When politics is the family business
By the time he was nine, Mark Squier was already knee deep in the world of high stakes politics, which in 1968 was still a relatively small world. The immersion came courtesy of his father, the legendary Democratic media consultant Bob Squier. One of his earliest political memories? Watching a taping of Face the Nation featuring the man his father was trying to make president, Hubert Humphrey.
The history of that moment was a bit lost on Mark, but he was captivated by the spectacle. He remembers Humphrey’s distinctive voice, the studio’s lights and massive cameras, and most of all the sudden realization that “whatever it was my father did, it was in pretty cool surroundings with pretty important people.” It was a world that seemed to eat up nearly every ounce of energy and passion his father could muster.
“You get pulled into it in a sense, because as a kid you look up to your dad,” says Mark, now a partner at the Democratic media firm McMahon, Squier, Lapp & Associates. “So when you see him get completely consumed by something you want to know, ‘What is it that’s making Dad so nuts?’”
The late Bob Squier was one of the founding members of the political consulting profession. There were very few others in the biz back in the 1970s: Ray Strother, Matt Reese, Bob Goodman, Joe Cerrell, Joe Napolitan, Peter Hart, Pat Caddell and, later, Stan Greenberg.
While the industry grew quickly over the past three decades, there was a long period of time where that inner circle—those who worked on campaigns full-time—remained small and largely unchanged. And aside from the politicians and big-time consultants of the day, the only others with a front-row seat for the industry’s development were their families.
One thread that runs through all of their experiences is that political consulting has never been a 9 to 5 job, and it’s one that is often impossible to separate from family life. For the sons and daughters who decided to make the profession their own, there was also the issue of getting out of dad’s shadow.
Either way, it didn’t prevent Dane Strother, Mark Squier, Anna Greenberg or Adam Goodman from entering the family business, eventually. In some ways they form the core of an elite fraternity—those who have a real sense of the industry’s history and the ability to shape where it heads next.
Like Mark Squier, it was a youthful encounter with a towering politician that began Republican Adam Goodman’s fascination with politics. Goodman was just 10 when Spiro Agnew walked into his family’s home to begin a campaign for Maryland governor.
“He was this commanding guy who looked like he was about 8 feet tall,” Adam remembers. “Right then and there I realized how cool it was to be next to this guy and to see my father being part of something this impactful.”
Adam’s father Bob plotted the media strategy that helped Agnew topple a better-funded Democrat in a state that, at the time, was 5-to-1 Democrat. It was a campaign that launched both of their political careers.
Adam later spent years around the campaigns his father created the ads for, working mostly with film crews, doing lots of grunt work. “Hey kid—we need a new tape,” was a common refrain.
Bob Goodman actively pushed his son toward the business of politics. “I actually went after him,” Bob explains. “I knew that he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do, so I kept pushing him.”
Despite a love for politics, Adam feared making it a profession. His father had long been at the top of his craft, writing and producing some of the era’s most memorable political spots. Living up to that success might just be too tough.
“There’s no question I had a lot of trepidation,” Adam says. “I was in awe of my dad’s creative abilities, and naturally I was worried about the expectations that carries with it for the son.”
So instead, he headed to New York to work in finance. But he couldn’t stand the boredom. After just a year, he called his father and said he wanted back in.
He went to work on statewide campaigns in Oklahoma and Washington State before his father summoned him to his firm in D.C. in 1982. “I pretty much went from the mailroom to president in about 10 years after that,” Adam says. “And that’s really where I learned the rest of the business.”
In an introduction to the business that mirrored Adam’s, Mark Squier’s teenage years were spent hauling around lights and camera equipment on the road with his father, Bob Squier.
Being the consultant’s son wasn’t a privileged existence. “I was about 17 or 18 years old and carrying cables on film crews, doing the grunt work,” Mark remembers. “And he wasn’t easy on me. It was sort of, ‘So you really want to do this kind of thing?’”
Mark spent eight years proving his mettle to his father. The first real campaign he worked on was one of his father’s most notable—Bob Graham’s run for Florida governor in 1978. Graham was a long shot, so Squier devised a memorable campaign tactic to bring him out of obscurity: Graham spent 100 days working a different job daily, from farmer to busboy.
But even after the thrill of winning that race, Mark was eventually driven to film school in L.A. by the same thing that led Adam Goodman to New York: the worry he couldn’t equal his father’s success.
Something that did rub off on Mark, though, was Bob Squier’s competitive instincts. Those who knew him remember Bob as an intense competitor. He took his losses personally. In that regard, Mark says, he wasn’t unlike his dad.
And the film industry just wasn’t a game with a clear winner and a clear loser. Politics was the only thing that satisfied his competitive instinct.
“I also knew that, for me, I needed to work separately from my dad,” Mark says, “or perhaps end up on some therapist’s couch if I wasn’t able to live up to my father’s success.”
It was a decision Mark says his father embraced, and in 1991 he founded his own consulting firm. Working in different shops led to two father vs. son political match-ups. Bob won the first. Mark won the second. His father’s win, Mark notes, was by 524 votes. His win? By a full 8 percentage points.
It also took Democrat Dane Strother years before he tried to forge his own path in the business where his father was a legend. Ray Strother got his start in the rough world of Louisiana politics. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Strother has worked for Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and Russell Long.
Being Ray’s son, says Dane, has meant “sweating-out” Election Day pretty much all of his life. He started learning the ropes as early as age 6.
Dane recalls watching the band of former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis play on the steps of a courthouse. Davis, the famous musician turned politician, was an icon of Louisiana politics into the 1950’s.
By the time Dane was a teenager, the business had grown and he was carrying lights and cables and driving trucks for his father. But Ray Strother’s first instinct was to keep his kids out of politics, and not just while they were young. “It was such a tough business,” he says. “I wanted a little more stability for my children.”
The two struck an agreement when it came to the business of politics—Dane had to try something else first.
“I told him he couldn’t come in until he worked for a newspaper for a while,” Ray says. And Dane himself wasn’t yet convinced he wanted to follow his father into the world of consulting for many of the same reasons that held Mark Squier and Adam Goodman back initially.
So out of journalism school, Dane became a political reporter. As the 1988 presidential race began to take shape, Dane was working for the Lawrence Eagle Tribune in Massachusetts, and he was intent on covering it.
When the primary season got underway in 1987, Dane’s editors called him in asking whether he knew a Ray Strother, who at the time was Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s media consultant.
“I said, ‘Yeah, he’s my dad,’” Dane recalls. “And they told me, ‘Well you can’t cover politics then.’ Truth is if they would have let me cover it, I’d probably still be a political reporter.”
So in 1988 Dane returned to D.C., entered the family business and started to build his own professional identity.
“I don’t think anyone understands how difficult it is for those in the second generation to establish themselves,” says Ray Strother. “If you’re the son or daughter of a political consultant, everybody is always measuring you against your father. When Dane started out, he was very much in my shadow, and I’ve often felt bad about that.”
For a while, Ray recalls, Dane was the lowest paid person at the firm. He’s now a partner along with his father, who still plays a role in the firm’s campaigns.
“For the record,” Ray says, “I’m not as good as Dane.”
For Stan and Anna Greenberg the political journey has been a distinctly different one, yet their team has been critical to the development of the political polling industry. The early days of Greenberg’s firm don’t elicit memories of famous political figures lounging on the living room couch. There was just a basement full of Xerox machines and computers.
Stan Greenberg was an academic by trade, and says entering the world of consulting never really crossed his mind. But the company he founded in 1980, while still a professor at Yale, all but invented the world of modern survey research.
“The whole idea of a consulting firm that just did polling—that was only starting in the 80’s,” Anna Greenberg says. “It really didn’t exist yet.”
Anna was still in high school when the company launched. She remembers the early days as “just a bunch of academics in my basement.” It was little more than an after-school job for her at the time. She would Xerox, code questionnaires and run data. Once she got to college she had every intention of staying in the world of academia.
Still, Anna worked on and off for the company for years, working on several federal races and Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
But then, some years later at a board retreat in Miami, Stan and the company’s other partners were talking about expanding the number of senior principles in the firm. At the time Anna was a professor at Harvard and working for the Internet polling firm Knowledge Networks.
“At lunch one day I said to him, ‘Maybe I should have that job,’” Anna recalls. “He was a bit taken aback.”
Anna joined the firm shortly thereafter. “I think people expected there to be tension,” Stan says. “But, honestly, I don’t remember any.”
She wasn’t necessarily intimidated by her father’s success. He might have taught at Yale, but she taught at Harvard. Still, Anna wanted to forge her own path in the firm. By the time she joined, Stan’s work was largely international and the two rarely intersected professionally with the exception of the 2004 cycle.
“It was good for me,” says Anna, “because I needed to feel confident that I wasn’t here just because I was Stan’s daughter.”
Stan Greenberg’s two daughters form a pretty good case study in growing into the world of consulting. Anna’s twin sister worked the same after-school job as Anna, Xeroxing and coding surveys.
“The early introduction didn’t take, though,” says Stan. “She quit and went to work in an ice cream store.”
As in any industry, some institutional memory is a good thing, says Mark Squier. “We’ve seen lots of races growing up,” he says. “It helps with some of the strategy stuff, but I think it helps the industry as a whole too.”
The field has changed drastically over the past three decades, and founders like Bob Goodman and Ray Strother don’t necessarily like some of the turns the business has taken.
“We were in the invention phase in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s,” Ray says. “At first, we were really just advertising agencies.”
But as the business changed, so did the rules of the game. In the beginning there was a gentlemen’s agreement. “If I worked for a candidate one cycle, you wouldn’t go after him and try to get his business the next,” Ray explains.
“We all had a tremendous amount of respect for one another, and for each other’s work back then,” says Bob Goodman. “It has really changed, and I’m regretful of that.”
It’s still a business that both men say they have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for, and one which both Bob and Ray think is better off with their sons in the game.
“You won’t have a truly professional business,” Ray says, “until you have one that’s a few generations deep.”
But as far as the third generation is concerned, Dane Strother isn’t sure the tradition will live on in his family. “I think I’d like to break the cycle with my own kids,” Dane says of his two young sons. “I still respect this business and I respect the people in it, but it’s not what it once was.”
Mark Squier says if his kids are interested in the business he will take the tack his father did—he won’t encourage it, but he won’t discourage it either.
“I have a 4-year-old son who would probably be crazy enough to get into this business,” he says. “And my two daughters would have a lot more patience than I do. If they’re interested I’d be willing to say come on in and give it a try.”
Squier’s 11-year-old daughter has already had her introduction to the world of presidential politics. As the executive producer for this year’s Democratic National Convention, Squier all but lived in Denver for a good three months, and his daughter came out to see the spectacle.
Her reaction? Much like the 9-year-old captivated by Hubert Humphrey 40 years ago, Mark says, “I think she thought this was pretty cool, too.”
Shane D’Aprile is web editor at Politics magazine.