Michael Bronstein caught the political bug in the Clinton White House and incubated it in the U.
Michael Bronstein caught the political bug in the Clinton White House and incubated it in the U.K. working on Tony Blair’s final re-election campaign. Upon his return to the States, Bronstein launched a Philadelphia-based direct mail consulting firm with partner Matthew Weaver. Based initially out of Bronstein’s parents’ basement, the two embarked on a campaign of cold calls and landed a few high-profile clients. After spending four years working for the Labour party in the U.K., Michael Bronstein launched a direct mail consulting firm with partner Matthew Weaver. Demonstrating his hands-on approach, here he is angling a FlexFill Reflector to get the right amount of light during a shoot. Over time, their efforts generated electoral wins and brought them national attention. In 2009, Bronstein & Weaver won the Campaigns & Elections Reed Award for Best Bare-Knuckled Street Fight Victory recognizing their work on Pennsylvania State Representative Tony Payton, Jr.’s reelection in the face of fierce opposition within his own party. In 2010, Bronstein was named a Campaigns & Elections Rising Star. C&E’s online editor, Noah Rothman, recently caught up with Bronstein to discuss his career in politics. C&E: You interned for President Clinton in the White House’s Office of Scheduling and Advance. What was that experience like? Bronstein:I interned in the White House in the summer of 2000. People were literally ripping stuff off the walls to keep as souvenirs when I was there. That was amazing—to be working in the White House. I remember walking around every day thinking this was going to be the best job I was ever going to get. C&E: What drew you to campaigns as opposed to being a staffer? Bronstein:I was always more interested in campaigning. The thing that got me up was the adrenaline rush of the campaign. I like it because there is a very clear outline: It is about winning. It takes a lot to think through a campaign, plan through it, and execute it. Those are the things that energize me to get up and do my job. C&E:After your time at the White House, you spent four years working for the Labour Party in the U.K. Was the transition from Democratic Party work to Labour Party work an easy one to make? Bronstein:Going from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair was not a hard transition. These two guys agreed on a lot of policy. The way they engaged politically was similar. They are both tremendous politicians. For all that Clinton is revered for his political instincts, Blair had them that much more. Watching him made me understand politics better than watching Clinton. He really had his stuff together. C&E:What was the biggest lesson you took away from campaigning in the U.K.? Bronstein on location earlier this year for a shoot with Judge James Narlesky, who was running for re-election as a magisterial district judge in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. Bronstein:That there is no sense of permanency to anything. The last time we met as a group with Blair before the election, he said, “Look, sometimes we’ll be here and sometimes we won’t. In the time that we are here, we have to be able to shape politics in a way that is shaped forever. You only get one shot to do it.” His thing was that he had forever changed the center-left of politics in the U.K. He moved Britain to the center-left. If you look at the way [current Conservative Prime Minister David] Cameron is behaving now, that is very true. It made me realize the battle for what is right never ends. The question is just about how far you can move the needle to one side or the other through this crazy thing called politics. C&E:When you returned to the United States in 2006, you literally started the firm Bronstein & Weaver with your partner, Matthew Weaver, out of your parents’ basement, right? Bronstein:That is correct. A lot of people who start firms and do what we do started out at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or are higher-ups in the Democratic Party, but that was not us. When we started the firm, we didn’t have any connections. Everything we have now we earned. We generated work through phone calls, giving people a compelling case to use us, and we did it in a way that no one else in the industry, at least on the mail side, does it. C&E:So you just cold-called people in the phone book and asked who their mail team was? Bronstein:It was dumber than that. We looked at people who were running for office and we would cold-call their campaigns. We did that throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. There are still clients we have from those early days. To us, those are the ones that we really value the most. They knew us before we were anything. You never forget the people around you in the beginning. C&E:One of your early clients was Tony Payton, Jr., who was running for re-election as a state representative in Philadelphia. Tell me about that campaign. Bronstein:Tony was facing a very tough re-election battle. In his first campaign, there were legal battles that determined the original outcome. The party in Philadelphia didn’t want to see him re-elected, because he had come through a nasty political process in the election prior, so the ward leaders were out to get him. In Philadelphia, the ward leadership is an extremely powerful institutional mechanism. In electoral politics, Tony was fighting this on the grounds of being a new leader and he won. He didn’t just win; he won by a lot. C&E:Do you find that your outside-the-Beltway location keeps you more grounded and responsive to the electorate? Bronstein:One hundred percent. People in the Beltway have no idea what is going on on the ground. How voters deal with issues is so different from the D.C. establishment. Every time I’m down there, I am struck by it. That is a town that is very focused on politics and focused on the federal policymaking process. Knowing the voter on the ground is so critical to being successful at what we do. Bronstein (in white shirt on left) at a campaign event outside the old Labour Party headquarters during the 2005 general election in Britain. Then–Prime Minister Tony Blair and future Prime Minister Gordon Brown are in the center of the photo. C&E:What most excites you about the upcoming 2012 election cycle? Bronstein:What energizes me most about 2012 is that we should be in a real fighting position to reverse some trends we have seen on the Republican side in the last election. The economy will be back, hopefully, and we’ll be fighting from a more even field. The thing is, it will be a fight. But I’m energized for a fight. I’m not in this business not to fight. It is easier to fight uphill than downhill in many ways. I’m looking forward to being in the front row of this fight and to pulling candidates across the finish line. C&E:What is your fondest campaign memory? Bronstein:There are so many fond campaign memories. I think my fondest memory so far is going to the  election victory party for Tony Blair and the Labour Party. We spent five days campaigning in North Yorkshire. It took us eight hours to get down into London proper for a victory party, and by the time we got there, the sun was just coming up. I remember feeling the energy of having won that third historic term. C&E:What is something that you wish you could do over? Bronstein:That is a tough one. I don’t live my life with many regrets. The ones that I have, I try to bury. I try not to spend too much time dwelling on them. If I regret doing something on a campaign, I learn from it and I move on. C&E:What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your path into professional campaigning? Bronstein:People ask me this all the time, and the reality is that you have to take the initiative for yourself. You have to be ready to pick up the phone and cold-call people and put yourself out there on the line. That is basically what you are doing when you start your own firm. I think that if you don’t have thick skin, you won’t have it easy in this business. No one person has the right way to make it in this business. If you look at your competitors and how people got into the business, there is no one formula for how people did it. It is about finding a path for you that works with your personality.