Steele’s enemies and friends started wrapping uphis career. Solomon Yue, an Oregon committeeman who had criticized Steele afterhis personal assistant started getting a salary as a "special liaison" on theupcoming Republican National Convention, chatted with Jim Bopp, an Indianacommitteeman who’d introduced resolutions demanding that the RNC renouncesocialism. Yue told me that he’d voted for the lowest-scoring candidate on everyballot, to make sure that Steele couldn’t gather momentum.

Just a few feet away, I talked to Oregon GOP Chairman BobTiernan, who’d been one of Steele’s last supporters, and blamed his comradesfor bringing Steele down.

"It was Bopp and Solomon!" said Tiernan. "They’d takeeverything that happened, put a conservative spin to it, and tag it to Steele."He noted that Yue had just been stripped of a leadership role, and that it wasabout time. "When you’ve got someone causing so much discontent, I don’t carehow good they are. Dennis Rodman! He was the best rebounder in the NBA. Theygot to the Finals, and he’s off the team. Why? Because he was a distraction!"

Back in the room, Steele’s endorsement of Cino did herabsolutely no good. She lost votes as Priebus gained them; on the seventhballot, he won the chairmanship. The new leader of the Republican NationalCommittee immediately grabbed an outsized gavel, took over the podium, andstarting running things.

He took a brief respite to talk to reporters. In 2009, whenSteele won, he tossed more soundbites than the media could catch. John Gizzi ofHuman Events had reminded him that, in 2006, Barack Obama had dissed Steele’sleadership abilities. What would Steele say to Obama?

"I’d say congratulations," said Steele, "and I look forwardto sparring with him. And then I’d say: How you like me now?"

The new chairman is not like that. He took a few questionsabout how ready he was for the job, and how ready he was to raise lots ofmoney. He invoked the divine to prove that he was.

"We’re blessed to have John Boehner as Speaker of the House,we’re blessed to have Mitch McConnell as leader in the Senate," he said. On hisability to work with the media: "With God’s help, anything is possible."

Brief, dull, bad for TV – just what Republicans were lookingfor.

*I originally messed up the stage right/stage left definition, but Steele didn't.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.