Meet Joe Cluster, the new Executive Director of the Maryland Republican Party.
Jackie Wellfonder reports his hiring and has the transcript of an interview of him that she conducted.
The MD GOP release points out that Cluster:
Joe has an extensive background in state and national politics having worked for the former Lt. Governor of Maryland Michael Steele as his Director of External Affairs from 2004-2007 and before that in Governor Ehrlich’s Appointments Office. Joe has also worked in DC for the political action committee GOPAC and the Republican National Committee. A lifelong resident of Maryland, Joe has been active in the Republican Party since 2000. He has worked for the state party on two previous occasions. In 2002, he ran the party’s field operation in which the party was successful in electing the first Republican Governor of Maryland in 40 years and in 2004 he served as Political Director.
Cluster told Wellfonder the following about 2002:
In 2002 I worked as the field coordinator for Paul Ellington and Chairman Michael Steele, Ellington was the ED. I got hired right out of college to do all the counties in the mid shore, to do whatever the party could to help out the central committees and the candidates.
After that, per the interview with Jackie:
I went and worked over in the Governor’s appointment office because I had gone through and met everyone in the county and we were working to get people jobs that were very active and getting people on boards and commissions. So, they put me on in the appointments office for a year and then in 2004 I got a phone call from John Kane, saying we needed some extra help in the party, would you come back and be the Political Director. I said yes, because I like party politics more than I like working for the government.
Cluster was the delegation chair for the national convention in 2004 and then became Michael Steele’s body man after that election.
No other political jobs are mentioned by Cluster in the interview after Steele lost the election in 2006. In fact, he says:
I started working for him at the end of 2004 and I worked for him until he lost his election in 2006. So, I haven’t worked for the part [sic] for a while but have always looked for the opportunity to get back.
This doesn’t jibe with Cluster’s LinkedIn profile or the party release on his hire. The party release simply says he “worked in DC for the political action committee GOPAC and the Republican National Committee.”
His LinkedIn profile provides a little more clarity. Cluster was National Field Director for GOPAC from 2007-2008. His tenure at GOPAC matches the tenure of Steele as chairman there. Then from 2008-2009 he worked at UMBC at the Erickson School (Management of Aging Services) as a program coordinator.
His time at the RNC was during the disastrous tenure of Michael Steele as Chairman. In fact, both of Cluster’s jobs were related to the 2012 convention. He was a staff assistant at the Committee on Arrangements and then on the convention operations staff until February of 2011, when he left to become a loan officer at a mortgage company. Since April 2012, he has worked for County Councilman Joe Woods in Harford County.
Let’s talk a little more about the RNC Committee on Arrangements for the national convention and the next of cronyism it became during Michael Steele’s chairmanship. In 2010, it was reported that Steele hired a family friend and his former personal assistant, Belinda Cook, to manage the convention with a salary of $15,000 per month and a $25,000 signing bonus. Cook made three times the salary of previous personal assistants when she held that job at the RNC and her son was also hired there. Another Steele family friend, Angela Sailor, made $180,000 a year as outreach director for the party. A 32,000 square foot mansion with a pool and dock were also rented in Tampa for the convention staff in 2010 under Cook. Several of her friends and family were hired as well and six staffers were in Tampa that far in advance. As a Steele crony, was Cluster one of them?
Convention treasurer Louis Pope, who is the MD GOP’s National Committeeman, defended all the excessive spending. Waterman noted that Pope was involved in the process that resulted in Cluster being hired.
Cluster mentions in the Wellfonder interview that he has worked with Paul Ellington in the past. I’ve heard Cluster described as a “big fan” of Ellington more recently. Ellington is running the campaign of gubernatorial candidate David Craig and there is noticeable dysfunction and disarray in the Craig campaign that is noticeable when you deal with them. That and the fact that Ellington tried to contact multiple friends of mine multiple times after I wrote this (which resulted in my clarification) are concerning.
Cluster will have to go out of his way to prove his impartiality in the Governor’s race because of his ties to Ellington. And when I say impartiality, I mean real impartiality – not the lip service Chairman Diana Waterman gave it during the District 36 mess.
Cluster did tell Jackie Wellfonder that it’s a job he always wanted and this is his third time applying for it. From what I heard, the salary of the position has dropped down to $50,000 now after being $80,000 when it was open in 2009. That’s understandable with the party’s dire financial straits right now, but I’ve also heard that two better qualified candidates were finalists and probably scared off by that low number.
As noted above, Cluster’s ties to Steele are a big concern.
With all of the above caveats being noted, there are some good things about the MD GOP hiring Joe Cluster.
Cluster says the right things in the interview about raising money and focusing on the counties to make progress in the legislature and county governments. That is a very important focus for the party if they want to take back any part of the state government.
In the past there has been criticism of the state party’s unwillingness to hire someone from in-state, always going the Ferguson/Jorns route and hiring someone with no sense of investment in Maryland or understanding of the state’s history.
One observer I talked approved of the hire “because Cluster is active in Maryland politics and has a sense of what makes our state different – as opposed to being someone who just comes here ready to leapfrog to the better position when it opens elsewhere.”
I’ll sum things up by saying the all-too-obvious, the jury is still out on the Joe Cluster hire and whether he can succeed despite being hamstrung by dire electoral and financial circumstances. Hopefully, the elected party leadership won’t be a drag on him getting the job done.
Quinton is a native South Carolinian who has lived in Baltimore since 2006. He is a recent convert to the Catholic Church and is active in the Knights of Columbus. He has been involved in the pro-life movement nationally and locally since 2010.
Quinton is a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the Army National Guard. He is also an Eagle Scout.