2013 | Politics

Controversial Political Operative Surfaces In Local Congressional Campaign

Joseph Steffen, aka 'Prince of Darkness', Consulted For Republican Bongino

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A Baltimore-based political operative whose activities sparked widespread controversy nearly a decade ago has surfaced as a consultant in a local congressional campaign.

Joseph Steffen, whose role in the administration of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich triggered a General Assembly probe, is doing work for ex-Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, a Republican hoping to take on Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, in 2014. Reports filed by the Bongino campaign with the Federal Election Commission last week show two $1,000 payments to Steffen – in July and September – for “strategic campaign consulting.”

Dan BonginoBongino, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, has so far raised about $130,000 for an uphill bid in the 6th District, which stretches from Montgomery County into western Maryland. Delaney ousted then-GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett by a 59-38 percent in 2011 after the district was redrawn to include more Democrats. David Vogt, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan, is also seeking the Republican nomination. 

In response to requests to discuss Steffen’s role in Bongino’s congressional bid, campaign spokeswoman Karla Graham – in an email – said only that Steffen has done “limited research for specific issues with the campaign.” Efforts to reach Steffen for comment were unsuccessful this week. The FEC filing lists him at an address in a Baltimore suburb; a phone number associated with that address was not in service.

Steffen told the Washington Post this past summer that he is currently working in opposition research for a number of political clients from New York to South Carolina, but declined to identify any of them.

Known in political circles as the “Prince of Darkness” – he was said to keep a model of the Grim Reaper on his desk – Steffen worked for several state agencies during Ehrlich’s term as governor. He was fired by Ehrlich in 2005 for being behind a website spreading rumors that then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley – who was seeking to take on Ehrlich — was having an extramarital affair. O’Malley denied the rumors, and Steffen subsequently apologized.

But what prompted the General Assembly probe – which Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Bethesda, helped to spearhead – were allegations that Steffen had been dispatched to state agencies to weed out Ehrlich political opponents. Steffen at least partially acknowledged this during testimony before a legislative committee, even as the Ehrlich administration sought to downplay his influence — nothwithstanding Steffen’s long-time role as an operative in Ehrlich’s political campaigns. Frosh at the time accused Ehrlich and his aides of doing “a lot of bobbing and weaving.”

Outside of a couple of blogs, Steffen has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, although he emerged as author of a work of fiction with a rather dark side. The novel is set in Baltimore and involves a grieving widower whose murdered wife returns to him as “not a vampire, not a zombie…just dead at age 27,” according to a blurb on Amazon.com

The latest gig will probably not enable Steffen to quit his day job: The novel currently ranks 886,426 in Amazon’s paid Kindle rankings. 

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Speaking of Frosh…A number of the attendees to a forum with the Democratic candidates for state attorney general at the Wheaton Library Tuesday night were grumbling when – upon arrival – they discovered Frosh would not be there.

It was the first forum for attorney general candidates to be held in Montgomery County during the 2014 campaign, and advance notices of the event had indicated all four Democratic aspirants would be in attendance. While there was some confusion among the organizers of the forum – led by the African-American Democratic Club of Montgomery County – as to when Frosh told them he would not attend, the Frosh campaign said the sponsors had been notified early on.

“When we got the date from the organizers, we let them know immediately that we had a conflict,” said Frosh campaign manager Rachel Levine in an e-mail. “We regret he was unable to attend, and hope there will be another opportunity in the near future for Brian to meet and discuss important issues with Montgomery County residents.”. 

That left the three remaining candidates —  Frosh’s District 16 colleague, Delegate Bill Frick, along with Delegates Aisha Braveboy of Prince Georges and Jon Cardin of Baltimore – to participate in a 90-minute session notable for its comity and lack of disagreement over policy issues.

The forum came a week after a Gonzales Poll showed Cardin leading the four with 25 percent – likely due in part to voters confusing him with his uncle, popular U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. But the poll shows half the electorate remains undecided.

It gave Frick a chance to score points with the home-county audience by embracing the mantle of underdog.

“I am trailing that frontrunner – undecided – overwhelmingly,” he said to laughter. “That’s all right, I’m not afraid to be an underdog; I’ve been an underdog my whole career.”

Added Frick: “When I first competed to be appointed to the House of Delegates, no one gave me a shot at winning. It was such a shock that the blog post written about that night…was ‘Who The Frick is Bill?” And it’s still in my Google rankings, if you can believe it.”