SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—Steve Hildebrand is sitting, laptop open, outside a coffee shop in downtown Sioux Falls. It’s just a few days before November’s election. He’s looking at an Electoral College vote calculator, changing some marginal states from red to blue, blue to red, watching the numbers.
It’ll be over 300 electoral votes for President Obama, he predicts. Looking up, before he closes his Mac and walks back inside to meet his customers Hildebrand says, “It’s all about organization.”
In 2008, Hildebrand was Obama’s deputy campaign manager, David Plouffe’s right hand, a fundraising surrogate, and after a historic win, a draw on the national speaking circuit. Now he owns and runs Josiah’s, a 1,500-square-foot coffee shop named for Josiah Phillips, the Civil War surgeon who helped found Sioux Falls. Philips’ portrait hangs over a stone hearth next to the barista bar.
“This is my first cycle when I’ve been completely out of it,” says Hildebrand, who’s both relaxed and frank with how he feels about the state of the consulting business. “There’s so much bullshit. Too many candidates are in it for themselves. It’s not about accomplishing important things, making hard decisions. And I’m happy to say that to their face.”
For the better part of the past two decades, Hildebrand says he’s given just about everything to his clients, and the decision to move out of politics was in large part based on “whether or not continuing to give up a lot in my personal life and putting my health through hell was worth it for these candidates, who weren’t solving the problems.”
Hildebrand watched Obama make his 2008 election night victory speech with the crowds in Chicago’s Grant Park. He almost missed the moment.
As the presidential field took shape, Hildebrand sought work with Hillary Clinton. After an unproductive meeting between the two in Washington in 2006, he decided against it. When Pete Rouse, whom he knew from Tom Daschle’s circles, called and asked if he’d staff Obama at Sen. Tom Harkin’s 2006 Iowa steak fry, Hildebrand agreed. From then on he was in Obama’s inner circle. Locked into the race, Hildebrand handled an ever-growing list of tasks.
“I had huge responsibilities within the campaign that in hindsight were probably overwhelming,” he says.
He ran the national field operation, the state field operations. When the primary season ended, Plouffe told him he needed to budget for $400 million as the campaign transitioned to the general.
“Nothing I had ever done had prepared me to do something of that magnitude,” Hildebrand says. “It was a different campaign. Nobody’s ever fought a 50-state primary before. Nobody’s ever had the tens of millions of dollars that we had and Hillary had.” Hildebrand wasn’t stuck behind a desk in Chicago. “There were weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks when I was on six-to-eight fights a week,” he says. “And I don’t fly well.”
A colleague recommended Xanax. Hildebrand went online in early 2007 to learn more about it. “There was a section on the site about depression and I read the symptoms, and I sat at my computer and cried because it was the first time I realized I had depression,” he says.
The stress of the campaign only served to make it worse.
“Everyone was fucked up,” he says. “You’re working eighty-to-ninety hours a week, you have no time with your family, you have no time to exercise, eat right; you’re not sleeping at night. Your stress level is at the highest it’s ever been. And so then you add depression to it.”
Hildebrand’s beloved cocker spaniel died. The business manager at his firm called and admitted that he’d been stealing money to support his gambling addiction. Now the company faced IRS scrutiny.
Without a way to cope and stay on the job, Hildebrand left the campaign, left Chicago and took his partner on a 10-day trip to California. It was March 2008. As they were riding bikes along Mission Beach in San Diego, Plouffe called and invited Hildebrand back. With his partner’s blessing, he returned to Chicago. Months later he was watching Obama bask in the cheers of his supporters.
“All the senior staff was supposed to come and be in a private area with Barack and Michelle after his speech, and I decided not to go,” Hildebrand recalls. “I decided to literally run the two miles back to my apartment and start packing.”
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.