- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

In an attempt to deflect attention from growing problems with conservatives in his party, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has begun naming top aides two weeks ahead of schedule.

Mr. Steele on Thursday named Ken McKay his chief of staff, the start of a plan to spread over several days the revelation of his choices: technology chief on Friday, communications director on Monday, finance head on Tuesday and other key positions later.

To the consternation of many Steele supporters and critics alike, the vital department-head positions have gone unfilled since the charismatic former Maryland lieutenant governor won election on Jan. 30 as chairman of the 168-member RNC. He defeated four rivals in a five-way election that was not decided until the sixth round of balloting.

Trevor Francis, 36, who runs the Richmond office of Burson-Marsteller and was press secretary at the U.S. Commerce Department, will be announced Monday as the RNC communications director, Republican insiders told The Washington Times.

Mr. McKay, who was chief of staff to Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri from 2003 to 2006 and is said to be a model of efficiency, will be in charge of making the trains run on time at the headquarters at 310 First St. SE, which insiders have said has been “rudderless” since Mr. Steele, 51, took over as chairman.

Mr. McKay, 42, who also managed Mr. Carcieri’s Rhode Island gubernatorial campaign and two other successful Republican campaigns, is the pick of Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican operative who came up through the RNC and is Mr. Steele’s top consultant.

Conservatives did not regard Mr. Carcieri as one of their own and he did not run as one in his Rhode Island gubernatorial campaign, but running a successful campaign in the tiny Democratic-leaning state is regarded in the consultant community as an achievement.

Republican sources did not name Mr. Steele’s choices for technology chief or finance director beyond saying that the former is a Microsoft whiz who left the software giant to form his own company.

Republican officials hope that news of the appointments will elbow aside the coverage Mr. Steele has been generating, making himself the news rather than the failing economy and the missteps by congressional Democrats and President Obama. Next week also will feature public release of final reports by three transition committee teams on restructuring and reorganizing the RNC and its various departments.

The most-recent round of unwanted publicity came from a Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine interview posted Wednesday night and widely picked up in which Mr. Steele enunciated a confusing position that said both that abortion was “an individual choice” and that the Supreme Court decision making it an individual choice was “wrongly decided.”

Mr. Steele issued a statement Thursday trying to tamp down a chorus of criticism from pro-lifers and social conservatives who have never trusted his bona fides on abortion.

“I am pro-life, always have been, always will be,” he said. “I tried to present why I am pro-life while recognizing that my mother had a ‘choice’ before deciding to put me up for adoption.” He reiterated his statement that the 1973 Roe v. Wade case was “wrongly decided” and should be overturned.

Mr. Steele long has been considered suspect by social conservatives because of his association with Republicans such as pro-choice former Environmental Protection Agency Director Christine Todd Whitman. Mr. Steele also favors same-sex unions short of marriage, though this distinction matters little to the social conservative base. The Republican National Platform long has called for a constitutional ban on abortion and more recently on same-sex marriage.

Mr. Steele, the first black national chairman in GOP history, won election in large part because he was thought to be the most able spokesman for his party - a man comfortable in front of a TV camera.

Republicans hope Mr. Francis as communications director will help the chairman stick to an agreed-upon message and avoid the gaffes that have plagued his first few weeks in office. The choices of Mr. McKay and the other management heads came after the review of more than 100 resumes from applicants from around the country and dozens of interviews, Mr. Steele told The Washington Times.

Fellow Republicans have criticized him for not having a management team ready to go when he was first elected, but he told The Times he wanted fresh, top-notch talent from outside the Washington Beltway as part of the rejuvenation of the RNC, the GOP’s election-fundraising-governing body.

Several conservative RNC members, however, told The Times there is no move afoot - contrary to reports in the blogosphere and on cable news shows - for the panel to call a special meeting for a no-confidence vote on Mr. Steele’s leadership.

Those rumors have been associated with RNC supporters of South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who came closest to defeating Mr. Steele for chairman. It would be virtually impossible to keep secret and anonymous the initiation of a petition for a special no-confidence meeting among 168 members.

Nonetheless, Mr. Steele has his critics on the committee willing to state their opposition only on the condition of anonymity, which leads others on the committee to suspect the motives of such critics.

“I think it’s people who are just jealous or out of work - Steele is doing as well as any of the other chairmen as far was we see,” said businessman Curly Haugland, a conservative North Dakota RNC member who often has gone public with his criticism of the party’s leadership. “I was a Katon Dawson supporter, but I sure support Steele now that he has been elected. I think he’s working hard, frankly.”

Even Mr. Dawson has taken the loyalist view.

“I support Michael Steele,” Mr. Dawson told The Times. “Our committee elected him knowing that he can lead us during this critical time for our party. The people behind this anonymous rumor are clearly intent on dividing the Republican National Committee and our party at a time when we need to be united.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Steele found himself having to apologize to Rush Limbaugh after Mr. Steele was blasted by fellow Republicans for getting into an argument with the hugely popular conservative radio personality over who is the real leader of the GOP and for calling the content of Mr. Limbaugh’s show “ugly” and “divisive.”

While most high-profile groups allied formally or informally with the Republicans elected to hold their fire over the GQ interview, Lou Engle, founder of TheCall, said Mr. Steele’s argument that “abortion is a matter of ‘individual choice’ is extremely disappointing, especially in light of past statements in which he promised to protect and defend human life.”

Mr. Engle said the Steele remarks to GQ “indicate that he may be confused about ‘choice’ and the ‘law.’ The law is supposed to protect human life, not permit the taking of it. And it can never be a ‘choice’ for an individual to take a life. Life is the first right granted in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.”

“The chairman would do well to study that and other documents and recommit himself to the pro-life principles espoused by his party,” Mr. Engle said.

Mr. Limbaugh had said earlier that Mr. Steele would serve himself and his party better by retreating into the anonymity of party fundraising and management.

Two RNC fundraising reports are on the horizon. The RNC raised and dispensed nearly $100 million in the 2007-2008 election cycle to get Republicans elected at the federal and state levels.

Some RNC veterans say if Mr. Steele, who is out to win back the Northeast and West for the GOP, has turned off the party’s base of conservative small donors who normally give $50 or $100 as well as some socially liberal major donors, then the RNC’s financial picture looks gloomy and internal pressure on Mr. Steele to resign for “family” or other reasons may grow.

For now, critics and supporter alike say he has done poorly on what was supposed to be his strong suit - being a pleasing and persuasive public face for the GOP - as well as underlining what critics warned were his long-known vulnerabilities - his tendency toward personal disorganization and disinterest in the art of management.

But many members agree with Mr. Haugland’s view that “Michael Steele, given a reasonable time, will succeed.”