- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009

Barely five weeks after his election as Republican National Committee chairman, Michael S. Steele pacified some of the 168-member panel during a 75-minute conference call Friday with about 100 of them but left a few still angry, according to participants and officials.

Participants in the call told The Washington Times that Mr. Steele said in opening remarks that lasted about 20 minutes: “I gave our opponents an opening to use against us. I felt very bad about this all last week. It won’t happen again.”

Before Friday’s conference call, at least one member - Ada Fisher of North Carolina - had called for Mr. Steele’s resignation after he had said in an interview that conservative talk-radio star Rush Limbaugh is not the leader of the GOP but an “entertainer” whose political opining is sometimes “ugly” and “incendiary.”

Mr. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is the first black chairman of the GOP’s national governing body, and Ms. Fisher, a physician and former candidate for the U.S. House, is the first black RNC member elected from her state. It is exceedingly rare for an elected RNC member to break party ranks by publicly calling for the national chairman’s resignation.

Some RNC members also were angry with Mr. Steele because they felt he had been aloof, refusing to respond to their phone calls and e-mails asking about what the RNC was doing with respect to fundraising, party organizing, preparing for elections in November and other matters.

In an attempt to placate these members, Mr. Steele gave all participants his private direct land-line number at national party headquarters on Capitol Hill as well as his cell-phone number and invited all 168 members to call him any time.

Until now, Mr. Steele has been virtually unreachable, devoting his time to staff meetings, interviews with potential department heads and to campaign travel to New York, New Jersey and other places where important elections will take place in November. The rest of his time he has devoted to TV, radio and print interviews.

After Mr. Steele on Friday, members heard from Republican National Co-Chairman Jan Larimer of Wyoming, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who heads Mr. Steele’s transition team, and from other members of the team.

Whether by design or accident - and RNC members interviewed by The Times had different opinions - those presentations left time for only one question from one participant.

Mr. Steele and his team explained that the reason the RNC had not hired a communications director, a political director, a finance director or any other directors was that Mr. Steele had always planned to review some 1,400 resumes from applicants all over the country rather than hire the same insiders who have run GOP affairs in Washington for years.

“We never planned to have this completed before the end of March,” Mr. Steele said, according to participants in the call.

Some veteran RNC members who had been critical of the way Mr. Steele had made his debut said they were now pleased with Mr. Steele and his transition team’s clear, if belated, explanation of their plans to make over the national committee.

“They could have saved a lot of trouble for themselves by having this conference call in the first week,” New Jersey RNC member David Norcross told The Times after the conference. “Then people wouldn’t have been so bent out of shape by the early missteps of the new Steele administration.”

RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen of Arizona said he understood why so many members were anxious about Mr. Steele’s failure to name key department heads almost immediately on taking office and not replacing the nearly two-thirds of the staff fired when he took over.

“I wouldn’t have done it that way, but taking more time will probably mean they get good people,” Mr. Pullen said.

At least two participants were highly critical of Mr. Steele and the way the conference call was conducted, but they both declined to lend their names to their views.

Mr. Pullen said he took Ms. Fisher’s call for Mr. Steele’s resignation seriously but saw no move among the rest of the members to try to force Mr. Steele out of office before his two-year term expires.

By the end of the day that Mr. Steele’s remarks about Mr. Limbaugh became widely publicized, the RNC chief had apologized, telling Politico.com that “my intent was not to go after Rush - I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh - I was maybe a little bit inarticulate” and there “was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

On his radio show, Mr. Limbaugh had blasted Mr. Steele, saying, “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, which you’re having a tough time pulling off.”

Mr. Pullen noted that the unpleasantness between the two men might hurt the RNC among its strong small-donor base of those who give $50 to $100, since many of them are admirers of Mr. Limbaugh.

Mr. Pullen, who was tied up with political work in Arizona and could not participate in the conference call, told The Times that the RNC had $23 million in cash on hand at the end of February, “far and above what any of the other campaign committees - Republican or Democratic - have in cash.”

He said previous Chairman Mike Duncan left the RNC in the black, and that about $8 milion or $9 million of the $23 million had been raised since Mr. Steele had become chairman.