When I first met Michael S. Steele, I was a young congressional press secretary and he was an obscure Republican chairman in an overwhelmingly Democratic county. His youth, polish and affability were immediately apparent, but I was most impressed by his determination and commitment to the goal of creating a two-party system in Maryland.
After our meeting, then-Congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. remarked that Mr. Steele "is the future of the Republican Party." Last week, this prediction came true as Mr. Steele became chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Mr. Steele's ascension to the party's top job has roiled both sides of the political spectrum. Conservative Sean Hannity touted his ability to "lead the Republicans out of exile into the promised land - victory." Liberal Thomas F. Schaller dismissed him as the "black Sarah Palin."
But the reality is that a successful party chairman can be neither savior nor figurehead. The job requires a unique blend of communicator, administrator, strategist and bridge-builder. It is always demanding and sometimes thankless, requiring the simultaneous services of an edgy partisan and a happy warrior.
My first experience with Mr. Steele as communicator came in early 2003, when I prepared last-minute bullet points for his use at a news conference announcing the new Ehrlich administration's first budget. I was impressed by the seamless manner with which Mr. Steele, then lieutenant governor, weaved a few hurried sound bites into his own spontaneous summary, making the boilerplate inspirational in the process.
Much the same thing happened at a National Railroad Association convention in Baltimore. Mr. Steele had not had time to review remarks prepared for him, so he quizzed some of the assembled Maryland Department of Transportation staffers for about three minutes and then took to the podium. He spoke completely without notes, impressing both the audience and the policy wonks present.
As a past central committee member, county chairman, state chairman, national committeeman, GOPAC chairman and three-time candidate for statewide office, Mr. Steele has as much (if not more) hands-on party administration experience as past RNC chairmen William E. Brock, Haley Barbour and Jim Nicholson did before their successful terms. He knows how to work with fundraisers, pollsters, media consultants and administrators. Further, Mr. Steele demonstrated his strategic mettle when he successfully led opposition to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gerrymandered redistricting plan in 2001.
Mr. Steele's ability to connect with people of disparate backgrounds and philosophies is an underappreciated asset. I chuckle when I recall him and former President Bill Clinton laughing like old friends at the Preakness in 2003, or the breezy manner with which he forged good personal relationships throughout Maryland's liberal Legislative Black Caucus. I still tease one of my friends - a staunch Democrat and supporter of Gov. Martin O'Malley - for commenting about what a "great guy" Mr. Steele was after meeting him.
Last, Mr. Steele personifies the right message at the right time. His story is one of education, entrepreneurialism, hard work, good citizenship and individual empowerment, messages that resonate with many voters. He is well poised to bring the party's brand back to these positive, unifying themes in a post-Bush era.
Chairman Steele's biggest challenge may be in meeting the tremendous expectations his party has for him. By focusing on traditional party-building activities - investing in new technologies, improving Internet fundraising, reaching out to young and minority voters, and highlighting differences between a "change" president and a status quo Congress - he has an opportunity to bring the party of Lincoln into the 21st century.
In politics, the best thing to be is underestimated. Chairman Steele's career is a study in underestimation. Democrats who seek to dismiss or "Palinize" Mr. Steele now may regret it in the future.
Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.