Jews split opinions on new GOP chairman

When Michael Steele was elected Jan. 30 to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, he made history as the first black leader of the GOP.

But the appointment of Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, brings up some not-so-fond memories for the Jewish community.

In February 2006, after returning from a state-sponsored trip to Israel, Steele angered many community members by linking stem-cell research to Nazi scientific experimentation.

And later that year, during a close Senate battle between Steele and then–Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Steele’s campaign was accused of inciting anti-Semitism after supporters released a flier accusing Cardin of being “against what Jesus says.”

Though Steele later came out against the flier, and disavowed “any knowledge of its existence,” he waited two weeks to do so.

Those snafus shouldn’t hinder or detract from his efforts at the RNC, noted Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

“While he was lieutenant governor of Maryland, we had open access to him and his staff, and they were always mindful of the Jewish community’s concerns,” Halber said of Steele’s overall performance.

In regard to the Cardin flier, Halber said he “was on the phone [with Steele] several times about it and he clearly thought it was terrible and he denied having any knowledge of it … [but] I think a lot of Jewish people in the community would have liked to see him come out quicker” to denounce the flier.

“One should not evaluate political relationships by blips, but rather the overall context,” Halber added.


Michael Steele holds a gavel after he was elected the first black Republican National Committee chairman Jan. 30. photo/ap/pablo martinez monsivais

Coming out along partisan divides, Steele’s nomination drew expected reactions from politically minded Jews.


Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, took issue with Steele’s failure to address the Cardin flier in a timely fashion.

“This is a failure of moral leadership,” Forman said. “He’s a great speaker and … he can use the roughest [political] tactics, but when it comes to seeing evil and saying, ‘evil’s wrong’ versus political expediency, he chose” the latter.

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, defended Steele. “I wouldn’t expect the NJDC to embrace anybody who was selected chairman of the RNC,” he said, and praised Steele’s relationship with the Jewish community.

“I think everybody understands [that those two issues were] … kind of a speed bump,” Brooks said.

Similarly, Lee Cowen, a Rockville, Md., resident who worked on Steele’s 2006 campaign, said both incidents are not worth dwelling upon.

“I think he’ll be a great new spokesperson and bring a breath of fresh air” to the RNC, said Cowen, who is a Washington, D.C.–based lobbyist.

However, Susan Turnbull, a Bethesda, Md., resident and past vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, said, “We need to be really careful … because [Steele’s] experience and previous efforts are such that it brings questions to what kind of skills he has to move forward.”