Strategist Steiner is mastermind
behind Ohio GOP success

Curt Steiner stands tall inside the Ohio Statehouse.

Photo: Jack Kustron

By Dexter Bailey

For most, setting the standard for two successful gubernatorial campaigns would be the defining work of a political strategist's career. But for Curt Steiner, BSC '78, it was only the beginning.

The 1994 political season validated Steiner as Ohio's top campaign strategist and mastermind behind a Republican landslide that included a sweep of Ohio's statewide offices - secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer - for the first time since the 1960s.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that Steiner and his consulting firm served as the leading campaign consultants for the Ohio Republican Party during the 1993-94 election cycle. And for those who haven't been keeping score, the Republicans also control the Ohio House of Representatives for the first time in 22 years and have maintained a 10-year majority in the Ohio Senate.

"Curt Steiner is the best in the business at what he does," says Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, AB '58, HON '81.

Voinovich ought to know. Steiner was the chief media strategist who helped him overcome early deficits to win the race for Ohio's top executive post in 1990, and Steiner was instrumental in Voinovich's winning reelection in 1994 with a record 72 percent of the vote.

Steiner's recent resume also includes managing Mike DeWine's successful race to become Ohio's first Republican U.S. senator in more than 20 years.

"I am at a point where I feel very good about what I have accomplished in this arena and in political terms," says the 39-year-old Steiner. "I have been involved in two winning gubernatorial races, a victorious U.S. Senate race and several other successful races, including statewide offices, the (Ohio) Supreme Court, and campaigns for Congress.

"There is not a whole lot left to do . . . but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to try it all again. So, right now, I am at a crossroad."

Although it has been widely speculated that Steiner will help spearhead Voinovich's expected run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Steiner says he is quite content in his current job as chief of staff of the Ohio House of Representatives' majority caucus. Steiner, who took over the position in January 1995 and supervises a young staff he calls "hard working," works for Ohio's first woman speaker of the House, Jo Ann Davidson (Reynoldsburg). Davidson received an honorary doctorate of laws degree from Ohio University in October. Steiner had previously served as communications director and later deputy chief of staff for the majority Republican leadership of the Ohio Senate under Stanley Aronoff and Paul Gillmor.

"It means a lot for me to be able to work for Speaker Davidson, who is a fabulous public official and a fabulous person," Steiner says. "It's hard to want to do something else when you like what you are doing so much."

Steiner knew he wanted to enter politics and communications at an early age. It was Ohio University's highly touted College of Communication that attracted him to Athens. He did volunteer work at WOUB Radio and TV in Athens even before his first class as a freshman in 1974, and he continued to work for WOUB for four years as a part-time student editor and then for two and a half years as a full-time staffer, advancing to assistant news director.

It was during his time at Ohio University that Steiner made a conscious decision to stick with the Republican Party despite the troubled times of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation as president.

"I suffered some disillusionment at the time, but I stuck with the party," Steiner remembers. "College students were much more serious about politics and much more emotional about their position than they are now.

"Then, you had . . . almost 100 percent Democrats, no matter what college you would have gone to in Ohio. While I attended OU, the OU Republican Club only had about 10 members. At night, you couldn't find a Republican with a flashlight on our campus."

State Sen. Tom VanMeter, whom Steiner first met while working as a reporter for WOUB, offered Steiner his first full-time political job in the Ohio Senate in 1981. Steiner eventually became a communications specialist in the Senate and also worked as Ohio media director for the Reagan/Bush reelection campaign in 1984.

As Ohio and the country point toward this fall's elections, Steiner's expertise is in high demand. Many expect that his firm, Curt Steiner and Associates, will reopen for business some day soon.

"I think '96 is going to be a very unpredictable year," Steiner predicts. "Anybody who thinks they have a handle on '96 is probably just blowing smoke at this point. . . . With the kind of mixed leadership (Democratic president and Republican Congress) in Washington, it just makes it that much harder for anybody to predict what's going to happen."

Dean Johnson, BSC '81, MA '86, chief of staff of the Democrat Caucus of the Ohio House, admits that Steiner is the hottest strategist in Ohio politics. He calls Steiner a "master communicator."

"I am certainly not pleased with his success," Johnson says. "Curt can play hardball with the best of them, and that's common knowledge. His strength is his ability to persuade. He has done a fine job in crafting a message that plays to the Republicans' traditional support base - i.e. big business."

James Tilling, Steiner's former boss at the Senate and current chief of staff for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, says Steiner "realizes that he has a number of weapons in his arsenal and knows when to use them. He has been involved in enough races to know when an opponent attacks you . . . an attack that goes unanswered is an attack usually believed. I imagine that those who refer to Curt as a hardball player are the ones who may have lost to him in the past."

Tilling claims that one of Steiner's top assets is his sense of humor. "Sometimes to be successful you must be able to roll with the punches," says Tilling, a former OU political science faculty member. "Curt does a good job alleviating tension during the tough times with a little humor."

Steiner may have faced his toughest political challenge after his marriage proposal to long-time Democrat Jan Allen in 1993. Allen was deputy chief of staff for former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. To their credit, Steiner and Allen, after almost three years of marriage, have had zero incidents of breach of confidence. Both agree that Allen's earlier move from politics to lobbying may have helped to keep the marriage a happy one. Allen is now president of the Success Group, a Columbus-based lobbying firm.

Steiner considers himself fortunate to have worked in all branches of state government, where he's learned the ins and outs of state politics.

"It's been a dream to do this," he says. "To be able to visualize what you want to do at a young age and then have the opportunity to get paid to do it is tremendous. I probably feel the same way as some people in major league sports, who say, 'I get paid to do this? To do what I like to do?'

"I enjoy putting my experience and my contacts to work for the people of this state; that is something that I enjoy very much. Right now, I think Ohio's state government is functioning very well. And I am happy to be a cog in that machine. I think that's where I get my job satisfaction. Campaigns can be extremely rewarding, but public service is a real privilege."

Dexter Bailey, BSJ '92, is an assistant director of alumni relations at Ohio University and former press secretary for the Democrat Caucus in the Ohio House of Representatives.

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