A 1988 C&E interview with the one-time master of political media.
Tharon Johnson, 31, Democrat
Campaign Manager, Kasim Reed for Mayor
Tharon Johnson began the toughest campaign of his young political career in an unenviable position: His candidate was polling at 3 percent in a five-way race. Johnson had left a Congressional job that’s about as safe as they come—district director for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)—to join Kasim Reed’s campaign for mayor of Atlanta in April of 2009. It was far from the first campaign challenge that Johnson, who got his start in politics campaigning on the streets of Athens, Georgia at the age of four, faced. Johnson was Rep. John Barrow’s (D-Ga.) deputy campaign manger and field director in 2004. Barrow squeaked out a win with 52 percent of the vote in one of the country’s closest races.
“In the mayor’s race, we knew right away that we had to do some things to raise our profile and show that we could be competitive,” says Johnson. Despite having a longtime state Senator as a candidate, Reed’s name recognition was still fairly low. So the campaign was out of the gate first with radio ads, more than 120 days before the election.
They followed that with a massive field and canvassing program and made it to a runoff
with City Councilwoman Mary Norwood. The run-off put a spotlight on issues of class and race, with the national media focusing on the possibility that Atlanta stood to elect its first white mayor since 1974. Reed’s campaign ramped up turnout efforts for the December runoff and, despite having to endure a recount, won by 714 votes. “We did something in that race that I bet has never been done before,” says Johnson. “We turned out more people in the runoff election than we turned out in the general. And we had a 30 plus percent increase in African-American turnout in the runoff.”
Johnson was named 2010 Campaign Manager of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants and became a senior advisor to Reed. “When I think about his leadership of my campaign, I think calmness and strength,” says the mayor. “We had what we thought was a very good campaign plan, but it required a strong stomach to stick with it.”
Daniel Gotoff, 34, Democrat
Daniel Gotoff ’s first campaign experience came young—really young. As a baby he appeared in literature for his father’s school board campaign. “I don’t hold that against him,” Gotoff says. Nor should he: It was the first of Gotoff ’s many campaign victories. Gotoff, who heads Lake Research Partners’ New York City office, has helped a huge roster of progressive candidates win, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to local candidates. When Gotoff joined LRP as an intern in 1996, it was an 11-person firm. Thirteen years later, the firm has more than three times as many employees.
Celinda Lake, the firm’s president, says Gotoff has been a huge part of that growth. “He’s invaluable,” she says. “He’s really anchored and underscored the values of our firm.” LRP had long been thinking of expanding with an office in New York, a hotbed for progressive politics, and Gotoff, who has family ties to the city, was a perfect fit to lead it.
But his wins come everywhere, even in the less-friendly Midwest, where he’s helped U.S. Congressmen win with liberal platforms. “That to me is very satisfying, when even on red ground, you can stake out a position that is termed as progressive and win,” he says.
Carrie Giddins, 34, Democrat
Carrie Giddins became a familiar face as communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party before the historic caucuses back in January, traveling the state to help explain the quirky system to voters. "This past year, working in Iowa was a real highlight for me," Giddins says. "Iowa was the center of the universe for almost a year, and to have an opportunity to be out there was amazing." The high-profile journalists she met in Iowa have helped Giddins make a smooth transition into analyzing the races for national media outlets. But her most ambitious undertaking yet has been creating her own business, Giddy Up! Communications, a political communications consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Giddins also explains that her ever-growing eraser collection stands at 1,700 and counting. "It all started when I was a kid and my parents would travel to places like London or Tokyo, and couldn't get me a souvenir shot glass, because I was so young. So they got me erasers instead. I hope when people read this they send me some new ones!"
Bill Redding, 32, Democrat
Account Executive, Catalist
Bill Redding, a Massachusetts native, was inaugurated into local politicking at the age of six, when his grandfather, a local planning board member, enlisted him to help pound in yard signs and knock on doors for local races. “My mother tells the story of me at the Cranberry Festival in Cape Cod running up to shake Tip O’Neill’s hand,” Redding recalls. During college, he interned for Sen. Ted Kennedy and worked as a volunteer on Al Gore’s 2000 primary and presidential campaign. “That sucked me in and convinced me that I could do this as a career,” he says.
In the decade since, Redding has worked for an array of candidates, organizations, and firms, all of them based in New England or Washington, D.C. Until last year, that is, when he spent six months as the statewide coordinated field director for the Arizona Democratic Party. Despite being brought on late in the campaign, he won extremely high marks from colleagues for his maturity and dedication in setting up a sophisticated field operation.
His efforts, which led to the recruitment of a record number of volunteers and over two million phone calls and 240,000 door-knocks to potential voters, were key to the narrow re-election of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “It was a ridiculously tough year in a tough state, but we built a team statewide that did amazing things,” says Redding. Since the beginning of this year, Redding has been back in Washington, working as an account executive with Catalist.
Clark Lee, 28, Democrat
Political Director, Los Angeles County Democratic Party
To those who have worked with him, Clark Lee represents the future of political operatives. To those who haven’t, Lee is perhaps best known for his chicken suit.
Lee was one of two College Democrats who shadowed Arnold Schwarzenegger during his 2003 gubernatorial run to show that Schwarzenegger was a “debate chicken.” Lee and his co-chicken were rewarded with an article on the front page of the New York Times, but his mom asked only “when am I going to get a real job,” Lee recalls.
Since then, Lee has become a leading operative in California, especially when it comes to Asian-American field operations. He has become the youngest member of the California Democratic Party Executive Board and handled Asian-American outreach in the Golden State for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.
Lee recently managed Rep. Judy Chu’s special election victory. Chu faced a well-funded opponent in an East Los Angeles district that included large white, Hispanic and Asian-American populations. Lee, who speaks English, Mandarin and Spanish, proved to be the perfect person for the job.
Chu’s campaign faced one big challenge: On the ballot Chu appeared right next to Betty Chu, a cousin who presented a significant name ID challenge. “In English, we just tell people to vote for Judy,” says Lee, “In Chinese, both Betty and Judy’s names have three Chinese characters. Two of them are the same. The one that is different for Judy, it means heart.”
So Lee sent all of his targeted Chinese voters mail with a huge heart on it. It worked, and Chu’s base delivered her a significant victory. Chu’s husband, California Assemblyman
Mike Eng, has also worked with Lee and says he is the prototype for the next generation of political operatives. “Clark represents the future in terms of his ability to bridge the gap between disparate communities,” he says.
“And,” he adds, “he is someone who is incredibly upbeat, always positive and friendly to his coworkers.”
Julie Greene, 29, Democrat
After graduating college, Julie Greene was torn. She could either head home to Ohio or stay in D.C. and make a home on her friend’s couch for a few months while searching for a job. She chose the latter, and it brought her to one of the top direct mail firms in the country—MSHC Partners. She was one of 20 temporary staffers the firm hired for the 2002 election cycle, and she was the only one the firm offered a full-time spot after November. Over the next five years, Greene would rise to a senior-level staff position at MSHC and by the 2006 cycle she was planning and executing million-dollar direct mail campaigns. “I was really lucky because every cycle [the firm] let me go out and do campaign work, too,” she says. By the time the ’08 cycle rolled around, Greene was looking for a new challenge. She found it at the AFL-CIO, where she was brought on as campaign operations analyst. She was tasked with directing the AFL’s $15 million national communications and mail program. “Honestly, I was scared to death when I started,” she says. “All I heard was how big a job it was going to be and how much was at stake.” As head of the AFL’s member communications program, Greene oversaw a mail campaign that created one of the most talked-about pieces of mail in the entire 2008 cycle—the “Rumors” piece. Targeted at union members, the mailer addressed head-on the underground rumors about Barack Obama’s religion and upbringing.
Bill Hyers, 32, Democrat
Bill Hyers is currently up in Manchester, N.H., managing Jeanne Shaheen's Senate campaign, but it's not his first high-profile campaign. He managed Kirsten Gillibrand's unlikely victory in her 2006 congressional bid in Upstate New York, and managed Michael Nutter's surprising rise to Philadelphia mayor last year. Hyers has often jumped at the opportunity to work for candidates the punditry initially dismissed-and with Hyers' help, most ultimately won. "To me, this business is all about getting good people elected to great positions," he says. "And while a lot of people send their resumes to the top campaigns with the best salaries, for me, working for decent people-not just the hottest candidates at the time-is very underrated."
Colin Rogero, 33, Democrat
President, Revolution Media
While growing up in South Florida, Colin Rogero volunteered on political campaigns from a young age, but he took a meandering path to making politics his profession.
After graduating from college, he moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to start a career in advertising. Along with some friends, he produced a documentary that told the story of several illegal immigrants, which was aired by PBS in a number of large markets.
“Then I went back to the ad world, and I had a crisis of conscience,” Rogero says. “I did something I felt had a positive effect on people, and now I am back selling products.” He decided to put his media skills to work influencing public policy full time.
After a few years with the consulting firm Strother-Duffy-Strother in Washington, D.C., Rogero started his own firm, Revolution Media, in late 2008. In the 2010 cycle, the firm worked on campaigns ranging from county prosecutor races to independent expenditures for U.S. Senate races.
A highlight for Rogero has been working with We Are America, a public affairs campaign dedicated to telling immigrants’ stories—one of which helped a Maryland teenager originally from India avoid deportation. “I got to play a part in getting his stay of deportation,” says Rogero. “I felt really good about that one.” Rogero draws on his experience in commercial advertising to bring an edgy, innovative approach to political messaging. “I am always willing to push the envelope a little bit more,” says Rogero.
“I am always thinking of ways that media is being done in the world outside politics. I never want to feel like I am left behind.”
Toby McGrath, 34, Democrat
Political Director, Maine Street Solutions
Toby McGrath practically grew up in Massachusetts politics. His mother worked for Sen. John Kerry, so McGrath was schooled in door-to-door politicking at a young age. Still, McGrath didn’t graduate college with the intention of going into professional politics. After college, McGrath found himself in Los Angeles working at the Santa Monica Film Festival before being lured back to campaigns in his home state. His first campaign was with a staff of three in a district attorney’s race—and was a losing effort. “The good news is, I haven’t lost since then,” says McGrath.
He headed up to Maine and ran a handful of successful races for state representative, moving to serve as chief of staff to the speaker of the state House. During his time in the speaker’s office, McGrath spearheaded an effort to allow voters to request absentee ballots electronically—Maine’s 2008 election was the first anywhere in the country where voters could request the ballots over the Internet. It was one of the first in a series of achievements for McGrath in Maine, including helping President Obama to an 18-point win in the state while working as Obama For America’s Maine campaign manager.
Now as political director at Maine Street Solutions, what many point to as most impressive is McGrath’s successful referendum campaigns—he oversaw the defeat of a taxpayer bill of rights referendum and an excise tax cut initiative, while practically moving mountains to do it. On the taxpayer rights referendum, “We were down 27 points in September and ended up winning by 20 points on Election Day,” McGrath recalls. The campaign against the excise tax measure also started with a similar polling deficit. Says Mike Saxl, managing principal at Maine Street, “Toby has shown that you can live anywhere in the country and still do national level political consulting.”
Jessica Grounds, 28, Democrat
Most people have enough trouble keeping up with one job. Jessica Grounds is succeeding in three. She’s a vice president at Stones’ Phones, a Democratic firm where she’s worked for five years, and leads two operations supporting women in politics.
Grounds is the president of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, as well as the associate director of Running Start, a non-profit that educates young women about why it’s important to run for office.
“I try to balance everything, and then I just work on the weekends a lot and I’m out networking at night,” Grounds says. “A lot of it is just about building relationships and trying to grow our organization.”
For Grounds, the goal is to have more women walking the halls of power as officeholders and staffers.
“I was one of those rare people that sort of found my passion early in life—I got really excited about politics in college,” Grounds says. “And I’ve always had a fiery feminist part of me where I think, from a very young age, I’ve just been oriented towards encouraging other women.”
John Phillips, the founder of Aristotle, where Grounds worked previously, described her as “unbelievably determined and tenacious.” And he paid her the compliment every consultant wants: “I would not want to be on the other side of a political battle.”