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Published: Thursday, 11/18/2010

Michigan GOP VIP wants to steer the party

LANSING - Saulius Anuzis, the son of immigrant parents from Lithuania, loves blasting down I-75 on his big Harley motorcycle.

He still speaks the old language at home every chance he gets, with his wife, Lina, and sons, Tadas, Vytis, Matas, and Marius.

His dad was a self-taught electrician who voted for Jimmy Carter, and Saul, now 51, grew up on a tough street on the west side of Detroit, joined the Teamsters Union as a teen, and never finished his degree at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

But when the Republican National Committee meets in Washington on Jan. 12, Mr. Anuzis hopes to be elected RNC chairman, replacing the controversial, gaffe-prone Michael Steele. He may have an excellent chance.

"This isn't personal," Mr. Anuzis said. "I've supported Michael Steele since he was elected. I just feel that the party needs a different approach over the next two years."

What that means, in his view, is a chairman who doesn't become the story, who can speak to the media when necessary, but who is focused on fund-raising, positioning the party, and preparing the ground so GOP candidates can win.

Though politics are now his life, Mr. Anuzis, who founded a telecommunications business, Coast to Coast Strategies, wasn't always a Republican. He wasn't very political at all until he ran into a Teddy Kennedy for president club in college and realized he knew what he was against.

"A blonde in every pond," he snorted.

Looking for an alternative, he discovered a hero: Ronald Reagan. He's has been active, mainly behind the scenes, in GOP campaigns ever since.

"I would see the chairman's job as to get our candidates to the 10-yard line so they can score," Mr. Anuzis said.

That's how he ran things during the time he led the Michigan Republican Party, from 2005 to 2009.

"He was either never home or home on the phone all the time," his wife said.

Terri Lynn Land, Michigan's outgoing secretary of state, is an enthusiastic supporter.

"Regardless of the task, Saul brings boundless energy, innovative thinking, and an incomparable work ethic," she said.

She backs his bid to become national chairman. In fact, Mr. Anuzis almost won that job two years ago. Since then, there have been occasions when many Republicans wished they'd turned to the Michigander instead.

Mr. Steele has not said whether he will run for re-election. But if he does, the GOP landslide in the midterm elections just might save his job.

Republicans gained more seats in the House than either party has ever done in modern times, and they picked up Senate seats and governors' mansions across the nation.

Mr. Anuzis, on the other hand, has a track record that is the opposite. He avoided major gaffes and got along with the media. But he presided over four of the bleakest years the Michigan GOP has known. They failed to win two Senate elections, and they lost the 2006 governor's race by a landslide. Republicans lost in the Legislature and two seats in the U.S. House on his watch.

However, that was in the last years of the Bush administration, when the GOP was doing poorly everywhere. Mr. Anuzis' supporters say his leadership cushioned that loss and helped them hang on to the state Senate despite the Democratic trend.

Now, the tech-savvy Mr. Anuzis thinks he can help the national Republican Party connect with a new generation of voters. He cautions against overconfidence.

"In 1994, we won the House and Senate, yet just two years later, Bill Clinton cruised to re-election. Public opinion can change with breathtaking speed," he said.

He'd like to be the firm hand on the rudder as the party steers toward the presidential election wars of 2012. Insiders think his chances appear good, especially if Mr. Steele doesn't run.

But nobody knows who else will run. Should Mr. Anuzis win, he vows strict neutrality in the presidential nomination process, which may help, given the wide-open field. His philosophy may be best expressed by a sign over the kitchen door in his Lansing home: "Attitude is everything."

Win or lose, Saul Anuzis means to see that neither he nor his beloved Republicans go down without a fight.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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