One Year After Being Elected the Republican Party’s First African-American National Chairman, Michael Steele’s Authority Is Still Under Fire From Hard-Line Conservatives — Now Steele’s Foes Are Claiming He’s Using His Post For Personal Profit, Charging Up to $20G in Speaking Fees

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In the year since he became the first African-American to be elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele has had to endure one controversy after another — some of which were of his own making with his repeated episodes of off-the-cuff remarks. Hard-line conservatives — who never wanted him to be chairman in the first place — have constantly challenged his authority, succeeding in stripping him of powers that GOP national committee chairmen before him had long enjoyed unfettered. Now, midway through his two-year term, Steele’s future as party chairman is becoming increasingly cloudy, as he has come under fire for allegedly using his position for personal profit, charging up to $20,000 in speaking fees. (Photo courtesy ThePalmettoScoop.com)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, January 4, 2010)

By SKEETER SANDERS

When Michael Steele was elected the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee nearly a year ago, it had appeared at the time that the GOP — having suffered two consecutive shellackings at the ballot box in which voters shunned Republican candidates the way Superman shuns kryptonite — had finally decided to make a clean break from the regime of conservative, white and mostly Southern males that had dominated the party for more than 30 years.

“We have been misdefined as a party that doesn’t care, a party that’s insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that is unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans,” Steele told reporters in a news conference following his election.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he continued. “I’m saying enough’s enough, that day is over. This is the dawn of a new party moving in a new direction with strength and conviction . . . It’s time for something completely different.”

Steele vowed that under his leadership, “We’re going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us.” And, in a remark that some in the mainstream media interpreted as a warning to party conservatives, he added, “To those of you who will obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.”

Instead, it was Steele who got “knocked over” — again and again — by party conservatives in the most tumultuous tenure by a Republican national chairman in the party’s history.

Now, midway through his two-year term, Steele’s future as GOP national chairman is becoming increasingly cloudy. And the conservative GOP establishment, figuratively speaking, is out for blood — Steele’s blood.

STEELE’S PREDECESSORS RIP HIS RAKING IN AS MUCH AS $20G IN SPEAKING FEES

At least two of his predecessors, Frank Fahrenkopf and Jim Nicholson, have sharply criticized what they say is Steele’s attempt to personally profit from his speaking engagements at colleges, trade associations and other groups, raking in as much as $20,000 in honorariums, or speaking fees.

“Holy mackerel!” exclaimed Fahrenkopf in an interview with The Washington Times. “I never heard of a chairman of either party ever taking money for speeches. The job of a national chairman is to give speeches. That’s what the national party pays him for.”

As chairman, Steele earns an annual salary of $223,500.

Nicholson, also interviewed by the conservative daily, said the job “demands so much of your time that you can work 24/7 and not get everything done, so taking time out to speak for the benefit of one’s own bank account is not appropriate.”

Fahrenkopf served as RNC chairman under President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1989 and is now chief executive of the American Gaming Association, the national trade association for the commercial casino industry. Nicholson was party chairman from 1997 to 2000 and served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007. He is now a Washington attorney.

RIGHT-WING HARD-LINERS FOUGHT STEELE FROM THE START

That Steele would find himself embroiled in a controversy over getting paid for his speaking engagements is only the latest in a string of brouhahas that have marked his tenure as party chairman from the very beginning.

Even his election last January, hailed as a historic turning point for the GOP just days after President Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first African-American chief executive, came after a campaign within the party riven with charges of racism — a contest that an Ohio state GOP chairman called “the dirtiest ever.”

Hard-line party conservatives — who never wanted Steele to be chairman in the first place — fought tooth and nail in a bitter, albeit unsuccessful, campaign to defeat him with nasty innuendo.

Steele was forced to face down vicious accusations — often made anonymously — that he did not possess a true conservative philosophy and that he was actually a social liberal, citing Steele’s past association with the Republican Leadership Council, which he co-founded with former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman.

A moderate who served as the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency during Bush’s first term, Whitman’s outspoken support for abortion rights infuriated many social conservatives.

STEELE BLASTS LIMBAUGH, THEN APOLOGIZES AFTER TALK-SHOW HOST ‘WHACKS’ HIM

Then there was the memorable back-and-forth in March between Steele and right-wing radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh — whom many Democrats and liberals believe is the real boss of the GOP — when Steele criticized Limbaugh while appearing on CNN’s now-defunct “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” on February 28. “I am the leader of the Republican Party,” Steele told Hughley. “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. His whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary. Yes, it’s ugly.”

Limbaugh roared back on March 2 with a blistering smackdown of Steele. “It’s time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do, instead of trying to be some talking-head media star,” Limbaugh thundered. “If it’s your position as the head of the Republican National Committee that you want a left-wing Democrat president and a left-wing Democrat Congress to succeed in advancing their agenda . . . I think you have some explaining to do. Why are you running the Republican Party?”

And Steele’s response to Limbaugh’s verbal whacking of him? Appearing March 4 on Sean Hannity’s Fox News Channel show, Steele said he had a private conversation with Limbaugh and denied that his comments on CNN were intended as an attack on talk radio’s undisputed godfather.

“It’s all good. . .We’re past this,” Steele told Hannity. “It was clearly a misunderstanding. My intent was never to go after my friend. I like Rush. He’s an important conservative voice for our party and for 20-plus years, he’s been holding that line.”

STEELE FORCED TO GIVE UP POWERS OVER SPENDING OF REPUBLICAN PARTY FUNDS

Although they failed to block Steele’s election as GOP chairman last January, party conservatives have waged an unrelenting war to undermine his authority in the year since — and partially succeeded.

Steele was forced last spring to sign a secret pact with party conservatives in which he agreed to submit to controls and restraints on how he spends millions of dollars in party funds and contracts. For decades, the RNC chairman enjoyed almost unrestricted authority over how to spend the party’s funds.

The so-called “good governance” agreement imposed restrictions on Steele’s authority to conduct the Republican National Committee’s business — including contracts, fees for legal work and other expenditures. Steele agreed to cede some of his authority after several conservative committee members threatened a “no-confidence” vote against the chairman at a special RNC meeting in Washington that was scheduled to convene in late May.

GOP CONGRESSIONAL LEADERS WARN STEELE TO ‘BACK OFF’ ON POLICY

Steele’s style as party chairman has even ruffled the feathers of Republican leaders of Congress — so much so that they told him in no uncertain terms in a closed-door private meeting in September to quit meddling in public policy matters.

According to Politico.com, citing several sources, the GOP congressional leadership issued their blunt warning to Steele amid a heated discussion at the Capitol Hill office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) “about the roles of congressional leadership and Steele.”

The Republican congressional leaders were furious with Steele for proposing a “health care bill of rights” for senior citizens without consulting them. They told Steele point-blank to concentrate on the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia and other political matters and leave the policymaking to the GOP lawmakers.

That didn’t sit well with Steele, according to the sources, who said he was responding to questions asked of him about where the Republican Party stood on a variety of issues and that he was determined to continue fighting and aggressively defending the party.

FLAP OVER SPEAKING FEES COULD BE THE FINAL STRAW

The controversy over Steele’s speaking fees could end up jeopardizing his chances of being re-elected GOP national chairman a year from now. According to The Washington Times, Steele charges between $8,000 and $20,000 per speech, plus first-class travel and lodging expenses.

Harry Sandler, whom the paper identified as a person who manages some of Steele’s bookings for the American Program Bureau, a private booking agency, said that the GOP chairman usually charges between $10,000 and $15,000 per speaking engagement.

Sandler said Steele was paid about $15,000 for a speech in September at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Steele has an upcoming speaking engagement at DePaul University in Chicago, for which he will be paid $12,500.

Steele’s office sought to downplay the controversy. An RNC spokeswoman dismissed it as “silly,” claiming that many past party chairmen — both Republican and Democrat — “have regularly received outside income.”

But coming just weeks after yet another feud within the party — this time over a leaked proposal by conservatives to pull the financial plug on Republican candidates who don’t support core conservative party principles, including opposition to abortion and same-gender marriage — it’s now an open question as to whether Steele can win a second two-year term in 2011 as GOP national chairman.

That, of course, assumes that he even wants to keep the job. Especially after he told CNN commentator Roland Martin on his weekly syndicated TV show “Washington Watch” in November that that he’s experienced fear from white Republicans because he’s black.

Responding to Martin’s criticism of white Republicans as being “scared of black folks” and that he faces a tough job at drawing black voter support for Republicans, Steele acknowledged that “I’ve been in the room and they’ve [white Republicans] been scared of me and I’m like, ‘I’m on your side.'”

With all the grief that Steele is getting from party conservatives, one wonders how much longer he’ll remain on their side.

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Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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