Was his teased candidacy a fundraising grift?
Earlier this week, former Maryland Lt. Gov. and Republican MSNBC commentator Michael Steele announced that he would not run for Governor. He bravely told the Baltimore Sun that his decision was not affected by Trump’s support from Republicans in Maryland.
“If you don’t know how to run a campaign through that gauntlet, then you shouldn’t be in the game,” he said. “That was never a consideration for me to try to figure out how to navigate that. The Republicans in Maryland know me.” [i]
Steele’s vocal support for Biden was central to evaluating his viability as a candidate. Only 8% of Republicans voted for Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate nationwide. [ii] Curiously though, Steele apparently never polled Maryland primary voters’ about their reaction to his Biden endorsement.
Steele’s exploratory campaign managed to run afoul of Maryland election laws without his ever becoming an actual candidate. In September, the Maryland State Board of Elections demanded he respond to a complaint that Steele was improperly using a federal “527” committee to raise and spend money for a future Maryland state campaign. The Board noted allegations that “the exploratory committee is engaging in activities that would require registration” as a traditional campaign finance entity under Maryland law.[iii]
A Steele spokesman responded with a non-denial that the committee was fully complying with the guidance they received from the Secretary of State’s office and their attorneys. “We can spend [our funds] on exactly what the secretary laid out and that’s exactly what we’re doing — polling, travel and campaign literature.” [iv] (Spoiler alert: the Maryland Secretary of State has no campaign finance role and gives no such guidance, raising even more questions about the Steele campaign’s seriousness.)
Steele’s deep involvement with that infamous political grift, the Lincoln Project triggers more questions about “Steele 2022.” Not just Republicans, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called out the Lincoln Project for what it was: A fundraising scam that raised tens of millions from Trump-deranged Democratic donors. Most of the money was never spent on advocacy but lined its sponsors’ pockets.[v] Of the $90 million the Lincoln Project raised, more than $50 million went to the group’s leaders. [vi]
Beyond the Lincoln Project’s financial issues are concerns about its governance. In June 2020, its leadership was informed in writing and with subsequent phone calls of at least ten specific allegations of sexual harassment against co-founder John Weaver. The New York Times reported interviewing 21 men who say Weaver had harassed them. One of the victims told the Times he started receiving messages from Weaver when he was only 14.[vii]
And yet, while all this was going on, Steele continued to publicly identify himself as a “Senior Adviser to the Lincoln Project” while making such cringe-worthy contributions to the national political discourse as: “What the party’s gonna need when this is all said and done is a political enema. And I’m happy to deliver it.”[viii]
At first Steele’s choice of a Federal “527” committee for his “exploration vehicle” seems puzzling, given state campaign finance law. However federal committees are not subject to the stringent Maryland state limits on using campaign funds. Maryland committees are prohibited against spending “for the personal use or benefit of the candidate, candidate’s family or any other individual.” Examples of prohibited spending include “the mortgage, rent, or utilities for the personal residence of the candidate or the candidate’s family; making loans to other political committees, and expenses relating to travel outside the country.”[ix]
The personal enrichment of the Lincoln Project principals would have been illegal for those involved with a Maryland campaign committee. As of the date of Steele’s “withdrawal,” no state exploratory committee had been formed which would have allowed for spending, such as for polling. A less transparent Federal “527” committee apparently does exist. [x] What money was raised by it and from whom? And how was it spent? Or did Steele ever seriously test the waters to run in Maryland?
[ix] COMAR 33.13.10.03