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Steve Shine and the Allen County G.O.P.

Reports of the party chairman’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-03-10


In politics, the public mantra of any spokesperson is “everything is fine.”

As chair of the Allen County Republican Party, attorney Steve Shine has been a very visible and effective spokesperson for his party since he took the position in 1993. But one of the interesting things about Shine is that he won’t tell you that everything is fine among the Allen County G.O.P.

Things got ugly last year during the mayoral race. The normally solid Republican party seemed to be in meltdown, unable to come together behind candidate Matt Kelty, an outsider who had beat perceived favorite Nelson Peters in the primary last May.

The grumbling continued even after Democrat Tom Henry won the mayor’s seat, with much of the attention focused on Shine. Neither faction thought he had done enough to hold the party together during the contentious race.

So, it’s been a tough year for the Allen County G.O.P. Shine knows this, and he knows you know it. But according to Shine, what’s really important is that he’s heard the criticism, and he’s doing something about it.

Recently, there was speculation that Shine might use the occasion of the State of the Party address on March 15 to declare his intention not to seek re-election when his current term ends next year. There were even rumors that he might resign the position before that term is up.

“Let me squelch any rumor or innuendo and maybe set the record straight,” Shine says. “I am absolutely, without equivocation going to finish my term. And I will not be making a definitive statement as to whether I will seek another term or not. I have a lot of things that I would like to accomplish between now and next March. Those include what I hope will be the seminal address of my chairmanship because of the history that has happened over the past 12 months.”

Shine continues: “If I were to say on March 15 that I would not be seeking another term in March of ’09… I want to be able to set the bar high enough and have enough incentive to earn the confidence and support of the precinct committee people. To do that, I have to do a good job. I want to be able to turn to them in a year and say, ‘these are the things that I’ve accomplished in a year-and-a-half of turmoil. These are the things that I did to bring the party back together, I hope you approve, I would like another term’.”

As Shine sees it, the Republican party has way too much going on both nationally and locally in 2008 — the state convention, the national convention, the Lincoln Day dinner on May 2 (Shine promises a major speaker for the event), not to mention the elections in November — for him not to be performing at his best. “Those are all very important things that all need energy and excitement and interest, and I want to make sure that because they are all my responsibility, I perform as if I’m going to ask people, as Mayor Koch of New York used to say, ‘how am I doing?’”

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Steve Shine loves a challenge. And that’s definitely a good thing, since reuniting the Republican Party of Allen County could prove quite a challenge. The schism over Matt Kelty’s mayoral campaign and the issues surrounding it was hardly the first time the Allen County G.O.P. has dealt with dissension within its ranks — Linda Buskirk upsetting Squadrito in the 1999 mayoral primary is a clear-cut example — but even Shine calls it “…the biggest crisis (the party) had faced on the political landscape in its recent history.”

To be fair, the Allen County Republican Party is huge — we’re one of the most Republican-saturated counties in the entire country — and feuds are bound to happen in a family that large. But what was different about this particular situation was that the controversy refused to die down, and rather than coalescing behind their candidate, the party seemed to split up into factions.

Some Republican officials publicly disavowed Matt Kelty, especially after questions arose over his campaign financing, while others made a point of throwing their support behind Democratic contender Tom Henry. On the other side, Kelty supporters claimed that their candidate’s troubles were part of an establishment backlash, and that the party was not doing enough to support him.

Despite the rancor between the factions of the GOP, there was one thing they seemed to agree on: Allen County Republican Party Chair Steve Shine was not doing his job. And indeed, as the Republican “executive committee” was disbanded and a “reconciliation committee” was formed to attempt to heal rifts in the party, it looked as though Shine, someone who enjoys a reputation of always being a couple steps ahead of any given situation, was struggling to bring his party together. Off the record, plenty of Republican party luminaries and office holders were quite willing to talk (and talk) about their dis-satisfaction with party leadership. Just last month, a large number of Republican candidates filed to run for precinct committee chair positions, spots which will enable them to vote on new party chair person.

Though Kelty’s victory in the primary was divisive enough among local Republicans, Shine thinks Kelty’s indictment on perjury and campaign finance issues further exacerbated the situation. “There were some very ardent supporters willing to overlook anything that surrounded (Kelty), and those who wanted to take the most miniscule of problems and blow them up so that it would thwart his efforts,” Shine says. “I was in the middle of that. If one faction had it their way, I would have disavowed anything to do with the Republican party and Matt Kelty, and if another faction had their way I would have disavowed people who were anti-Matt Kelty.”

Part of the criticism is due to what seems to be an exaggerated perception of the power associated with being party chair. The idea that the party chair exerts a sort of Machiavellian influence over party affairs — controlling office holders, controlling ideological positions, controlling philosophy — is pure myth. “There is no lock step, single-minded, line and verse that Republican office holders are given through their chairman,” says Shine. “Each one is a free and independent thinker and elected official who often tell the chairman where he may go, and I applaud that.”

As Shine sees it, his role as the party chair is to provide an “umbrella” for different factions to pursue their issues and philosophies rather than to champion a particular side. “Part of the job, for me, is not to avoid the controversy, but try to bring a semblance of order to an otherwise unruly situation,” he says. “I tried, and I will continue to try. The answer is not for me to walk away and to submit to the criticism of a multitude of factions.”

Shine doesn’t mind the criticism — it’s part of the job, and he says if he wasn’t able to handle the turmoil and pressure of leading an organization through troubled times, then he has no business being in the position. The bigger sin is avoiding criticism, or not responding to criticism; that’s a sure way for an organization to stagnate. “The Kelty situation has a silver lining, because we are now, all of us, looking at our selves and taking nothing for granted,” he says. “Consistent tranquility and sometimes just blindly winning leads to complacency and stagnation. And sometimes, we need to get kicked in the ass.”

Shine says he’s learned from the divisiveness of the past year and plans to make some changes, most importantly a major overhaul of the party organization that he wants to implement by this summer. Under the new system, precinct people would give their input to the part chair and vice-chair (an inverse of the way it currently works), something which Shine believes will allow people more of an influence in party business.

In addition, Shine says he’s already seen some signs that the splits in the party have begun to heal. He points to the recent gathering of party faithful to salute departing city council Republicans Sam Talarico, Don Schmidt, and John Crawford. He’s also seen an upswing in contributions to the party, which he says are more consistent and larger than they have been in the last few months — though he admits they probably won’t be enough to secure the G.O.P. headquarters on main street (“Unless a major benefactor comes forward, we will be relocating our headquarters, hopefully downtown, but that will happen, must happen, soon after the primary, in the next two months.”)

Of course, there is a lot more to being party chair than mitigating feuds, and Shine seems enthusiastic to get on with his job. “I feel very energetic about my position, not for the power, which there is none, but for the ability to energize, to motivate, to lead when times are bad,” he says. “Anyone can lead when times are good, but coming forward and trying to keep things together when things are rough, that’s the challenge.”

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