Michael Steele, forever failing upward

The former lieutenant governor of Maryland won the race to head the GOP, but he has serious professional, political and financial problems in his past.

Published January 30, 2009 9:08PM (EST)

It took a record number of ballots, but former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has pulled out a victory, and will be the next chair of the Republican National Committee.

Steele defeated South Carolina GOP Chair Katon Dawson on the sixth ballot, 91-77. 85 votes were needed for victory.

I'll post more thoughts on what this means shortly.

Update: At first glance, this appears to be the kind of step forward that the Republican Party needs to be successful in the years ahead. As I noted in an earlier post, the race for RNC chair came down to a choice between an African-American moderate and a Southern white man with a troubled history when it comes to racial issues. Clearly, for a party that's increasingly relegated to representing only Southern whites, the RNC's voting members made the right choice, at least judging by that factor alone.

Steele does hold some promise when it comes to attracting minorities to the GOP. He was unsuccessful in his 2006 Senate race, true, but he did manage to pull 25 percent of the black vote, quite an accomplishment for any Republican in Maryland.

On other fronts, though, Steele's a questionable choice. He hasn't displayed a ton of political acumen -- he's won elected office only once, and he didn't head that ticket. He lost the aforementioned Senate race, and, before that, couldn't even win a GOP primary for state comptroller; he placed third, in fact. His tenure as head of the Maryland party wasn't brilliant, either, and he repeatedly had trouble recruiting candidates. (In his defense, it's not easy to be a Republican in the state.) Along the way, he's made some serious missteps: He got in trouble in 2006 for making some unguarded remarks disparaging then-President Bush to a group of reporters. His name was supposed to be kept off the comments, but when it quickly became obvious who was responsible, Steele tried to lie his way out of the gaffe. Also in 2006, he attracted unwanted attention when, speaking before a Jewish group, he compared stem cell research to medical tests that the Nazis conducted on prisoners during the Holocaust. The GOP better hope this victory is a sign that he's learned some hard lessons --he already has a tough fight ahead of him in trying to win over the party's conservative wing, which doesn't fully trust him because of his membership in the more moderate Republican Leadership Council. 

And while Steele's personal resume looks impressive from afar, it's not nearly as pretty up close. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University and then got a law degree from Georgetown University, true. That said, though, he initially flunked out of Hopkins, and while he did pass the bar in Pennsylvania, he failed it in Maryland. His record as a businessman wasn't stellar, either. A consulting firm he founded never turned a profit, and was a serious drain on his finances. Shortly after he began his run for lieutenant governor, Steele ran into trouble because of a $25,000 loan his sister had given to his campaign for comptroller that he'd never paid back. Then, there were revelations of an additional $35,000 in personal debt, as well as more than $100,000 he'd taken out of two retirement accounts in order to support his family, leaving a balance of less than $600 at the time the news broke. He suffered further embarrassment over his finances when it was revealed that the Republican Party was paying him a consulting fee of $5,000 a month during his campaign for lieutenant governor.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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