The departure of Speaker John A. Boehner’s longtime press secretary Michael Steel raises plenty of questions. Is this another sign Boehner is done at the end of this term? What does it mean for Boehnerland? What skills does Steel bring to the team that will work to elect Jeb Bush as the next president?
Perhaps the most pressing question is simply this: Who will replace him?
And the answer is no one. At least not exactly.
Someone will take his job, sure, but Steel is his own distinct brand. He’s a memorable press secretary, calculating, laconic — at least on the record — vexingly professional, even a little witty.
“Often he says more in a few words than other spokespersons would in paragraphs,” Rory Cooper, former communications director for Eric Cantor and now the managing director at Purple Strategies, told CQ Roll Call in an email.
Boehner, or whoever wrote Boehner’s statement about Steel, opted to sum him up thusly: “He is a pro’s pro.”
For this story, Steel refused to say much of anything on the record. “I think it’s a remarkable testament to both the speaker and the team he’s created that so many people stay here so long,” Steel told CQ Roll Call. And he was happy to not say much more than that.
Steel seems to spend just as much of his time keeping himself and his boss out of the news as he does seeking headlines. Of course, when there’s a potentially damaging narrative for Democrats, you can often count on Steel to send out a mass email — almost always addressed to “Folks” — that could lend a reporter’s story some juice with either his own quote or one from the speaker. You can also count on him to criticize, at one point last year telling reporters their questions were “horseshit.”
And he’s a fixture in the Speaker’s Lobby, even if most of what he says isn’t on the record.
While there are plenty of skilled press flacks who could step into the role, few have the sort of experience in GOP leadership Steel brought to the table — 12 years in the House, the last seven of which were for Boehner, making him the mouthpiece for the entirety of the Ohio Republican’s tenure as speaker. Every reporter who has sought a comment from the speaker’s office probably knows Steel — and Steel probably knows them.
Boehner’s office wouldn’t hint to any front-runners for the job, one of the Hill’s highest-profile positions. A staffer with leadership experience is probably the most viable candidate, and there aren’t that many people with those credentials — though the speaker could always promote from within.
Boehner’s team will move on, just as it has so many times before. Just as it did after former chief of staff Barry Jackson left, just as it did after his predecessor, Paula Nowakowski, tragically died at 46.
When Dave Schnittger — who had been with Boehner for more than 20 years — left at the beginning of the 114th Congress for a spot at the prominent lobbying shop Squire Patton Boggs, plenty was written about the loss for Boehnerland. But, as Schnittger pointed out to CQ Roll Call via email, there’s still plenty of talent left.
Boehner’s communications director, Kevin Smith, has been in the communications shop since the 1990s. Mike Ricci — “probably the most gifted wordsmith I’ve ever worked with,” in Schnittger’s words — has recently taken on a broader role, and Cory Fritz and Kara Hauck have risen through the ranks, because, in Schnittger’s telling, “they’re really, really good.”
Sources familiar with Steel said the Bush gig — expected to morph into a campaign role once the former Florida governor finally launches his 2016 bid — is a fit for the staffer’s politics and temperament. His skill at fending off conservative attacks on Boehner will probably come in handy for Bush. Unlike some other GOP campaigns, Bush likely doesn’t need to be as solicitous of reporters. He needs someone to brush aside the right-wing muck, and Steel has the on-the-record quotes to prove he’s among the most experienced on the Hill at dealing with that particular challenge.
Steel — and Bush’s yet-to-be-announced campaign — will likely be tasked with deflecting criticism on Bush’s immigration positions. Boehner found himself in much the same spot over the last year.
But, sources said, Steel’s departure would be an asset to Bush and a loss for Boehner. And despite Boehner’s strong fundraising numbers and his protestations otherwise, it’s another sign this could be his final term as speaker.
Steel has been the one pushing back against retirement rumors and dismissing conservative coup attempts, and whoever replaces him will have to deal with an increasing number of stories on chatter that Boehner won’t stick around for the 115th Congress.
Brendan Buck, a former Boehner press aide who worked alongside Steel and now is with Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, acknowledged Steel leaves “awfully big loafers to fill.” He also said Boehnerland was bigger than any one aide. “It will keep plowing ahead,” he said.
Smith — Steel’s boss — waxed poetic about his days going against Steel in the 2006 majority leader race, Smith as Boehner’s communications director and Steel for then-Arizona Rep. John Shadegg. That race, which also featured Roy Blunt of Missouri as the then-majority leader, established Boehner as the heir apparent when J. Dennis Hastert ceded the No. 1 GOP spot for the 110th Congress. Steel joined Boehner’s team at the start of 2008.
Smith praised Steel as “integral” to the office’s success, adding that “no one could have had a better partner in crime.”
Steel told CQ Roll Call the speaker always says no one ever really leaves Boehnerland, noting he’s confident Boehner and the team “will be just fine without me.”
Pressed on what he’ll miss most about the job, Steel, as he’s done so many times before, played it safe.
“Walking into work every day and seeing the Dome, particularly on sunny days, is a thrill that’s never gone away,” he said. “I’ll certainly miss that.”
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.