Joseph F. Steffen Jr. left Reisterstown's Franklin High School and quickly found a home in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, working mostly behind the scenes as a self-described "Prince of Darkness" on behalf of favorite Republicans - including, for more than a decade, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Now, the 45-year-old political operative finds himself squarely in the limelight amid questions about the closeness of his relationship with Maryland's governor, having left his state job after spreading rumors over the Internet about his boss' likely rival in 2006, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
As the Ehrlich administration distanced itself from Steffen's rumor-mongering, a picture emerged yesterday of a committed conservative crusader whose tireless work pleased his bosses while enraging their opponents.
Adding to the intrigue is the mysterious figure that Steffen cut. Former colleagues said he preferred to wear dark clothing and work behind closed doors, with the lights off. Away from work, he writes horror and science fiction stories.
"He's a character," said Ehrlich, who employed Steffen while he was a U.S. congressman from 1995 to 2003 and then in various state jobs since assuming Maryland's governorship.
Ehrlich said at a news conference yesterday that Steffen dealt with complicated constituent issues while working in his congressional district office. When he became governor, Ehrlich said, Steffen helped look at the operations of state agencies.
Charles Black, a veteran Republican political strategist who informally advises President Bush, recalled Steffen as a "bright, energetic" worker for the National Conservative Political Action Committee and Richard Viguerie's failed 1985 run for lieutenant governor of Virginia.
"He got the reputation of being a great organizer, which means being on the phone constantly and driving around the state," Black said. "I had a good impression of him based on what other people told me."
On the other hand
Candidates against whom Steffen operated gave a different view. They recall campaigns marked by such tactics as the spreading of false rumors.
"He was widely regarded as the dirty trick operator of the Ehrlich campaign," said Gerry L. Brewster, who lost to Ehrlich during the 1994 campaign for Congress. "He was basically their hatchet man."
Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis, a former state delegate who unsuccessfully opposed Ehrlich during his 1996 bid for re-election to Congress, described Steffen as Ehrlich's Lee Atwater, the late Republican strategist known for his tough tactics.
"He's the guy who does the stuff so Bob can pretend to be above the fray," said DeJuliis, who blamed Steffen for a leafletting campaign that raised concerns about her commitment to family values and other issues important to voters.
Attempts to reach Steffen at his Rosedale home and by phone for comment yesterday were unsuccessful. He said Tuesday night that he made the Internet postings on his own, that no one in the Ehrlich administration asked him to do so.
"It was all me," he said.
Steffen is unquestionably a committed conservative. He sought unsuccessfully to represent Patrick J. Buchanan at the 1992 Republican convention. Viguerie, the candidate Steffen helped to run for lieutenant governor of Virginia, founded Conservative Digest magazine and runs a direct mail company supporting New Right causes.
On an Internet posting late last year, Steffen praised the impact of Viguerie's campaign on Republican politics.
"Boy did we shake the establishment to its rafters!" he wrote on www.conservativehq.com last October. "Richard set the standard for fundraising, no doubt, and helped create a legion of young conservative[s]. For this, the nation should be grateful."
'I opted out'
Steffen's O'Malley postings were made on the conservative Web site www.FreeRepublic.com under the handle "ncpac." A posting Tuesday night under that name read: "If I were to hide, that would only hurt a Governor I've known and admired for a long time. ... Given the volatility of the situation - and knowing the blowback potential on the Governor - I opted out rather than letting him bleed further at the hands of O'Malley."
Steffen has said he skipped college so he could immediately begin politicking. "C'mon, the jungle is ours and it's time to rule it like the King and Queen that we are," he wrote in his 1977 high school yearbook.
Within five years, Steffen had graduated to national politics, serving as spokesman of the NCPAC, which reportedly launched attack ads against U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and other Democrats on its "hit list."
In 1994, he worked on Ehrlich's campaign for Congress, according to rival candidates.
Then Steffen worked for Ehrlich all eight years that he served in the House of Representatives. Steffen was the "district representative/legislative assistant" with a salary that climbed every year to $46,600, according to congressional records.
"He was a real nice guy to me," said Ryan Decker, who interned in Ehrlich's Lutherville office several years ago. "He was funny. I had a good time working with him."
But Michael J. Collins, a state senator at the time, said those in Democratic political circles knew Steffen as a mudslinging Ehrlich operative.
"It was generally known among the political people that Joe Steffen was Ehrlich's guy," said Collins, a Democrat from Baltimore County. "He was keeping an eye on things for the congressman."
During Collins' 1998 re-election campaign, then-Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger toured the district to dispose of literature and speak out against a smear campaign, a Maryland Democratic aide said last night.
In 2003, Steffen was appointed an executive aide in Governor Ehrlich's office. He worked, he has said, for the state Departments of Human Resources and Juvenile Services. Most recently, he was spokesman for the Maryland Insurance Administration.
Critics say Steffen's role was to go to state agencies and identify Democrats to be fired. But Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. said Steffen was not involved in personnel decisions in the insurance administration.
Redmer, a Republican from Baltimore County, said Steffen got the job after applying through the governor's Web site, based on his "extensive background in communications." Redmer said Ehrlich's office didn't order his hiring.
"I didn't get a phone call that said, 'Here's your new guy,'" Redmer said.
Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Larry Carson, Michael Dresser, Lisa Goldberg, Andrew A. Green, David Nitkin, Robert Timberg and Paul West contributed to this article.