Not since the philandering Mayor Bill Boner tried to resurrect his career has Nashville witnessed such an audacious attempt at a political comeback: five years after he resigned as vice mayor and exited the public stage in humiliation as a prevaricator and petty thief, Ronnie Steine is running for an at-large seat on the Metro Council.
Steine insists that, after therapy, he’s recovered from whatever ailed him at the time of his public meltdown. But his bizarre, contradictory comments to the Scene in the past week raise questions that could leave voters wondering whether he has indeed put his troubles behind him.
The wealthy son of a Nashville philanthropist, Steine at times told the Scene the improbable story that was his last version of the truth as he went into virtual seclusion in 2002. He admitted to only two thefts—shoplifting in 1986 and 2001 from the same Target store. Both times he was caught. He took videotapes and a pack of football player cards. Both times he managed to have the charges dismissed and wiped from his record.
But in one interview, he also acknowledged he was guilty of petty thievery five or six additional times before he resigned as vice mayor. He said these thefts were “not from stores.” Presumably, he stole from friends, perhaps from the mansions of Belle Meade socialites during cocktail parties, but Steine wouldn’t say. (In a Scene article in 2002, a local collector of political memorabilia accused Steine of pilfering political buttons to add to his own collection.)
“I was caught shoplifting twice 15 years apart and, in that interim period, there were as best I can recollect at least five or six other instances,” said Steine, who at times became emotional as he recounted his personal travails.
“What kind of instances?” we asked Steine during the recorded telephone interview.
“Almost identical to the same kinds of things that I was caught with when I had $15 worth of cards. It all involved very small amounts of things.”
“From different places?”
“Can you tell me where?
“No. I’m not going back through that. That’s all past history.... It was all anything from the cards that I took to candy. I would estimate there is probably nothing that I took that had more than a $15 to $20 value.”
Asked two days later in another interview, also recorded, to elaborate on these thefts, Steine denied that he ever admitted to them, saying that he was referring not to stealing but to “patterns of dishonesty in his life.”
“It had to do with patterns in my life at different times when I had trouble dealing with the world,” he said.
“So you’re sticking to your story that you’ve stolen something twice and that’s it?” we asked.
“That’s all you’re going to get from me on that. I’m ready to move forward. I’ve said all I’m going to say on it,” Steine replied.
Steine, who says his visits to his psychologist are now “not very often,” also won’t discuss the underlying causes of his thievery, except to deny that he’s a kleptomaniac. “People will just say, ‘Steine’s making excuses,’ ” he says.
He adds, “I’ve been absolutely forthcoming. It’s nobody’s business. It’s done. I’ve laid it all out there. The only thing I’ve learned is I can’t really control what other people think. All I can control is my actions and try to make amends for the mistakes I’ve made.... My therapy has helped me get to a place where I’m very comfortable with myself now and I feel strong enough to offer myself back up for public office.”
Steine, 51, held an at-large council seat from 1991 until 1999, when he was elected vice mayor. He was running for Congress for the seat now held by Jim Cooper when he says “rumors that were worse than the reality” began swirling around town, and he decided to go to The Tennessean because “I realized that, if I were confronted about it, I didn’t want to deny it. So I came forward.” But he went on to lie to the newspaper, claiming he had shoplifted only once—three days before Christmas in 2001. (Steine now calls his lack of candor “an inappropriate judgment of mine.”) The news media quickly discovered the second arrest in the mid-’80s. Steine dropped out of the congressional race and then resigned as vice mayor.
Steine says his friends were variously “surprised, concerned, disappointed and angry,” and he cut himself off from others for a time. “I created boundaries around myself to protect myself because one can only imagine how difficult it is to play out one’s foibles on the front pages of the newspapers.” After therapy, “I’m more sensitive to others. I think that I clearly am able to prioritize better what’s important to me in my life,” says Steine, who plans to marry Tennessean entertainment columnist Beverly Keel Dec. 15.
Before deciding to re-enter politics, Steine made the rounds of former associates and supporters, giving what one called “his resurrection spiel” and saying he was strong again and ready to return to the public arena.
“When all this stuff happened, he blamed everybody else and went into a state of denial,” says one acquaintance who is among those who believe Steine may have an addiction to stealing that needs continual treatment to prevent recurrence. “Now, he’s claiming he’s cured. He basically said, ‘I’ve seen the light and I’ve been to a therapist and I’m OK now.’ It’s bullshit. If you get a DUI in 1986 and you get another one in 2001, do you think that people will believe you if you say for the 15 years in between that you never drank and drove? I mean there’s statistical odds in these things.”
Steine may deny that he suffers from kleptomania, but he certainly displays some of the classic symptoms, one of which is risking it all to steal goods that he clearly could afford to buy. In this sense, his behavior is like that of actress Winona Ryder, who was arrested for shoplifting at a Beverly Hills Saks in 2001.
“That’s a good indication that there’s something else going on, that there is something probably addictive or compulsive about their behavior,” says Dr. Jon Grant, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota who spoke to the Scene about kleptomania generally and not Steine specifically. “They need to take things. But they don’t need anything they’re taking. They take it home and throw it out. People take it back to the store and leave it by the door. Other people take it to Goodwill. Once they take it, the thrill is gone.”
And it’s the thrill that drives the kleptomaniac, says Grant, who runs a clinic treating people afflicted by the condition. “They don’t appear to be able to control it. They enjoy the rush too much. It’s too enticing. It’s a thrill and they get addicted to it. Essentially it becomes a behavioral addiction. These people describe it much like a drug or alcohol addiction. The vast majority of people say, ‘I don’t know why I started it, but when I was a kid or whenever, I did it on a dare and boy it felt good.’ ”
Kleptomania can be treated like an alcohol or gambling addiction, Grant says, with therapy, support groups and even medication. “Like anything, if people think they’re doing better than they are, they often run a risk of relapse,” he says. “Some people can go several months without stealing anything and it doesn’t mean that anything’s changed. People have to be constantly monitoring their behavior and desires.”
Steine’s supporters, insisting his leadership qualities outweigh any past indiscretions, say he’s needed on the council, which is about to undergo another turnover caused by term limits. They point out that, on the council, he helped broker the deals that built Nashville’s pro football stadium and hockey arena. “He’s paid dearly for his mistakes,” says Mike Pigott, a PR executive who has donated to Steine’s campaign. “We’re at such a crossroads right now with so many things happening, we need good folks on the council.”
Steine has raised more than $100,000 for the race, with contributions coming from Nashville luminaries like Martha Ingram, Aubrey Harwell and Craig Leipold. He could easily win based on his name identification alone. Twenty-six candidates are running in the Aug. 2 elections for five at-large seats, and the seats almost always go to the best-known candidates. A guy who changed his name to Elvis Presley Jr. almost won an at-large seat in 1991.
Nashville has a history of forgiving the personal transgressions of its politicians, notably the mayor with the unfortunate name of Boner. Even after embarrassing the city by publicly cavorting with a cocktail waitress while he was still married in the early ’90s, he won election to his old state House seat. Former council member Leo Waters won two elections in the ’90s despite two old drunken-driving arrests.
“I think everybody deserves a second chance,” Waters says. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have such a thing as redemption in Christianity.”That’s what Steine is counting on. “Words are cheap,” he says. “I don’t expect anyone to judge me by my words. I expect that people are going to judge me by my actions every day. I expect them to trust my actions, and that’s why every morning I get up trying to make the world a little bit better place.”
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