Joseph F. Steffen Jr., Republican political operative, dies

Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a Republican political operative who enjoyed describing himself as the "Prince of Darkness," died of coronary disease Friday at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The Dundalk resident was 57.

His daughter Jennifer Steffen, with whom he lived, said her father suffered two strokes several years ago.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Reisterstown, he was the son of Joseph F. Steffen Sr., a machinist, and Anne Steffen. He attended Sacred Heart School and was a 1977 Franklin High School graduate. He then did odd jobs before he began working as a speechwriter in Republican politics.

"He was noticed for an article he wrote in a Reisterstown newspaper, and went on to work for [conservative figures] Linda Chavez and Richard Viguerie," his daughter said. "On the basis of that initial article, he was noticed by the National Conservative Action Committee, and at age 23, he became a press secretary for it."

Mr. Steffen was best known for his work in the rough-and-tumble world of Maryland politics, including more than a decade working for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

According to a 2005 Baltimore Sun article, he resigned from a state government job after admitting he had been spreading rumors on the internet about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. He posted on FreeRepublic.com, a conservative website, about Mr. O'Malley's marriage. Once his activity came to light, Mr. Steffen resigned.

"The governor [Mr. Ehrlich] had no idea," Mr. Steffen said at the time. "I don't even think he knows where the website is. If anyone is guilty, it is me. There was no outside influence. It was all me."

When he resigned, Mr. Steffen was director of communications at the Maryland Insurance Administration. He had earlier held posts in the state's Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Services.

A 2006 Sun article said that Mr. Steffen was then not returning phone calls. State legislators tried to subpoena him to testify before a committee, but the summons could not be served because his whereabouts were then unknown. He said he was out of state and turned up in Harford County in 2006 to work on a County Council campaign.

"I think he did enjoy the title 'Prince of Darkness,'" his daughter said. "He didn't do anything unless he enjoyed it. He was essentially a passionate writer. After leaving government, he went on to write romance horror books. And he had another book, not yet published, about growing up wild and crazy in Reisterstown. ... He was self-taught in everything he did."

State Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said he met Mr. Steffen in 1995 while he was interning for Mr. Ehrlich, then a congressman. He described Mr. Steffen as a loyal friend who was badly hurt when many Republicans abandoned him after the scandal over his FreeRepublic postings.

"Joe was an extremely loyal friend, unless you didn't show him the respect he thought he deserved," Mr. Jennings said. "He had a lot of friends who left him when the whole thing with Ehrlich went down. He just felt betrayed. People just jumped ship on the guy."

Mr. Jennings recalled his friend's ability to write.

"He could take any letter and make it sing off the page, where you didn't want to stop reading it," Mr. Jennings said. "He could make an issue talk."

"Joe could be an enigma," Mr. Jennings said. "He rolled his own cigarettes. He liked a good shot of whiskey. He stayed true to who he was. He never changed."

Republican speechwriter Richard Cross described Mr. Steffen as "off-beat, quirky and very smart."

"He called himself the 'Prince of Darkness,' but he was actually kind of an easygoing, likable guy and a good friend. I think he had some rough times after his departure. The last 10 years has been difficult on him," Mr. Cross said.

In 2013, Mr. Steffen published his first novel, "Death, Wish." Set in Fells Point, it describes a singer named Charlotte who performs at the Waterfront Hotel. She is murdered after a gig and returns shortly after her burial. A book blurb said Charlotte was "not a vampire, not a zombie ... just dead at age 27."

"'One day, I took a nap and woke up and the whole idea was in my head,'" Mr. Steffen said in a Washington Post article.

He followed up with two other novels, "Death, March" and "Dead End." The Charlotte character reappears in them.

Mr. Steffen also painted in oils. "His paintings have a humorous aspect to them," his daughter said. "The humor is twisted and not for everyone." She also said he was a fan of the music of Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople.

A life celebration will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Best Western Hotel, 5625 O'Donnell St.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Ryan Steffen of Dundalk; another daughter, Sarah Steffen Emala of Middle River; a stepdaughter, Christina Cathleen Gammons of Trexler, Pa.; and three grandchildren. His marriages to Loretta Carol Becker and Cathleen Ann Vogel ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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