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GOP Champion Has Run Some Party Interference

Politics: State leader Shawn Steel speaks his mind, even when Bush team advises against it.

September 27, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shawn Steel threw himself into politics on the streets of the San Fernando Valley in 1964 by ripping down Lyndon Johnson posters at construction sites. In the Youth for Goldwater brigades, it was known as "sniping."

"You peel off their stuff and trash it, and you put up your stuff. I loved it," Steel recalled. "I learned to be confrontational pretty early."

Decades later, Steel, now the state Republican Party chairman, still has a knack for confrontation, even when others--important others--would like him to back off.

The others include White House advisors who thought Steel went a step too far in May when he wrote an article saying that President Bush's system for naming judges in California was "half-baked."

So Bush confidant Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, bounced Steel from the RNC executive committee, which did nothing to stop Steel's public challenge of the Bush forces.

The dust-up was only one of the reasons for Steel's schism with his party's presidential administration and many high-ranking elected California Republicans. In the 19 months that he has held the top state party post, he has rankled nerves from Washington to Sacramento to Orange County, where a state party convention starts today in Garden Grove. In that way, he has come to symbolize the infighting that has distracted the state party for years from its central--and largely elusive--goal: winning elections.

Steel, not surprisingly, will be part of the convention show as allies seek to restore powers that were stripped from him months into his tenure.

To Steel's friends, his tendency to blurt out thoughts before weighing the consequences is a large part of his gregarious charm, but also his Achilles heel.

"Shawn's willing to charge up the hill before he's got the battle all mapped out," said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

Others have more critical assessments of the Rolling Hills lawyer, who also teaches ethics at a school for chiropractors.

"He's the crazy uncle we want to hide in the basement," said a top state Republican whose opinion of Steel is shared by several others.

Steel lost powers in a state party overhaul engineered by Bush allies. Control of the party's money was yanked from the state chairman and entrusted instead to a board of directors. But Steel, a GOP activist for more than three decades, has jealously guarded his key remaining function: the power to speak out.

The biggest and most damaging of Steel's feuds is the one with President Bush's top political man in California, Gerald L. Parsky, who led the party overhaul. Although Steel has campaigned hard for Bush, gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. and other Republicans, he and his loyalists have refused to drop their anti-Parsky crusade.

"His tactics vis-a-vis [Parsky] have been at times inappropriate and not helpful to the party," said state GOP Treasurer Douglas Boyd, a friend of Steel.

Many GOP leaders view the dispute as an ego-driven power struggle, but Steel says he is fighting to safeguard Republican influence over the federal courts.

He blames Parsky for setting up judicial screening committees that give Democratic senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein a say in Bush's nominees to the bench. Steel calls Boxer and Feinstein "mortal enemies" of Republicans.

"Gerry Parsky is well-meaning, naive, inexperienced, and not politically sophisticated," Steel said during a San Francisco meeting of the RNC in July.

Parsky, a Rancho Santa Fe investment mogul, responded: "I'm only doing what the president of the United States has asked me to do in California, including chairing the statewide judicial review committee."

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the administration stands by the judicial screening system, and Bush's political team has locked arms with Parsky.

"Gerry is our friend, our colleague, and part of the family that is focused on doing everything we can to win this campaign for Bill Simon," said Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the RNC.

At the convention this weekend, the intraparty feuding threatens to shatter the image of unity that Republicans hope to project as they pay tribute to Simon.

Steel allies have called for a vote on restoring his spending power. They also have proposed a resolution calling for "termination of the Parsky/Boxer/Feinstein judicial committees as a failed experiment." After squawking from the Simon campaign, Steel agreed to try to postpone the votes until after the Nov. 5 election, but other Republicans may still press forward.

Apart from the Parsky feud, Steel has also clashed with the state top Republicans: Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga and Assemblyman Dave Cox of Fair Oaks. Cox bridled at Steel's suggestion that GOP lawmakers return a $50,000 contribution from Enron.

"Mr. Steel can return any money he wants to--that's his," Cox said.

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