Maria Cino vies to be chair of RNC

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Maria Cino “should have been a nun.”

So says Mary Matalin, Republican political consultant and Cino’s best friend. But Cino is not a nun; she is instead what some might consider the polar opposite: an experienced political operative, and the most recent person to throw herself into the race to become chair of the Republican National Committee.

When it comes to Cino, however, Matalin insists these two professions are not opposites. “I think she should have been a nun,” Matalin told The Daily Caller in a phone interview. “She’s got that kind of selfless giving gene that is certainly rare in politics, but it’s just who she is. She’s just a funny one and a giver.”

Cino has been on the political scene since 1980, when she took her first job at the RNC.

“I walked into the RNC thirty years ago and I was just out of college,” Cino told TheDC in a phone interview. “Ronald Reagan had just won, and I was certainly enthusiastic about working what I thought was the best job that I’d ever had in my life; that I was a kid from Buffalo, and I was going to be working for the Republican National Committee.”

Since then, Cino has worked her way up through the party, holding leadership positions in party organs, on campaigns, and in the Bush administration. Her pitch to committee members highlights this extensive experience, and the applicable skills and insight she has gained from her three decades of working for the party. To date, she has the endorsement of six committee members, and she told TheDC that she has spoken at length with “around 80 to 85 percent of the committee.”

“Candidly,” she said, “the response has been very, very good. And I think that has to do with my pitch.”

Cino’s pitch ties her experiences to what she sees as the four major challenges the RNC will face in the upcoming cycle: a large debt, the need for serious fundraising, a “lack of management” of the committee, and the challenges that accompany a presidential election cycle.

From 1993 to 1997, Cino served as the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, during which time, she explains, she learned first hand how to deal with serious debt.

“We had almost 5 million dollars debt in 1993 and ’94 when I inherited the committee,” she said. “Much the same situation, with a lack of major donor interest or confidence, and a direct mail program that was badly failing. I took the NRCC in 1993 and 1994 when I was executive director, I turned it around, restructured it, reorganized it, rebuilt it, and we ended up winning the majority for the first time in 40 years for the U.S. House.”

Cino next served as political director for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, from which she was tapped to serve as RNC deputy chairman for political operations. In that role, she designed and implemented the victory program in all fifty states, and worked extensively on get-out-the-vote efforts.

She next served as assistant secretary/director general of U.S. Foreign Commercial Service in the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2001 to 2003, and then returned to the RNC as deputy chairman where she ran the day-to-day operations of the committee. From there, she went back to the Bush administration to serve as deputy secretary and then acting secretary of the Department of Transportation from 2005 to 2007. Following her time at the DOT, she became president and CEO of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Currently, Cino is a lobbyist for Pfizer.

From these experiences, Cino says, she has “very good contacts with regard to… national fundraising,” citing in particular her work running the 2008 Republican convention. She also points to her managerial skills, something she says the committee severely lacks at the moment.

“Over the last ten years, I have managed large complex organizations. I have managed the RNC twice, and I’ve managed the Republican National Convention. But in addition to that, I was deputy secretary and acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, so I think I’ve proven myself in regard to being able to turn around a situation that is heavily in debt and in a shambles.”

This, she says, will enable her to make the necessary improvements to the RNC. “The RNC is not a mom and pop organization,” she said. “We are a Fortune 500 company. So we need to start running like a Fortune 500 company.”

Cino says that as chair she would focus on the budget and on improving the financial division. She has released three action plans, which detail her plans for addressing the RNC’s problems. The first, released last week, addresses the issue of the budget for the Republican National Convention. In it, Cino calls for an immediate review of the budget for the convention; to date, $640,000 has reportedly been spent, a sum Cino feels is unnecessarily large. Moreover, she calls for the immediate firing of the “RNC liaison to the Convention” who is receiving a large salary, has “added her sister and son to the payroll,” and charged enormous expenses to the committee. Cino also calls for an amendment that prohibits the employment of relatives, and calls for increased communication among all parties involved in planning the convention.

Her second action plan, released Monday, calls for greater accountability for the RNC chairman, to be accomplished by instituting “monthly Executive Committee conference calls” to keep members informed of the chair’s activities and expenditures, and ensure that members “have full knowledge of and input into RNC operations, long before they reach the news media,” something that was a problem during Steele’s tenure.

The third, released Wednesday, gives specifics on how she would go about getting the RNC out of debt. Cino writes that she would “reorganize the Finance Department,” appoint two Finance Chairs of the RNC as well as regional Finance Chairs, lower the overhead cost of fundraising, and revitalize the donor programs.

Praise for her managerial skills is a common refrain among her friends and colleagues.

“Maria was my boss at the NRCC, when she helped the committee dig out of millions in debts she inherited from the previous Chairman,” wrote Bruce Mehlman, co-founder of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, in an e-mail to TheDC. “She was my wife’s boss at Wiley Rein & Fielding, where she was a first-rate leader who cultivated talent and inspired love and loyalty. She was my brother’s boss at the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, where she proved be a manager’s manager, very strategic and execution-oriented. As a fellow Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Bush Administration, she showed she can roll up her sleeves to take on the toughest challenges.”

“She runs a tight ship, but she runs a happy ship,” says Matalin. “People love working for her. She’s a great manager. She’s managed high stress, intense projects, and people love working with her cause she’s just so much fun; she makes everything fun.”

For Matalin, Cino’s “temperament” is just as important an aspect of her qualifications as her experience.

“She has no enemies,” Matalin says, an impressive feat, she points out, for a political operative who has been in town for three decades. “Everybody loves her,” Matalin continues, because “she has helped so many people; she’s a selfless helper.”

By illustration, Matalin explains that Cino is “the godmother to both my girls, who are now teenagers. It is not a stress free time. They say that she’s the good mom. I’m the bad mom; she’s the good mom.”

“She is a person of enormous integrity,” Matalin said, “enormous integrity, who does not need this job or want this job for a stepping stone.”

“At a time where we’re all disdainful of the polemics of politics and all that,” Matalin concluded, “she’s just a loving, giving, get it done, don’t take credit, workhorse person. She’s the right temperament and the right experience, that’s what I’m trying to say.”

Matalin says this is not only beneficial when it comes to management, but also for fundraising because it means Cino has a good relationship with major Republican donors.

“There’s a reason they have money,” Matalin says, “‘’cause they don’t burn it and they don’t waste it. And they will trust her, they won’t have to be convinced — they see what she’s done in campaign after campaign in the committee.”

Cino’s supporters also say that she is qualified to run the RNC because having served as deputy chair of the RNC, she’s done the job before.

“Maria was…the deputy chairman of the RNC in 2004, so she is the only candidate who can say that she’s actually done this job, she’s actually run the building,” Mary Cheney told TheDC. Cheney, who first worked with Cino when she served as political director for President George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000, is listed as one of the people helping to organize Cino’s “Maria for Chairman” PAC.

“Maria is one of the most organized, dedicated, conservative political operatives I’ve ever met,” Cheney said. “She’s exactly what we need right now.”

“She’s not just a ‘promised’ or a ‘qualified,’” said Matalin. “She has done it, she has proved it, and that’s exactly what they need. We can not have the luxury of on the job training … She’s done it all, she knows exactly what to do, she’s done it in real time, and there’s nobody that comes close to those qualifications.”

But it is the very source of her qualifications and her close ties with the Bush administration that many political commentators have suggested will work against her in the race.

“Cino’s establishment cred could cut both ways,” wrote Chris Frates of Politico. “As a GOP insider and Pfizer lobbyist, Cino will likely take heat from the tea party wing of the party.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza lists her as a second tier candidate in the race, writing: “the committee men and women who do vote don’t entirely like or trust many of the establishment figures within the party. After eight years of having their chairman picked for them by the Bush White House, it’s hard to see the 168 committee members bowing to the establishment’s will again.”

But as one Republican strategist told TheDC, “it’s hard for me to think of any top tier political person in the Republican Party who wasn’t part of the Bush administration.”

Last week, Cino’s Republican credentials came under fire, when it was suggested by the website Big Government that as a Pfizer lobbyist, she lobbied in favor of Obamacare, and specifically “for the ObamaCare bill that allows massive funding of abortions at taxpayer expense,” according to LifeNews.com. Moreover, the article noted, Cino donated to candidates in the past who were pro-abortion, including Michael Castle, the Republican Delaware congressman who lost in the Senate GOP primary to Christine O’Donnell this past election cycle. She also used to sit on the board of WISH List, a group that seeks to elect pro-abortion Republican women to office.

Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the board of National Organization for Marriage, a leading proponent of traditional marriage and fighter of abortion rights jumped into the fray challenging Cino on the subject. Taking issue specifically with her involvement with WISH List, Gallagher writes:

“Her response is woefully inadequate to the main charge: No one I know who is deeply and ardently pro-life would participate in a pro-abortion PAC.”

Cino denies the accusations. In a letter to committee members, she wrote, “I am a life-long Catholic who strongly believes and supports the teachings of the Church. I believe in upholding the culture of Life, and therefore I strongly oppose legal abortion.”

“My critics point out my contributions to a very small group of candidates and a single political action committee whose views on abortion are different from my own, but who were Republican nonetheless,” she continued. “I have committed my life to winning elections across the country, even in areas where the Democrats have traditionally been strong…I have given more personal donations than any other candidate running for RNC Chairman, and all my donations were aimed at making our party the majority party and our pro-life platform, which I fully support, into the basis for legislation and policy.”

Cino dismisses claims that she lobbied for Obamacare without explanation.

“Let me say it simply: I never lobbied for Obamacare, don’t support it and any claims to the contrary are totally false,” she writes.

On the subject of social issues, Cino says she would defer to the congressional leadership, presidential candidates, and the states.

“I think all issues are going to be important, and they’re going to vary from state to state, candidate to candidate,” she said. “I leave that to the states to determine what’s important for them in picking their candidates and looking at their elections.”

Cino’s family was not Republican growing up. “I grew up in…a very, very traditional family: very ethnic, very catholic, very conservative, Democrat union household.” She got involved in Republican politics in middle school: “My sixth grade teacher was a committee woman,” she explained. “So I started from the lowest of low in Buffalo New York. Grass roots. And it was passing out literature … and doing things like looking up telephone numbers, putting them on 3 by 5 cards and putting them in a shoebox, and then dialing rotary phones.”

By high school, she was still very into it, and there she met Bill Paxon, who went on to serve as congressman for the state of New York. “He went to an all boys catholic school, I went to an all girls catholic school, and we teamed up and ran a lot of races together, which was a lot of fun,” Cino said. “But we lost most of them.”

At age 17, she interned at the NRCC, and when she graduated college, she was offered an entry-level position at the NRC.

Cino registered as a Republican, and her parents quickly followed suit.

“They realized that they too, not only were Republicans, but were pretty conservative,” she said, laughing.

Cino’s Buffalo upbringing is still a large part of her. “She has stayed in touch with and maintains the values of everybody from the nuns to her grade school friends,” Matalin says, and Cino’s favorite ice cream remains a “blackberry custard” that “they only make…on certain days of the week” at “this wonderful place in Buffalo, New York,” she reminisces, laughing. “And usually it’s hard ice cream, but they make a custard, which is to die for.”

Cino has been criticized for backing out of a candidate debate hosted by FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s pro-Tea Party organization, in order to attend a fundraiser for her hosted by Matalin. But Cino says she thinks the Tea Party is a very good thing for the GOP.

“It’s a positive,” she stated emphatically. “I believe the chairman of the Republican National Committee’s job is to grow the party. And I think that the Tea Party is an excellent example: their principles are our principles, and if you look at our platform — which I wholeheartedly support — they’re basically reiterating the platform. I believe that they were an asset this year, and should get full credit for the 63 seat pick up in the House, and obviously the seven seats in the Senate, and all the state and local.”

Steele has been accused of trying to use the chairmanship to further his own career, something Cino says is absolutely not on her agenda.

“I have no ambition to run for higher office,” Cino says. “I’m not using this as a stepping stone to run for higher office, and I think I’ve been very public about — I’m not writing a book, or looking for a talk show contract.”

Her only goal, she says, is to retool the RNC so that it can fulfill its potential, a sentiment Matalin echoes.

“When we came to the committee,” says Matalin, “it was the premiere, top of the line place to work in Republican politics. And she’ll make everybody proud of it again.”

Cino will participate in the RNC Chairman’s debate co-hosted by TheDC. The debate will be held on January 3 at the National Press Club.

This article is part of The Daily Caller’s weeklong series profiling the candidates vying to be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. Those interested in participating in the chairman’s debate hosted by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform by proposing or voting on questions to be asked of the candidates at the Jan. 3 debate can go to www.rncdebate.org.