To the rescue
Curt Steiner. Photo by Tim Norman.
This story appeared in the September 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Curt Steiner is in his downtown Columbus office, talking about his latest career move. It’s late July, and he’s feeling overwhelmed. He’s in the midst of unwinding himself from his successful consulting firm, Steiner/Lesic Communications, and preparing to start his new job at Ohio State University on Sept. 1. “There’s a lot going on, and I’m trying to keep everything together.”
He says he enjoys the fast pace—and that’s a good thing. It’s doubtful life will slow down once he moves to Bricker Hall. As senior vice president for communications and government relations, Steiner will be Ohio State’s top salesman. He will shape its image, strengthen community ties, lobby government and business leaders and guide the university through the media minefield. It’s a huge position, powerful and unprecedented.
Steiner also starts the assignment in the aftermath of a string of PR embarrassments. The Maurice Clarett and Jim O’Brien scandals have tarnished the football and basketball programs and damaged the university’s attempts to prove it’s more than a sports factory. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s influence around the Statehouse appears to be waning, as legislators facing budget shortfalls seem more reluctant to fund higher education and more likely to accuse
Ohio State and other public university leaders of wasteful spending. “They definitely have an image problem,” says influential lobbyist Neil Clark.
But perhaps Steiner’s most important job is to reposition his new boss, Karen Holbrook. Many outside the university—from the Titans to sports fans—have been slow to warm to Holbrook during her first two years in Columbus. And the board of trustees in April, over Holbrook’s objections, hired former OSU president Ed Jennings as a $10,000-a-month consultant, a move Holbrook believed undermined her leadership. Trustees since have backtracked and ended Jennings’s contract, but the incident sent signals that Holbrook lacked the full confidence of the board. “I think she’s in trouble,” Clark says.
Before taking the OSU job, Steiner called Bob Milbourne, the head of Columbus Partnership. The two have become friends since Milbourne moved to Central Ohio two years ago to head the civic organ-ization comprised of the CEOs of the city’s 25 largest companies. Steiner told Milbourne he was planning to accept the offer, abandoning his profitable consulting business for a post that pays less money and offers more scrutiny. (By no means is his $275,004-a-year OSU base salary a sacrifice, but it’s less than what he was making in the private sector.) “I told him he was nuts,” Milbourne recalls, with a laugh.
That said, Milbourne believes Steiner is perfect for the job. “People in Columbus Partnership have a very high regard for Curt Steiner, and that will be very beneficial to the job he is going to do there, and it will be very beneficial to Ohio State.”
And Milbourne isn’t alone. The hiring of Steiner has been widely hailed; he’s seen as the savvy strategist that Holbrook and Ohio State badly need. If anyone can boost Holbrook, the thinking goes, it’s Steiner, the PR maestro and political star maker who rescued the career of U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, guided former Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson in the turbulent post-Vern Riffe era and earned the respect of Republicans, Democrats and the media (a rare trifecta). “Curt will definitely help them out in areas they need help,” says State Rep. Jim Hughes of Columbus. Adds New Albany developer Jack Kessler, a former chairman of the OSU board of trustees: “I only wish she could have talked him into it a year ago.”
Steiner acknowledges he faces a tough task. “I’ve never had an assignment more challenging,” he says. But the scope of the job hasn’t dampened his spirits. He’s upbeat and jovial. He fills his office with exuberant cackles and flashes his gap-toothed, Alfred E. Newman grin. He seems to be saying, “What, me worry?”
It’s hard to find a more well-connected figure in Ohio politics than William Curtis Steiner. He’s held prominent staff positions in both the legislature and the governor’s office and is one of the masterminds behind the Republican wave that swept the state over the past two decades. Yet he also has Democratic ties through his wife of 11 years, Jan Allen, a former deputy chief of staff for Dick Celeste, the last Democrat to live in the governor’s mansion. “He’s been around it all,” says Jo Ann Davidson, Steiner’s former boss and a member of the OSU board of trustees. “He understands the state of Ohio as well as anyone.”
With such an impressive résumé, it’s no wonder that Ohio State called. In fact, his new job is eight years in the making; he was first offered a post at the university in 1996 by then-president Gordon Gee. “Ohio State is such an incredibly important institution in the state,” says Gee, now the chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I needed somebody who could connect all the dots for the university.”
At the time, Steiner was Davidson’s chief of staff. He had served Davidson the previous two years during her first term as House speaker, when many expected the body to dissolve in chaos. Finally free from the iron grip of longtime Democratic Speaker Vern Riffe, lawmakers were expected to act like school kids on recess. But Davidson, with Steiner at her side, fostered a cooperative and productive environment that surprised pundits and earned praise from both parties.
Over the course of several meetings in the summer of ’96, Gee and Steiner put together a job similar to the one Holbrook would offer him years later. In a meeting in Bricker Hall, Steiner accepted the OSU job, but before he could join Gee’s cabinet, Steiner’s old boss, George Voinovich, called.
Seven years earlier, Steiner had been the first person to join Voinovich’s campaign for governor. The former mayor of Cleveland was considered a long shot then. A year before, Voinovich lost badly in his attempt to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. Voinovich’s political career seemed over at the time.
But Voinovich surprised naysayers by winning the Republican nomination (beating out Mike DeWine, now a U.S. senator, and the current governor, Bob Taft) and then defeating a strong Democratic candidate, Ohio Attorney General Anthony Cel-ebrezze, also a former secretary of state. Steiner was the deputy campaign manager (though some considered him the real brains behind the operation) and Voinovich’s chief spokesman and deputy chief of staff during his first two years in office.
Voinovich’s call came after his chief of staff, Paul Mifsud, was forced to resign over a scandal involving $100,000 worth of improvements done on his home by a contractor doing business with the state. Steiner agreed to replace Mifsud and was forced to call Gee, who was on vacation in the Grand Tetons at the time, to tell him about the change in plans. “President Gee left about six months later,” Steiner recalls. “He would tease me and say he would have stayed if I had come. But the fact of the matter is that sometimes a person does things for a reason. I was instrumental in that election for George Voinovich to start with. And it makes good sense to go in and help him finish the job. I have been a person who has responded to a sense of duty at times. And I felt a duty to do that job.”
In 1998, Steiner went into the private sector. He first took a job as CEO of HMS Success, joining his wife, Jan Allen, in the lobbying and public affairs firm. He and Allen split from the company in 2001 as HMS morphed into the ambitious mega-advertising company Ten Worldwide, form-ing his own firm, Steiner/Lesic Communications, with Nancy Lesic, a former press secretary for Cleveland Mayor Mike White. (Allen started Jan Allen Consulting, but she also has served as a special-proj-ects consultant to Steiner/Lesic.) Steiner showed his sharp instincts: He escaped from Ten Worldwide before it imploded in a nasty power struggle. “He has the uncanny ability to think four steps ahead,” Gee says.
As a consultant, Steiner maintained close ties to Ohio State. Gee’s successor, Brit Kirwan, hired him and Allen to promote a biomedical research consortium consisting of OSU, the University of Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Their efforts secured $1.8 billion in tobacco settlement money over 25 years for biomedical research. That success, and Kirwan’s backing, prompted the Inter-University Council of Ohio, an association of Ohio public universities, to hire the power couple as consultants. Since then, Steiner says he has been asked at “various times” if he was interested in working for OSU full time, and he’s always responded that he only would consider a position similar to the one Gee offered him.
In October 2002, Holbrook succeeded Kirwan, who left OSU to become the chancellor of the University of Maryland system. It’s been a rocky start for Ohio State’s first woman president. Some crises were beyond her control—the Clarett and O’Brien fiascoes, an embarrassing post-game football riot, a fatal fire in an off-campus rooming house. Others were not—hiring decisions, personality questions, public relations gaffes.
Over the past two years, she’s been criticized (mostly behind closed doors) for dull speeches, clothing choices (some want her to wear scarlet and gray more often to public functions) and wasteful spending. In May, the Plain Dealer reported Holbrook chartered a plane and took a limousine ride to a meeting with Case Western Reserve University officials in Cleveland. The report upset State Rep. Jim McGregor of Gahanna, who says he plans to propose legislation that would force public university officials to fly coach on business trips.
Holbrook also seems less comfortable in the spotlight than her predecessors, particularly the charismatic Gee. Though friendly in one-on-ones and in small groups, Holbrook can come across as stiff and cold in larger settings. “Let’s face it: Part of it may be because she’s a woman,” says a Columbus public relations adviser. “A lot of it has stuck to her. She’s the Velcro president, instead of the Teflon president. She doesn’t really feel comfortable with the media the same way that Gordon did.” So when the OSU trustees hired Jennings in April, the move seemed to indicate that the behind-the-scenes grumblings were coming out in the open.
At that point, Holbrook hired Steiner as a consultant. She and Steiner had worked closely together a year before in a successful effort to stop a Republican plan to slash state funding for graduate programs by 40 percent.
With Steiner at her side, Holbrook struck back, telling reporters that she disagreed with the Jennings decision. Then-chairman Zuheir Sofia wanted Jennings to advise the board on organizational and financial issues. Holbrook agreed that Jennings could help in those matters, but she was concerned about how people on the outside would view the hiring. Whether it was their intention, it looked as if the trustees were undercutting Holbrook’s authority.
Holbrook’s offensive worked. A month later, trustees dropped Jennings shortly after Sofia stepped down. New chairwoman Tami Longaberger says Jennings finished his work, and the board no longer needed his counsel. But the end of the relationship came 11 months earlier than expected; the quick exit seems like a victory for Holbrook. (Sofia didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.)
Steiner provided media relations advice and strategy to the president through the crisis. When asked if he suggested she talk openly with reporters about her misgivings, Steiner laughs and says, “I think she’s an honest, forthright leader and that episode demonstrated that.” He says he’s proud of how she handled herself. “It was an important time for her to assert her leadership.”
Two months later, Holbrook offered Steiner the job as her top PR and government relations adviser. Holbrook praises Steiner for his vast experience, knowledge of Ohio and strong relationships with influential people. “You really got to have a sense of this community and this state,” she says. “That’s become very clear to me as I’ve been here, how valuable it really is to know this state, to know the people in it.”
Ohio State will pay Steiner handsomely. In addition to the $275,004 per year, he will earn a 10 percent annual bonus if he attains certain performance goals. His contract lasts for six years, which means he might be at Ohio State longer than Holbrook. College presidents nowadays don’t usually stick around for much longer than six or seven years, and Holbrook already has been at Ohio State for nearly two.
The job also will add significantly to the retirement benefits Steiner will receive from the state for his years of public serv-ice. If he were to leave Ohio State after six years, he would be looking at a yearly pension of around $108,000 when he turns 60 under the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System’s single-life annuity plan.
Steiner’s contract angered McGregor, the Republican lawmaker from Gahanna. He says the agreement is more evidence that Ohio State administrators are “out of touch with the real world.” McGregor has proposed a bill that would cap salaries for administrators at state institutions at $130,000, the governor’s salary. As legislators prepare to grapple with a budget shortfall that could be up to $5 billion next year, they can no longer condone salaries such as Steiner’s, McGregor says; “We need executives who serve out of a love for students and education and not a love for money.”
McGregor’s comments also hint at what promises to be a brutal budget battle next year for higher-education officials. Draconian cuts seem unavoidable now that the state’s rainy-day funds are depleted and a temporary sales tax increase is set to expire. “It’s going to be worse than anything I’ve seen,” predicts veteran Dayton Daily News reporter Bill Hershey.
And expect Ohio State to feel the pain. The school narrowly avoided massive cuts during the last budget struggle in 2002; it may not be so lucky this time. Lobbyist Clark points out that recent polls show only 5 percent of Ohioans believe higher education should be a top priority. That data gives legislators little incentive to support OSU. “As long as they have great seats at the football or basketball games, I wonder if they even care about it,” Clark says.
On top of that, the university sends mixed messages to the public, Clark says. In one breath, the university asks for more state support and raises tuition 13 percent. In the next, it pays out huge salaries to top administrators and spends millions on a new student center. “There are too many conflicting statements,” Clark says.
Holbrook says Steiner’s salary is based on “the extreme amount of responsibilities he’s going to have” and is in line with what other public universities offer. She adds that he’s also taking a “really serious pay cut to work with us.” Steiner shrugs off the criticism. “Some of the attention that’s been paid to my compensation package has been a little bit overblown, but it goes with the territory.”
Indeed, Steiner’s job will be far-reaching. He will oversee two departments (university and government relations) usually handled by two people and will coordinate with folks in development, outreach and alumni affairs to ensure that all project a consistent image. He even will play a role at WOSU, the university’s TV and radio station. Tom Rieland, the station’s general manager, will answer to Steiner, a former public radio and TV reporter in Athens for two and a half years after graduating from Ohio University in 1978.
Steiner will be in charge of a bulky bureaucracy filled with employees who must be feeling insecure after the management shake-up. Holbrook reassigned William Murphy, the former head of university relations, to be her special assistant for national media relations. He will answer directly to the president. However, Steiner will oversee Ellyn Perrone, the former head of government relations.
Plus, Steiner will serve as an overall strategic adviser to the president, a responsibility that goes beyond any job description, as evidenced by his role in the Jim O’Brien media circus.
Even though OSU hadn’t officially hired him yet—and sports aren’t part of his job’s domain—Steiner counseled athletic director Andy Geiger during the crisis. Steiner talked with him before the June 8 press conference announcing the coach’s firing and sat in the audience as Geiger told reporters that O’Brien gave a recruit $6,000. Over the next month, Steiner would continue to counsel Geiger during the search for a new basketball coach. “I helped the administration reach some decisions and to communicate them effectively,” Steiner says, declining to elaborate.
Throughout the search, hoops fans and some media outlets (the Dispatch, in particular) focused on Bobby Knight, an Ohio State alumnus. Sure, Knight would bring considerable baggage, but he would renew interest in OSU basketball and sell tickets. The Knight crusade seemed to grow stronger every day, and rumors began to circulate that Holbrook wasn’t strong enough to beat back the mob.
Sandy Theis, the Columbus bureau chief for the Plain Dealer, called Steiner to ask him about the whispers. Within an hour, he put Holbrook on the phone. “I asked her what type of person the university is looking for, and she described a person who was nothing like Bobby Knight,” Theis says. “It enabled us to shoot down that Bobby Knight story at a time when other news organizations were really promoting it.”
Holbrook recognizes that she could use some help communicating, Steiner says. She’s not a “natural schmoozer,” he says, but she’s smart, honest, hardworking and has the scientific and academic credentials to turn Ohio State into a great research university, the real job trustees hired her to accomplish. “Thankfully, she doesn’t need anything in the substantive areas,” Steiner says with a laugh.
But with the budget and PR battles and intense public scrutiny that are part of his new job, you can’t help but wonder why Steiner accepted Holbrook’s offer. “It’s not a rational decision,” Steiner acknowledges. “It’s a decision based on emotion. This is something I love. As I’ve said before, the interests of this university can’t be separated from the interest of this community and this state. It’s a great place. It does incredible things for people, and people do incredible things for the university. . . . I don’t know what a little old guy with a bachelor’s degree is going to do that’s better than this.” Allen calls the job a “perfect marriage at the perfect time.”
On a Saturday morning in late June, Steiner and Allen stopped at a dry cleaner near their home in the Upper Arlington area. Steiner is a store regular, and someone there had pinned up a Dispatch story from earlier in the week announcing his new Ohio State job. “You know, Mr. Steiner,” one of the employees told him. “It’s not very often that somebody gets their picture in the paper for doing something good.”
The remark touched him deeply. When he returned to the car, he was in tears. Even a month later, the polished spokesman needs to pause and gather himself as he recounts what happened. “These people associated Ohio State University with everything that’s good,” he says. “They associated Ohio State University as a guiding light for this community. And it’s entirely possible that none of the people who work there had gone to any undergraduate school. It’s possible they have not been to campus. And yet they thought this was big. And I think that’s indicative of the kind of support that’s out there for this university.”
Dave Ghose is a staff writer with Columbus Monthly.