Last November’s Democratic victory catapulted party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel into prominence. But it’s not just those with a capital D after their names whose fortunes are on the rise these days. The changeover on Capitol Hill has reordered virtually every aspect of Washington’s political culture. In so doing, it has strengthened the hands of a slew of unelected Democratic power players—Hill staffers, lobbyists, political consultants, activists, fund-raisers, even socialites—whose sway is often all the greater
for being wielded largely behind the scenes.
Of course, almost every Democrat in town is feeling pretty good about himself lately, and coming up with
a comprehensive list of those who’ve seen their power enhanced in the
new Washington would keep us here through 2008. But some of the capital’s new influence brokers haven’t received a level of attention commensurate with their clout. As we gear up for the major political battles of the next two years—from Iraq to congressional oversight to the presidential race—here are a few of this city’s under-covered inside players who’ll now be getting their calls returned more quickly than ever.
The Resistance Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps
The Democratic takeover of Congress won’t change the composition of the executive-branch
commissions that write and enforce key regulations, and that remain largely majority Republican. But that doesn’t mean the shift on Capitol Hill won’t dramatically affect those commissions’ balances of power.
Perhaps the best example is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is gearing up to address a host of thorny issues, from media consolidation to net neutrality. The FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, will still be going up against three Republicans, including Chairman Kevin Martin, but they’ll have a lot more weapons in their arsenal. That’s because they’re close with newly powerful Democratic committee chairs like John Dingell, Ed Markey, and Daniel Inouye, who’ll use high-profile hearings to advance the Democratic commissioners’ priorities. With the help of their allies in Congress, Adelstein and Copps will “put [the Republican commissioners] in a vise in the hearings,” according to one Washington Democrat who follows communications issues. “It’s like the cavalry coming over the hill.”
What will that mean in practice? On media consolidation, it should allow Adelstein and Copps to begin laying the groundwork for reversing former chair Michael Powell’s 2003 round of deregulation, which made it easier for big media companies to own multiple outlets in a single market. And it will almost certainly ensure that additional GOP deregulatory efforts are dead on arrival.
On net neutrality, the effects could be even more far-reaching. Already, the commission’s Democrats have been working on an ad hoc basis to get telecommunications companies to agree to adhere to the neutrality principle—that is, not giving discounts to big Web content providers while charging little guys more. But their task will be much easier with Markey, a strong neutrality supporter, chairing the telecommunications subcommittee. Whether or not Markey succeeds in passing legislation ensuring neutrality, as he’s said he intends to, his mere presence gives Adelstein and Copps vastly increased leverage. Says one expert: “It’s certainly going to put a lot of telecom companies on notice that they shouldn’t engage in discriminatory practices unless they want the wrath of the Hill.”
Staff director, House Judiciary Committee
Oversight figures to be perhaps the most important task of the next Congress, and many of the key areas that demand investigation—from torture to warrantless wiretapping to manipulation of Iraq intelligence—fall at least in part under the authority of the judiciary committees. The trick for Democrats will be to delve deeply into the failures and cover-ups of the Bush administration in these areas, without allowing the GOP or the press to portray their probes as needlessly partisan, vindictive, and backward-looking.
On that score, House Judiciary chair John Conyers (D-Mich.) has already made some Democrats nervous. Last year, he raised the possibility of impeachment—which Republicans quickly seized on to argue that a Democratic Congress would plunge the nation into turmoil. The impeachment talk was quickly slapped down by Nancy Pelosi, but fears remain in Democratic circles that Conyers’s desire for justice could undercut the party’s effort to present an image of constructive bipartisanship.
That’s where Perry Apelbaum, the committee’s staff director, could come in. Apelbaum has worked
for Conyers since the congressman became the top Democrat on the committee in 1995, and by all accounts he enjoys his boss’s absolute trust. But he also has good relations with the committee’s Republican staff—in November, he had colleagues on both sides over to his house to watch the Ohio State–Michigan game. Just as important, as the top committee lawyer for the Democratic minority in the late 1990s, Apelbaum played a role in the impeachment defense of President Clinton, so he’s seen firsthand how politically motivated congressional investigations can backfire. “Perry would be a moderating influence,” says one Democratic insider who has worked closely with him.
None of this means he’ll pull any punches: Apelbaum was the driving force behind two hard-hitting reports released last year by committee Democrats, on the various Bush administration violations of the Constitution, and on voting problems in Ohio’s 2004 election. Julian Epstein, a Democratic lawyer and strategist who held Apelbaum’s job in the early 1990s, calls him “probably the smartest attorney that I have ever worked with.” If Democrats succeed in using oversight to expose and correct GOP failures, without in the process damaging their own image with voters, Apelbaum could be a key reason why.
Thanks to the Democrats’ win last fall and the early excitement over the 2008 presidential contest, perhaps no state now has a more influential congressional delegation than Illinois. Rahm Emanuel, who masterminded the victory as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, is now a member of the leadership, and almost certainly destined for bigger things. The state’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, is the new majority whip.
And then, of course, there’s Barack Obama—maybe you’ve heard of him?
But you may not have heard of the Illinois political consultant who’s helped engineer the rise of all three: David Axelrod. A former prodigy reporter at the Chicago Tribune who left to run Paul Simon’s successful 1984 Senate campaign, Axelrod is the brains behind
the Prairie State’s newfound political prominence. But though he remains close to Emanuel, and every four years he runs Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s reelection campaign, Axelrod has never had a viable presidential candidate. (Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon calls him “the best guy in the business without a ring.”) That’s about to change. In recent months, according to a close associate, Axelrod has “cleared his decks” for Obama’s presidential run, and has lined up his partner, David Plouffe, to be the senator’s likely campaign manager. If Obama makes it to the White House, or even gets close, Axelrod could be the new Karl Rove.
Since 2003—when Axelrod backed Obama’s Senate bid despite the presence of several better-known candidates in the Democratic primary field—the two have by all accounts undergone a kind of mind meld, talking every day and mapping out strategy. Axelrod is a skilled image-meister, but his all-around political sense is equally impressive. As a state senator preparing for his Senate run, Obama steered an important piece of death-penalty-reform legislation through the body. The bill was close to Obama’s heart, but, as one adviser from the Senate campaign notes, it also represented the pet issue of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, which ended up endorsing Obama in the hotly contested primary. And it was Axelrod who helped Obama secure the crucial position as the legislation’s front man.
Just as Rove is known for his tendency to attack his opponent’s area of greatest strength, and for his insistence on ultra-tight message discipline, Axelrod has his own signature style. It’s characterized, say associates, by a willingness to let his clients be who they are, and to spend months identifying a candidate’s most appealing traits, then working to bring those out. In other words, expect Obama’s campaign to ditch the kind of awkward, staged photo ops that have backfired on previous Democratic candidates—think Dukakis in that tank—in favor of efforts to convey the senator’s natural charisma and intelligence.
Nancy Reynolds Bagley
Republicans didn’t just use their time in power to increase inequality and impeach the president. They also created their own high-powered party scene. Over the last few years, Julianna Glover Weiss, a former press aide to Vice President Cheney, emerged at the center of Washington’s new conservative social whirl, hosting must-attend events for the right young things of the Bush-DeLay era.
Bush may have two more years, but that era is over. With Republicans on the outs, Glover Weiss’s parties—whose cachet always rested on their status as centers of power across a range of fields—have lost much of their luster. Which begs the question: Who’s D.C.’s next premiere hostess?
Nancy Reynolds Bagley looks like a pretty good guess. The daughter of Democratic fund-raiser Smith Bagley and stepdaughter of Elizabeth Bagley, Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Portugal (and a formidable socialite in her own right), Nancy is known for the bipartisanship of her guest lists.
But as a committed and connected Democrat, there’s no doubt that last fall’s results have upped the value of her hand. She’s close with Nancy Pelosi—a “fashion leader,” according to the New York Times—and California Senator Barbara Boxer, among other newly powerful Democratic women.
Bagley spent two years in the ’90s working on the Clinton health plan, then switched gears to take over the editorship of the society magazine Washington Life from her mother, Vicki. She skillfully parlayed the job into a position as one of the leading hostesses of Washington’s younger generation. “She’s got the list, and the list is all,” says Washington Times social editor Kevin Chaffee. “When you go to her parties, you see people who will make it worth your while to go.” With Democrats now in control, that’s more true than ever.
Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey
During the last decade, Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings—at which assorted GOP insiders from across Washington would meet to plot strategy—played a crucial role in the Republican governing machine. With Democrats now back in power, there’s a new power-meeting on the block.
It’s held on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays, but its guest list—which includes a range of progressive activists, Hill staffers, and Democratic consultants—suggests it could rival Norquist’s from back in the day as a center of Washington influence.
The Tuesday meeting’s organizers are Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey, of the Campaign for America’s Future. Since last year, Borosage and Hickey have skillfully positioned their organization at the forefront of efforts to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As the leaders of a coalition of liberal groups that includes Moveon.org, USAction, and a number of activist labor unions, they showed their clout two years ago by playing a crucial role in the successful fight against Social Security privatization. Last fall, they used hard-hitting TV ads to help knock off several GOP incumbents. And now they plan to help shape the issue terrain for ’08—the coalition just released an energy-independence platform, and a universal health-care plan that has already drawn attention in congressional hearings.
Still, the center of gravity for the coalition—now called Americans United—is definitely outside Washington, and the group uses classic grassroots tactics to exert influence. When it wants the support of hesitant lawmakers, it typically demands a meeting back home. “It’s either they meet with us or we publicize the fact that they didn’t meet with us,” says Hickey. “But either way it is a community event with lots of publicity.” Could Borosage and Hickey meld their coalition’s outside-the-Beltway energy with their own inside-the-Beltway access to decision makers to become the Grover Norquists of the left?
Perhaps no one is better positioned to take advantage of the Democrats’ improved fortunes on K Street than George Crawford, Nancy Pelosi’s former chief of staff. Crawford left Capitol Hill in mid-2005, and is one of the few senior Pelosi staffers to make the recent leap to K Street. One measure of his influence: he estimates that when he departed the Hill, he had personally had a hand in hiring around fifty of the fifty-five employees in Pelosi’s office at the time.
Many veteran Hill staffers make their careers mastering some intricate area of politics or policy. Crawford, however, was a generalist, and his new firm doesn’t specialize either. “You name ’em, we got ’em,” he says of his new client base, which includes everyone from ExxonMobil to College Loan Corp. The common thread is their dramatically diminished prospects under Democratic congressional control—and hence their sudden need for an insider like Crawford. After years of industry-
friendly Republican governance, many companies face new regulation, subsidy rollbacks, and perhaps even congressional investigations.
One of Crawford’s most controversial recent signings is Amgen. The pharmaceutical company hopes to short-circuit one of the first, and most cherished, items on the Democratic Congress’s to-do list: a plan to allow the government to negotiate lower
prescription-drug prices for seniors on Medicare. That measure passed the House within the first 100 hours, but faces stiffer opposition in the Senate, where Finance Committee chair Max Baucus has been skeptical (see “The Good Soldier,” below ).
Crawford’s client list may not be popular with his former colleagues, but the rather old-fashioned former staffer himself still is. (Like his mentor, legendary Florida Congressman Claude Pepper, he does not refer to any representative by their first name.) Crawford, who spent years laboring on the Rules Committee for Pepper, and later for Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, has developed close relationships with most of the current House leadership, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and their staffs. Still, Crawford is realistic about what his assistance can achieve. “People are looking for insight into how [Pelosi] operates, the dynamics of the Democratic caucus,” he says. “I can help there ... But no matter what, some industries are going to have a relatively tough time here.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus staffer
Democrats may have picked up a few red-state seats last fall by running culturally conservative candidates. But there’s no question that on bread-and-butter economic issues and on Iraq, the caucus, and Congress as a whole, shifted decisively to the left. That’s good news for the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), a faction of congressional Democrats (plus liberal Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont) that works to advance progressive priorities. The group gave money and support on the stump to help elect eight new progressive Democrats, almost all of whom ran on an antiwar platform. Overall, it has seen its membership grow from fifty-seven in 2005 to sixty-seven and counting today, making it the largest caucus within the party by some margin.
Now the CPC is well placed to exploit its electoral success. Nancy Pelosi, a former member, dropped out of all caucuses upon becoming speaker, but the group boasts many of her closest congressional allies, including George Miller, Rosa DeLauro, and up-and-comer Michael Capuano. Even more important, eleven current members are new House committee chairs, including powerful figures like Charlie Rangel at Ways and Means, John Conyers at Judiciary, Henry Waxman at Government Reform, Barney Frank at Financial Services, and Miller at Education and Workforce.
Indeed, the House’s conduct of oversight—perhaps its most crucial task over the next two years—will be carried out largely by CPC members.
The group’s new prominence makes Bill Goold a man to watch. Over a twenty-nine-year career on the Hill, Goold has worked for a long list of progressives from both houses, including Sanders, Tom Harkin, and Rush Holt. Since mid-2005, as the CPC’s executive director and only paid staff member—his salary is funded by member dues—it’s been Goold’s job to increase the caucus’s influence. He’s doing well so far. Aside from boosting the CPC’s numbers, Goold has, by all accounts, brought a new energy and focus to its activities. “This is the best-organized caucus since I have been here, since the caucus was formed,” says Julie Nickson, chief of staff to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the group.
Over the next two years, Goold and the CPC will be at the forefront of Democratic efforts to confront the White House over Iraq. Last month, caucus leaders introduced legislation that would repeal congressional authorization for the use of force, and require the president to withdraw troops within six months. They’ll also be a force for promoting economic fairness, election reform—including public financing—and energy independence, reducing poverty, and fighting global warming. More broadly, Goold is working with outside-the-Beltway activist groups like Moveon.org to position the CPC as the congressional voice for the growing grassroots progressive movement.
Not everyone agrees that the CPC’s renewed prominence is a good thing for the party. Many of the Democratic gains last fall came in swing or GOP-leaning districts, and those seats will be fiercely contested again in 2008. If the CPC and its allies succeed in pushing Pelosi to adopt an agenda that’s too far to the left, some new members could be placed in jeopardy. “She will be under intense pressure from the more liberal wing of the party to do some things that could be damaging to her,” says Bill Andresen, a lobbyist and former Democratic Hill staffer who’s active in moderate Democratic circles. Still, as the leadership inches ever closer to the CPC’s position supporting withdrawal from Iraq, Goold could be even more influential.
The Tough Cookie
Jacobson, a former finance director for the Democratic National Committee, has long been a major player in party fund-raising circles. But as one of the newest members of Hillary Clinton’s ever-growing political apparatus, she could be more valuable than ever.
Jacobson has deep ties to the New Democrat movement that helped bring Bill Clinton to power in 1992. She was a key fund-raiser during that campaign, and
has since worked closely with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and with Evan Bayh, the moderate Democratic senator from Indiana. Her husband, the pollster Mark Penn—whose influence with Hillary
can scarcely be exaggerated—pioneered efforts in the Clinton White House to target moderate swing voters, and is now doing the same thing for the former
first lady. When Bayh announced last month that he wouldn’t run for president, Jacobson quickly signed on with Hillary as well.
The New York senator hasn’t exactly been struggling to raise cash lately. But Jacobson’s vast Rolodex—and her reputation for hosting parties, with Penn, that have some of the highest-powered guest lists in Washington—could make her as valuable for her ability to help win over influential friends to Hillary’s cause as for the dollars she brings in. “She is able to find people who may not be the usual suspects,” says Linda Moore Forbes, a top aide to Bayh who has worked closely with Jacobson for years. “Especially folks forty and younger, who want to get involved and have a lot to contribute, not only in terms of finance, but [who] also have really good ideas and want to be part of a cause.”
Not everyone’s a fan. Jacobson is part of the “slash-and-burn school of fund-raising,” according to one person who’s also active in Democratic money circles,
and who argues that Jacobson is too focused on extracting an immediate contribution from potential donors, rather than building ongoing relationships. “I’ve worked with some pretty tough cookies, but she’s one that I would put at the far extreme.” Already, Hillary has been fighting the perception that her nascent campaign puts cold calculation above sentiment and conviction. Jacobson’s take-no-prisoners style may not help.
In recent weeks, some reform-minded Democrats have been arguing that, despite the new lobbying restrictions Congress just passed, the party needs to do more to distance itself from K Street. But the fact remains that, under current law, neither party can expect to govern successfully without keeping open the lines of communication between Capitol Hill and Washington’s ever-expanding lobbying community. And Jonathan Jones, who recently resigned as chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to join mega-lobbyists Johnson, Madigan, Peck, will be key to ensuring that happens.
Jones first worked for Carper as governor, and came to Washington in 2000 when his boss was elected to the Senate. In recent years, he has emerged as a crucial bridge builder between lobbyists and Senate Democrats. Two years ago, he helped found Third Way, a policy and strategy group supported by centrist, pro-business Senate Democrats like Carper, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. That same year—along with Paul Bach, chief of staff to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.)—Jones began holding, every other Monday, a “Bi-Weekly Lobbyist Meeting.” The confabs, which brought together Democratic Senate staffers and supportive lobbyists—many of whom were former Hill staffers themselves—were intended, according to an invitation, to “strengthen ties to Democrats in the business community.”
Rather than concentrating on specific sectors, the meetings attracted K Street Democrats from a range of industries, and focused on areas of mutual interest—encouraging innovation, and limiting class-action lawsuits, for instance—with an eye to helping Democrats’ political prospects. They seem to have started a trend: House Democrats quickly established similar meetings of their own, and even the office of Pelosi, who’s never been associated with the party’s lobbyist wing, began its own formal outreach to lobbyists the following year.
In his new job, Jones figures to be an effective advocate for his corporate clients, who represent a range of sectors, including financial services and health care. Because his old boss, Carper, is known as a believer in free markets, Jones already has good relationships with much of the business community. “It’s different than coming off of Feingold’s staff,” says Pat Griffin, a prominent Democratic lobbyist and consultant, referring to the liberal Wisconsin senator. Much of Jones’s new workload could involve preparing politically connected clients to face oversight hearings run by his former Democratic colleagues. “There will be a lot of people who will be interested in trying to navigate that,” says Jones. “And we will be helping them to do so.”
Jones also expects to remain active in Democratic efforts to forge additional links between Capitol Hill and the lobbyist community. The Monday meetings were disbanded last year amid concerns about Democrats appearing to have a K Street Project of their own. (“There was a perception issue,” he says. “[Our meetings were] very, very different.”) But Third Way has begun a series of similar meetings, in which Jones says he plans to be involved. If Congress’s more liberal Democrats are serious about distancing their party from the lobbyists, they may have Jones and his friends to contend with.
In Washington, campaign season never really ends, but it does usually slow down for a few months. This year, however, the next battle for the House began the moment that Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as speaker.
Already, candidates are being recruited and opposition researchers working overtime. That bestows extraordinary influence on John Lapp—one of the lesser-known architects of the Democratic victory last November—and his bare-knuckle brand of campaigning.
During the past election cycle, Lapp was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and oversaw the committee’s vital independent expenditure program (IE). After the new Congress was sworn in, the thirty-five-year-old turned down several offers from Democratic presidential contenders to turn media consultants McMahon Squier & Associates into McMahon Squier Lapp & Associates.
His mission instead: to help Pelosi keep her job after 2008.
Lapp enjoys outsize influence thanks in part to recent changes to campaign finance legislation that allow political parties to raise more money, as long as parties spend the extra funds without any communication with the candidates. Consequently, last year DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel couldn’t tell the committee how to spend more than half of the millions he’d raised. This was an agonizing restriction for Emanuel (who is described by a friend as “the biggest control freak in Washington”), but ultimately it didn’t matter, because the job fell instead to Lapp, who was able to work around the problem. Channeling his mentor, with whom he has an almost symbiotic relationship, Lapp embraced a take-no-prisoners strategy, using strike teams to do research and rapid response, and essentially running dozens of shadow campaigns from the DCCC’s Washington office. Lapp struck particularly hard in red districts, and at his command last-minute DCCC attack ads flooded competitive races.
Lapp represents the new breed of Democratic campaign consultants, who are just as comfortable with bloodletting as their Republican counterparts. His campaign philosophy is to “stick it to them,” he says. “You put your foot on their neck, and don’t stop until they get to the morgue.” Look for that attitude—and Lapp—to take center stage in the next election.
Chief of staff for Speaker Pelosi
Pelosi’s chief of staff, John Lawrence, is newly powerful for the obvious reason: everything on the speaker’s plate passes through his office.
Lawrence is a wonky, experienced Capitol Hill operator who spent three decades as a top aide to George Miller, perhaps Pelosi’s closest ally in the House. But his forte is policy. He has served as top Democratic staffer on the Education and Workforce Committee and the Resources Committee, and as a top aide to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He also has solid bipartisan bona fides: as Miller’s top Health, Education and Welfare staffer, he helped write the No Child Left Behind Act.
Expect Lawrence to also play a pivotal role in managing one of the Democrats’ greatest challenges: how to deal with the lobbyists of K Street.
Late last year,
as the likelihood of a Democratic electoral victory grew, the semiregular meetings with lobbyists held by Lawrence and other top leadership aides grew increasingly popular. That relationship has continued in the aftermath of the win. But now, though House Democrats remain willing to solicit campaign contributions, they’re also eager to demonstrate that they’re serious about ending the Republican “culture of corruption.” Lawrence’s new role will require him to reconcile these diverging goals—to show voters that his party represents a more honest alternative to the GOP, without needlessly turning up its nose when Washington’s lobbying community can be useful. It’s a delicate balancing act, and in many ways Lawrence is the man on the tightrope.
In 2001, President Bush came into office with his sights set on the trial lawyers. By enacting tort reform, which would limit the amount of damages plaintiffs could seek, Bush and Rove hoped to deal a deathblow to the political clout of a sector that had become crucial to Democratic fund-raising. “There is no question that Republicans tried to do everything to destroy them,” says a Democratic lobbyist who followed the issue. “This was not: ‘One for me, one for you; three for me, three for you.’ This was: ‘I want you to die.’”
As things turned out, the trial lawyers did not die. Only a small piece
of Bush’s tort-reform agenda made it through Congress, and in last fall’s midterms, perhaps no professional group came out with their political reputation more clearly enhanced. As usual, the trial lawyers contributed more money by far to Democratic candidates than any other financial sector. In addition, last year the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) for the first time worked to elect candidates to the House. And, for good measure, fourteen out of the eighteen trial-lawyer candidates won their races, helping to bury once and for all the notion that the “slick trial lawyer” label is a political killer. The near-death experience may only have made them more powerful: “When everyone is trying to kill you and you survive and you fight back tough, you gain tremendously,” says the Democratic lobbyist.
The person who fought back the toughest was Linda Lipsen, the AAJ’s top lobbyist. Lipsen is known as an honest but aggressive advocate who it pays not to get on the wrong side of. Over the next two years, she’ll be working to capitalize on the trial lawyers’ impressive performance last year. With only a slim Democratic majority, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to go fully on the offense in the next two years. But, she says, she may lay the groundwork for future gains by exploiting the growing split between business and culturally conservative Republicans on the Hill. Attempts by the administration, for instance, to use executive-branch rulings to preempt state safety regulations have raised the hackles of some GOP advocates of traditional values. And if the trial lawyers match their impressive ’06 showing by helping to elect a Democrat to the White House in ’08, Lipsen will be perfectly placed to reap the rewards.
Joshua Micah Marshall
Joshua Marshall’s blog, Talking Points Memo (TPM), came of age in the era of Republican dominance. Marshall, who has written for the Hill, the American Prospect, and the Washington Monthly, synthesized the personal, outrage-driven perspective of liberal sites like the Daily Kos (which started after TPM) and the original reporting provided by traditional news organizations. And he has somehow figured out a way to make it financially viable.
Some of the site’s key moments were also defining moments in the GOP’s rule. Marshall’s tireless reporting on Trent Lott’s praise for Strom Thurmond helped trigger the Senate leader’s fall from power. But TPM really came into its own over the last two years, during the Social Security debate and the Jack Abramoff scandal, when Marshall engaged his readers in a sort of cooperative news-gathering enterprise. The site grew to include a group blog, TPM Café, a campaign blog, Election Central, and an investigative arm, TPM Muckraker, with full-time Washington and New York reporters digging up political dirt under Marshall’s direction.
Now that Democrats have taken over on Capitol Hill, Marshall’s power has, if anything, grown. He and his reporters have shown no sign of going easy on the new regime—the site was quick to catalog the ethical lapses of Alcee Hastings and Jack Murtha, who unsuccessfully sought prominent leadership posts late last year. More importantly, with Democrats in charge of committees, TPM’s excellent sources are likely to shovel the site plenty of muck dredged up by congressional investigators. The site is poised to act over the next few years as a kind of vital feedback loop for Democratic insiders and plugged-in progressives—as both a clearinghouse for readers eager to keep up with the investigative onslaught, and as a key driver of that onslaught through its original reporting. With that in mind, Marshall is planning to beef up the site’s Washington presence by hiring a new set of D.C.-based editorial staffers to keep an eye on Congress and the federal government—and to keep the Democrats honest.
Global AIDS and poverty activist
One of the few areas of foreign policy where President Bush’s record has received wide praise has been combating AIDS in Africa. Stiffened by pressure from its evangelical Christian base, the administration has significantly increased funding for efforts to fight the disease. Still, with millions of Africans continuing to die of AIDS each year, and more than 1 billion people globally living on less than a dollar a day, there’s plenty more that could be done to help the world’s least fortunate.
If these issues are to grow in prominence—or even to remain on Washington’s radar at all—Susan McCue will be crucial. Last month, McCue ended her seven-year tenure as Harry Reid’s chief of staff to head up the ONE campaign, Bono’s Washington-based effort to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty. As the 2008 presidential race heats up, she plans to use her Hill connections and experience, her media and communications savvy, and her organizational chops to put the problems of AIDS and poverty on the political front burner.
McCue has unassailable credentials as one of Washington’s premiere inside players. She began working for Reid in 1990 after waiting tables in Georgetown, and quickly rose through the ranks to become press secretary. After a brief period working as a political consultant in the late ’90s, she returned to Reid’s office as chief of staff. By all accounts, McCue was crucial in conceiving and implementing Senate Democrats’ vastly improved messaging and communications strategy over the last two years. And Reid has had no closer adviser and confidant. The normally poker-faced Nevadan choked up at McCue’s recent going-away party, telling the crowd, “She’s like one of our children ... she’s part of our family.” Had McCue stuck around, she’d likely have been the Senate’s most powerful staffer.
But McCue is also “a rare species in Washington, which is a fully formed human being,” according to the Republican media adviser Mark McKinnon, who was on the search committee that selected McCue for the
ONE job. “She doesn’t need the mirror of politics to reflect who she is.” Not that her new assignment with the ONE campaign isn’t intensely political. McCue can’t legally lobby her former boss, or anyone else in Congress, for two years, thanks to new ethics rules. Still, as the campaign seeks to restore a $1 billion funding shortfall for foreign aid and development programs in this year’s budget, her prodigious network of Capitol Hill relationships sure can’t hurt.
Most of all, her deep bond with Reid, who will have a major say in how Congress spends money, could pay dividends. That’s particularly true given Reid’s penchant for remembering his friends. “If there’s one thing about Harry Reid,” says Frank Fahrenkopf, a Republican lawyer and former RNC chair who’s known the Senate leader since their high school days in Nevada, “he’s very loyal.”
Political leaders typically have long lists of official advisers, but it can often be the less formal confidants who wield the real power. And, according to a San Francisco friend of the family, Nancy Pelosi’s most influential informal adviser, after her husband, is her second-to-oldest daughter, Christine.
A lawyer by training, Christine—who’s forty but seems younger—has always been by far the most political of the four Pelosi daughters. Friends describe her as tough, disciplined, ferociously well organized, and highly intelligent—with a weakness for pop culture. “She’s very good at putting together systems that make everything work better,” says Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), for whom she worked as chief of staff until 2005.
Pelosi spent the last two years working with the labor union AFSCME to run a campaign boot camp intended to turn promising progressive challengers into polished, sound-bite-ready contenders for office. The results were impressive: twelve of the thirty new Democratic House freshmen attended her training. She also was crucial to the Democrats’ much-praised effort to make gains among military voters, helping to create the Veterans and Military Families Council, which played a key role in several major Democratic wins, including Jim Webb’s. “Christine is a heavyweight” independent of Nancy, says another San Francisco friend.
Still, there’s nothing like having your mother become speaker of the House to up your influence overnight. Christine, of course, plays down her role. “[My mother] has a great staff,” she says. “She doesn’t need me.” And it’s not likely that mother and daughter spend all their private time talking shop. But few are better than Christine at “switching those gears and becoming a sounding board,” as a friend puts it. No doubt in the next few years they’ll have a lot to talk about.
Patti Solis Doyle
Fund-raising director for Senator Clinton
The first Clinton presidential run was characterized by gab-happy advisers and a shoot-from-the-hip style. A decade and a half later, the third Clinton presidential campaign lies in the hands of Patti Solis Doyle, a woman who seems congenitally allergic to the spotlight. Solis Doyle is the director of Clinton’s fund-raising operation, which includes her leadership committee, HillPAC, and her Senate committee, Friends of Hillary (FOH). She typically operates behind the scenes, directing a phalanx of assistants and researchers, sweet-talking Democratic donors, and hammering out strategy with the candidate herself.
Some Democrats outside Hillaryland say Clinton’s reliance on a small coterie of advisers stifle the creativity and energy needed to capture the nomination. But that complaint may miss the point. The current system—typified by the fiercely competitive Solis Doyle at the top—reflects the value Clinton places on loyalty and discipline.
Solis Doyle, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants, met Clinton when the latter was still the first lady of Arkansas. The two have rarely worked apart since then. Since Hillary Clinton was first elected senator, Solis Doyle has masterminded an ambitious effort to build a potential donor list numbering in the hundreds of thousands; HillPAC collected close to $3 million last cycle alone. The PAC also bankrolls Clinton’s vast political operation of consultants, staffers, researchers, and policy wonks. Political campaigns are built on favors and relationships; Solis Doyle has spent years cultivating those for Hillary Clinton.
The Swing Voter
Various factors did in the Democrats’ last attempt to pass universal health care, in 1993. But perhaps the most important was the opposition of health insurers, who understood that a publicly funded system would hurt their bottom line. If Democrats want to take a run at the issue over the next two years—or even start building viable support for the future—they’ll need to figure out how to neutralize that opposition.
Whether they’re successful or not, Laurie Sullivan will be a key player in the process. Sullivan, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, recently ended her professional partnership with the campaign consultant Nick Baldick—who ran John Edwards’s 2004 presidential bid—to found a new boutique firm, Avenue Solutions. She appears to have all but cornered the market on representing the interests of major health insurers in Washington: she counts Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield, Medco, and United Health Group, among other big names, as clients. At the same time, though she’s never worked on Capitol Hill, Sullivan has “very close ties” to the new Senate leadership, according to another leading Democratic lobbyist.
Sullivan grew up in a union household in Connecticut, but spent a decade doing legal and government relations work at Aetna’s corporate headquarters.
She built her influence through a long history of Democratic Party activism, both in Washington and Connecticut, and is particularly tight with the state’s two Democratic senators, Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd, and their staffs.
But Sullivan’s Democratic bona fides don’t necessarily mean she’ll be a force for cooperation between her clients and Congress. Depending on how she uses her power, she could be an ally or an adversary for Democrats looking to advance the cause of universal health care. “We often disagree,” she says of her Democratic friends. “But we at least can share perspective.”
The Good Soldier
Staff director, Senate Finance Committee
After six years of President Bush’s slash-and-burn tax cuts, combined with the GOP Congress’s neglect of the tax system’s structural problems, reforming the tax code will be near the top of the Democrats’ agenda. But there’s just one problem: Max Baucus, the new chair
of the Senate Finance Committee, is a conservative Montanan with a reputation for bucking the party line. Baucus’s recent insistence on holding detailed hearings before moving forward with a major Democratic priority—legislation to give the government the power to negotiate drug prices over Medicare—doesn’t augur well for his willingness to be a team player. But that tension could make Russ Sullivan a crucial figure over the next two years.
As the committee’s staff director, Sullivan—a tax attorney from Arkansas and onetime law clerk for Hillary Clinton at the Rose law firm—will be the
aide with perhaps the biggest direct influence on Democratic tax policy. An experienced but easygoing Hill operator, he’s known for his ability to somehow find the lighter side of tax policy—“Whatever the bill is on the floor,” says one Democratic staffer, “his briefings are notoriously hilarious”—and for his good relationships with staffers on both sides of the aisle.
Baucus and Sullivan’s studiously bipartisan approach has already been evident this session, and not necessarily to Democrats’ advantage. The party was elected in part on the promise of raising the minimum wage—an overwhelmingly popular position. But after the House had easily passed a minimum-wage hike in mid-January, Baucus sponsored a GOP-backed provision that would have tied any raise to tax breaks for businesses—something House Democrats had made it clear they could not support. The move put the House and Senate on a collision course that, as of last month, could delay passage of a key Democratic priority. “Sometimes you have to modify your bill,” says Sullivan.
Baucus is up for reelection in ’08, which means, according to one former Finance Committee staffer, “he’s going to be moving in directions that will help win him reelection.” In other words, to the right. There are some top committee aides who look likely to serve as a check on their bosses’ more independent instincts (see “The Moderator,” above). But don’t count on that from Sullivan. “I work for Max Baucus,” he says. “I’m his agent. The staff here in the Senate—we do what the bosses want.”
Comptroller general, Government Accountability Office
For the past four years, while Congress has been under almost uninterrupted Republican control, David Walker, a former Arthur Andersen executive and
onetime registered Republican, has headed the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the legislative branch’s investigative arm. Unfortunately for Walker, during that time the GOP wasn’t very interested in oversight. When Walker started doing his job too well, the Republican congressional leadership threatened to cut his funding. That forced Walker’s GAO to abandon, among many other projects, its historic lawsuit seeking documents from the vice president’s secret Energy Task Force meetings.
But now the Republicans can no longer cramp his style. Before ousted GOP lawmakers had even started packing up their offices, Walker published an extensive laundry list of investigative priorities—praised by Democratic leaders like Henry Waxman—for the next Congress. Topics ranged from entitlement and education programs to intelligence reform and aid for the Gulf coast. But for Walker, perhaps the most pressing issue of the past few years has been the war in Iraq, where his son has served. He’s repeatedly pushed for a full accounting of Pentagon spending, and blasted the department’s “atrocious financial management” and lax supervision of military contractors.
Executive-branch incompetence isn’t Walker’s only target. He’s also railed against the public and politicians alike for their “myopia” on budget issues—and he spent the first few weeks of the 110th Congress tirelessly promoting fiscal accountability everywhere from Capitol Hill to 60 Minutes. Walker’s support will be invaluable to Democrats in their oversight role, since his conservative credentials will make it harder for Republicans to characterize the investigations as partisan. He’s likely to be the most welcome and frequent guest at Democratic-controlled hearings since John Dean.
—Additional reporting by Christopher Hayes and Avi Klein.
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Zachary Roth and Rebecca Sinderbrand are editors of the Washington Monthly.