Chad Barth was traveling home on a Friday night from Reagan National Airport when he got an email from William Steiner, his boss at the Republican National Committee, asking if he was coming into the office. Weary from a long day, Barth said he was going directly home. He assumed Steiner, whom everyone knew by his family name, was just checking in.
On Monday morning, though, Barth opened his office door and found every piece of furniture inside gift-wrapped, Christmas lights hung from the ceiling, and shredded paper strewn knee-high over the floor. “Feliz Navidad” played on a loop.
“It took, like, two days to clean everything out,” Barth recalls. Steiner’s “wonderful mischievousness” is what made him and his compatriots “such a close knit family within the strategy department,” Barth says.
Whether providing pranks or post-election fishing and skiing trips, “[Steiner] was the boss who everyone kept coming back to,” says William Skelly, an RNC staffer who worked under Steiner. “It’s very rare in politics, to keep a team together as long as he did.”
It should have lasted longer. Steiner and his almost two decades at the RNC are being remembered fondly after he passed away on Aug. 27, aged 41, after battling ampullary cancer, a rare form of the disease.
Eventually working his way up to director of strategy for the RNC, Steiner had a storybook start with the committee in the early 1990s. While tending bar and waiting tables at a bygone barbecue place on Capitol Hill, Steiner, then 22, made an impression on his RNC customers, talked himself into a job and transitioned up 1st Street SE to an hourly position with the committee. He would maintain a lifelong obsession with good barbecue.
“He knew where all the good places were, and a lot of times on Saturdays and Sundays, going into the elections, you could always go down to Bill’s office and get some barbecue,” says Jeff Larson, a former chief of staff to Reince Priebus who continues to advise the RNC chairman.
In a business filled with sticklers, Steiner seemed to take pleasure in bending the rules. Despite a building ordinance forbidding pets, Hank, a Bassett Hound mix, faithfully accompanied Steiner on his weekends at the office. Hank would waddle in with his owner and sit on a bed next to Steiner’s basement desk. Anne Hathaway, a former RNC chief of staff who founded her own Indianapolis-based consulting firm, calls him an unsung hero.
“Bill and I would talk in the middle of the night and he would be pulling universes to help us make sure that we were putting out the best mail, pulling the best phone lists possible,” she says. “Literally, I know there were nights for multiple years when he slept in his office, just leaned over this desk and fell asleep, and I don’t think people realized that out beyond the Beltway or out beyond the building.
“There are very few people who understand the intricacies of data and then have a political instinct and the ability to marry them,” says Hathaway. “There are a lot of amazing data people out there. There a lot of amazing computer folks out there. There are a lot of amazing political strategists. Bill could do all three.”
Because of that, he could easily have walked out of the RNC and into a lucrative contract in the private sector. His loyalty drew admiration.
“Bill could have made a lot of money in other industries or in the political industry, had he chosen to do that,” says Robert “Mike” Duncan, a former RNC chairman. “I know people had talked to him about moving into the private sector. But there was always one more election cycle that he was interested in, because he was always getting the data from the previous election cycle.”
Priebus, the current chairman, was succinct: “Bill was an institution at the RNC.”
It was Steiner’s pairing of consumer data with the RNC’s voter file that will be remembered for helping push the committee into a new era.
“I recently told a friend that we live in an era that could be appropriately called the ‘Bill Steiner era,’” says Ken Mehlman, another former RNC chairman Steiner served under. “This is because ‘big data’ has become so critical to reaching and persuading voters, and Bill Steiner was focused on big data long before almost anyone else in either party.”
Mehlman, Duncan and others credit Steiner with pioneering the 72-hour project, a turnout effort in the early 2000s, microtargeting in 2004 and the recent privatization of the RNC’s voter data. Tragically, his cancer afflicted Steiner at a particularly sensitive time, near the grueling height of his duties.
“He started his treatment [in June 2012] on his 40th birthday -- and think presidential election, convention. He didn’t want people to know,” says Hathaway. “And he was in there pulling lists, building files in order to make sure we had what we needed.”
“I just think we’re all going to miss him,” says Dan Perkins, who joined the RNC shortly before Steiner and served with him for 19 years. “It’s going to be sad to do an election cycle without him around.”
In addition to his girlfriend, Mallory Crosland, and to his parents, Dr. Robert G. “Bob” and Donna H. Steiner of Fayetteville, Penn., Steiner is survived by his sister, Amy E. Steiner of Greensboro, N.C.
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine