It's ironic that the first chairman of the Republican National Committee who descended from slaves might finally be ousted from power by a scandal known as "Bondage-Gate." And yet the incident, involving RNC expenditures at an S&M-themed nightclub in West Hollywood, puts Michael Steele—the first black head of the powerful conservative arm once run by George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater—on the firing line once again.
The scandal that has enraged Republican donors and provided fodder for late-night comedians involved expenditures at Voyeur, a popular Los Angeles nightclub known for its topless dancers. Several members of the RNC's "Young Eagles" program, which convenes younger donors in support of the Republican Party, racked up a $1,946 bar tab on a night out. Erik Brown, a Republican consultant present at the gathering, paid the bill when the RNC's credit card was declined—and the reimbursement, flagged as a "meal" in a Federal Elections Commission filing, came directly from RNC coffers.
After the expense report was reported at the Daily Caller, the RNC fired Allison Meyers, the director of the Young Eagles program. And while Steele was not at Voyeur on the night in question, the incident has forced the chairman to defend a high-rolling lifestyle (at the time of the nightclub visit, Steele was on a plane back from a retreat he scheduled in Hawaii) that has irritated donors and some party faithful.
"There's obviously some kind of leadership failure at the RNC," says a Republican strategist who has run several statewide campaigns. "They didn't call [Steele] on the cell and say, ‘Hey, we're heading to Voyeur,' but he was responsible for creating a management culture at the RNC that made it acceptable to submit a $2,000 expense bill. That's something Steele has to answer for."
Steele has dodged many bullets before—from complaints about his self-promotion to accusations of racism. The Daily Caller story about the Voyeur excursion also flagged the nearly $10,000 the Young Eagles spent earlier in the night, and Steele's desire to purchase private jets for his use with RNC funds. But this nightclub fiasco heaps hedonism atop a pile of unwanted associations for Republicans, from racially charged Tea Party rallies, to a slew of sexual dalliances involving Republican Sens. John Ensign, David Vitter and Larry Craig.
What's more, it has infuriated the donor base whose expectations—and cash—are largely Steele's to manage. Douglas MacKinnon, a former aide to Bob Dole, called for Steele's resignation in the Huffington Post: "No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself, if you are giving a political party your hard-earned money, you should have no doubts that it is going to be spent as advertised and not to provide a spoiled, egocentric, out-of-touch chairman with frivolous luxuries which are out of reach of the vast majority of the American people."
Democrats are gleeful about the outrageous expenses—not unlike the revelations that the RNC paid $250,000 to clothe former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. "There's no question that there's a lack of accountability with Republicans, and they continue to reach new levels of hypocrisy nearly every day," says Ryan Rudominer, national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). "[Rep.] Pete Sessions has been under fire for raising money from a burlesque club in Las Vegas. It seems somewhat of a pattern of Republican behavior."
Steele is already walking on thin ice with powerful Republicans who dislike his gaffe-prone political style, and were incensed when he suggested the GOP would lose midterm elections this November. But will he roll under the bus as a result of this latest blunder? Probably not. For one, it would take a two-thirds majority of the RNC governing body to end Steele's reign. (In echoes of the Senate filibuster process, it took only a simple majority to elect him.) And Kishan Putta, a Republican activist and head of Asian-American outreach for John McCain's campaign, defends Steele as a "fresh face" for Republicans. "I think he's a good spokesperson for the party," he says, pointing to Steele's leadership at GOPAC, a national political training program, before winning the RNC chairmanship in January 2009. "He gets a lot of flak, but in general it's been going well—winning the governorship in New Jersey is not an easy thing for a Republican."
But the most likely reason for Steele's continued dominion over the GOP remains its hangover about race. Stretching back to the RNC election in 2009—just days after Barack Obama's inauguration—the Republican Party's leadership seems to be in constant cringe mode when it comes to its public image on racial issues. Within a political coalition that this week referred to Obama as "that black one." and astride a grassroots Tea Party movement accused of spitting on black elected officials, it's understandable. Of the 247 members of the congressional Republican caucus, none are African-American and just five are Hispanic. At the 2008 Republican convention, just 2 percent of the delegates were black.
Of course, Steele's career has not flown above the race-baiting that has for decades prevailed in Republican political circles. His "hip-hop" efforts to attract minority demographics with "fried chicken and potato salad" were poorly received. During his failed 2006 bid for the Senate in Maryland, his team famously bused in poor blacks from Philadelphia to campaign for him—as a Democrat. Still, accusing Steele of being overly "bling bling" is a tricky criticism given the racial politics of the moment. And Steele has no problem talking greasy to his own party: "Shut up or fire me," he has jeered.
No, Republicans are stuck to Steele like a sex slave to a dominatrix. Whether voters reward Democrats or punish Republicans for his behavior, says DCCC spokesman Rudominer, "Michael Steele is the gift that keeps on giving."
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.