It wasn’t until the decline of the party machine, in the last four decades, that political candidates started embracing consultants as the way to get elected. A farm system developed. A volunteer became a paid staffer, then took a party position, then a senior staff job, and on to a consultancy and, finally, their own firm.
But while the campaign world is increasingly a pro’s domain, it’s still missing most of the protections professionals are afforded in other modern industries. Many consultants can’t take extended sick leave or family leave and keep their jobs. Weddings and births are relegated to the ever-shrinking off-season. There are no pensions and often no health benefits. Forget about close of business too; the work day’s clock is 24 hours.
“This business can really kind of suck the soul out of you,” says Lee Brown, a South Dakota-based Republican consultant. “Maybe that’s too dramatic, but it gets the point across.”
After more than two decades in politics, he recently decided to get out. A message posted on his firm’s website calls it retirement from the “soul destroying” work of consulting and lobbying.
“There are certain expectations to be successful in this business, and those expectations are to stay 100 percent in character,” says Brown. “Our side is right, your side is wrong, that is it. Well, that’s not the way the real world works. It’s not the way I work.”
Brown started as a regional field director for James Abdnor, the Republican who unseated then-Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1980. He’s since won ballot initiatives, passed school bond measures and managed campaigns, including one for now-Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) during her 2010 primary. It was Brown’s last race.
“My whole adult life I have filtered anything I say, even out having beers with guys or having coffee, because I was cognizant something I said could be misinterpreted and reflect poorly—either on my past client or project, current one or perspective one,” he says. “I wanted to get into something at the end of my life where I could have my own opinions.”
One thing that gets to Brown the most: “I have encountered far too many people using the Christian faith, which is mine, as a political tool,” he says. “The party that I grew up in—the Republican Party—has bastardized the faith. And I just find that offensive.”
While it’s much easier to bemoan the state of the industry once you no longer rely on campaigns to make your living, the gripes about the political business espoused by Brown and Hildebrand are remarkably similar.
The challenge for consultants who want to move on is figuring out what that next step is. Sure, there’s always the natural gravitation toward nonprofit work, public affairs consulting or lobbying. But Brown wants to get as far away from the field as possible. The problem is that his resume doesn’t easily lend itself to a new career track.
“I’ve never learned to do anything else,” he says. “I didn’t train as an accountant; I didn’t go to med school. I don’t have a law degree. I’m not a mechanic, other than a shade-tree one.”
The one thing guys like Brown do have is “people skills.” And those translate to any profession. The catch is that interested employers are worried about keeping a campaign veteran happy for the long term.
“Business owners and CEOs that I’ve talked to kind of look at this as a nomadic life,” says Brown. “They’re not willing to believe that you’re really going to stay with them and grow with them. The next hot election item comes along, you’re going to bail and go back to doing that.”
Brown says he’s out for good, but if he ever wants back in it won’t be easy. That’s what Marla Romash, a media consultant who worked for Al Gore, learned after she left politics to become a caterer and pastry chef. After four years in the food business, she grew restless.
“Getting back in was really hard,” she says. “I knocked on every door that I could remember.”
Her two vocations dovetailed when she found work with Jeanne Shaheen’s 2008 Senate bid.
“I was on conference calls,” she says with a laugh, “and writing scripts and dealing with whatever the crisis du jour was on a headset phone from the back of a pastry kitchen.
“Follow your heart, and if you do it in a really honest way, you’ll be where you should be.”
For Steve Hildebrand, it wasn’t the lack of perks that drove him from the business. After running races for Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he went all in. “I gotta be passionate for these people,” he says. “I gotta care.”
As with many strategists, his passion ran deep. Just ask the recipients of a 13-page resignation letter Hildebrand wrote two years into his stint as executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party. He still runs into folks with copies.
“I tend to be pretty honest about things and say things that a lot of people find hard to swallow,” he says.
Hildebrand was successful in the industry, in part because of his commitment. But it was that same level of commitment that brought on depression and anxiety, kept him away from his partner Mike, and drove him out of the business on which he now casts a colder eye.
Back in Sioux Falls, Hildebrand began the transition out of politics. He broke off from his firm and did solo consulting for nonprofits and trade associations. He started a coalition to get the city’s new $100 million events center built downtown. He was at a Jan. 29 “Built It Downtown” meeting when a developer mentioned he was looking for someone to open a coffee shop in his new building on the Big Sioux River.
“I went home that night and started putting together plans for it. And I called him the next morning and I asked him to show me the space. Four months later I opened,” he says. “I’ve had a passion for the food business all my life, and it was time to see if it made any sense.”
Josiah’s and its kitchen is Hildebrand’s office now. Most of the food there is made from his own recipes, including the scones. Hildebrand saw it as his mission to get Sioux Falls to appreciate scones. He gave his staff talking points on the pleasures of the quick bread, which eventually became one of his best-selling items.
“When you bake a scone from scratch using butter and cream,” Hildebrand says, “there’s nothing better.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.