After managing Nikki Haley’s successful 2010 campaign for South Carolina governor and then serving as executive director of her transition team, Tim Pearson has settled in as the governor’s chief of staff.
After managing Nikki Haley’s successful 2010 campaign for South Carolina governor and then serving as executive director of her transition team, Tim Pearson has settled in as the governor’s chief of staff. Pearson began his career in politics as a speechwriter for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and was director of rapid response on Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign before coming to South Carolina to serve as former Gov. Mark Sanford’s senior communications advisor. C&E recently caught up with Pearson to discuss his career in politics so far and what he foresees in his future:C&E: What was your first political job? Pearson: For my first political job, I was a staff assistant in Senator Rick Santorum’s office in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was attending Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I was a political science major. I was there only a year before a speechwriter position opened up in Senator Santorum’s office in Washington, D.C., and I moved down there. C&E: How did speechwriting for Senator Santorum blossom into a career in campaign management? Pearson: That is a long story. I worked for the senator through his election in 2006, an election that he lost. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, lived in New York City while I was in D.C. She had a great job, and I did not, so I decided I would move to New York City. I thought I would do politics if I could, but if not, I would do other things. At that time, Giuliani was staffing up for his presidential run. I spoke to the communications director. I told her I think Rudy is great and I wanted to live in New York. She asked if I had ever run a war room, so I asked, “What’s that?” I started working in their rapid response shop. It turned out that the person who was running that shop didn’t work out, and I took that job when he left. That was a great experience. I did it for a year and fell in love with the job. The Senate is slow and plodding—campaigns are not that. After the Giuliani campaign wound down, I left and went to work for [D.C.-based lobbying firm] Freedom’s Watch for the reminder of the ’08 cycle. C&E: What were your responsibilities on the Giuliani campaign? Pearson: I was the director of rapid response in the war room. It was kind of like the intersection between an outgoing press operation and a research shop. I worked with the two national spokespersons, the press secretary and the deputy communications director. My job was to fill them in on whatever was going on. I learned an awful lot about national politics, how campaigns are run and how the press covers them. I don’t think anyone read more press coverage of the campaign than I did. C&E: Was it a letdown for you when the primary election outcomes began to turn against Giuliani? Pearson: Everyone who supported Rudy was frustrated by the way it ended. The thing about campaigns is that you have a plan, and the idea is to stick to it, but if you cannot change and adapt to circumstances, you are dead in the water. C&E: What was the most pressing crisis you encountered during that campaign? Pearson: Every day there was a new one. I think the best lesson I learned was that everything that may seem like a crisis is not a crisis. When you get so deep into something like that, especially in a presidential campaign where the press covers everything, it gets to a point where I felt like there was a loss of focus on the mission. The mission was not to win the daily press battle on Politico, but to convince people to vote for you. There is a difference between a crisis in the communications office and a real crisis. C&E: You served on Governor Sanford’s team as senior communications advisor. Can you relate one challenging event from your time on his staff? Pearson: I only worked for Governor Sanford for three and a half months. Certainly, the most consuming thing going on was the governor’s rejection of stimulus funds for South Carolina. That was a tremendously frustrating experience. You have this massive bill that comes down and no one knows what is in it—not the people who voted for it, not the people who wrote it and not the people who were against it. It was a massive amount of money for South Carolina; more than two billion dollars. It was a significant portion of our annual budget, and we had to find out what strings were attached to taking that money, what you can take, what you can’t. C&E: When did you join Nikki Haley’s campaign team? Pearson: Haley was in the legislature when I was hired. She said that she needed a communications guy. She asked a mutual friend if she knew a communications worker that would be interested in helping her. So Nikki went to Governor Sanford and asked if I could be borrowed. I accepted the job in May, and she announced on May 14, 2009. C&E: That was a vicious primary process. What was most challenging for you during the primary? Pearson: There are so many different ups and downs to that campaign. In June of 2009, the entire political environment in South Carolina changed with what went down with Governor Sanford [i.e., his unexplained disappearance over Father’s Day weekend and subsequent admission that he had been having an affair, which forced his resignation as the head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA)]. When that happened, the people who were supporting [Sanford], a lot of whom we were counting on to support us, checked out for some time. We had ups and downs for some time after that and some tough fundraising quarters. The lowest point for me was in August of 2009 when we had probably raised $2000 for the year. We were just floating. People who were not friendly to [Haley] or the governor said, “We killed them both in one swoop.” [Haley] was pretty much written off. Then we went to an RGA candidate training seminar in Idaho, and that was great. They do a series of panels and whatnot with other governors. On one, they had [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush and [then–Hawaii Governor] Linda Lingle, and they were giving advice on how to campaign. Bush said that when he ran he started making fund-raising calls and he wasn’t having much success. He said that one of the best things he ever did was to go out and just talk to everyone. We realized what we were doing was not working, so we hopped in a car and drove around, and Nikki would talk to anyone that would listen to her. I found people really responded to her—she would say that we would “win rooms.” First, with like seven people, but by the end we had a couple hundred or a couple thousand. You just know when people are responding to what you are saying. C&E: When you became the executive director for Haley’s gubernatorial transition team, how did you transition from campaigner to staffer? Pearson: The hardest part of the transition for someone in campaigns is the change mentally. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from another governor’s chief of staff. He said, “Campaigns are easy because you are messing with your enemies; the transition is terrible because you end up messing with your friends.” He used more colorful language than that. Campaigns are like bunkers. Generally they are relatively small staffed and you hunker down—it becomes a family. You work towards a common goal, and then it is over. In a transition, it is a different operation. You have different goals and responsibilities. The toughest part is flipping that switch in your mind so it is no longer a “them vs. us” thing anymore. C&E: Governor Haley is likely to have a bright future in the Republican Party. Do you anticipate being a part of her career moving forward? Pearson: As long as she will have me. It is strange, Columbia, South Carolina, is the place I have lived the longest since I left college. That was certainly not where I thought my career would take me. I just bought a house down here. C&E: What is your fondest campaign memory? Pearson: I would say the highlight of my professional life was on the night of the runoff election—this was the first week of June 2010—when I got a phone call from the AP and got to announce to Nikki, her family and my wife that the AP had just announced that she had won the primary for governor. C&E: What is something you wish you could do over again? Pearson: I’m pretty happy with where I am and how things have panned out for me. There have been things that I did which I didn’t like in the moment, but looking back I don’t have regrets. I have been fortunate enough to work for people who taught me a lot. I was smart—or desperate—and willing to take any work that was offered to me. All that stuff helped me get the job I have today. I get to do something I love for a living and I get paid for it. Not everyone is that lucky. Noah Rothman is the online editor for C&E.