WASHINGTON — With the 2012 election over, the capital is in the throes of another of its endless generational shifts, and as the operatives behind the campaigns begin to move on, a new crop of largely young, tech-savvy operatives are poised to take their place.
This next generation of communicators and agenda setters were schooled in political fights of the 2000s, and they’ve now fully stepped out of the shadows of their bosses on Capitol Hill, in the White House and from GOP presidential campaign operations.
This new class still doesn’t reflect the growing demographic changes that are shaping the country: They’re still mostly white and mostly male, though women and minorities are beginning to fill out the ranks of Washington’s elite operators.
Ranging in age from their late twenties to early forties, this next generation have come into their own during the contentious Bush and Obama eras, which have been defined by economic hardship, war, and bruising, near-constant political battles.
They’re almost all message-obsessed — part of a growing shift of power away from policy-focused staff and managers to media operators that began during the Clinton era.
And they’re more plugged into new technologies than ever before, obsessed with how they and their bosses communicate and are communicated about on — most of all — Twitter, but they also have more than a passing familiarity with everything from Facebook to Reddit, and Pinterest is on their to-do lists. (And if they weren’t talking to BuzzFeed before they made this list, and most were, we’re expecting their Gchats today.)
Over the next two years, this new generation will take an increasing role not only in politics, but in the basic functions of governing.
Here are 23 members of the new communerati to watch:
Todd Harris, 41, has a résumé that reads like a who’s-who list of the Republican Party, with Sen. John McCain, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among his former bosses. But it’s his current gig, as a senior adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, that has propelled both Harris — and Rubio with him — into the upper echelon of national Republican politics. Alex Conant, who worked as Tim Pawlenty’s press secretary on the campaign trail before joining Rubio’s office roughly one year ago, calls Harris “amongst the most respected operatives I’ve ever worked with, ” and adds: “He’s very good at taking the long view and not getting sucked into any one media storm of the moment.” Rubio’s office has faced its share of media storms, even during the past year: The questions about his parents’ immigration story; the potential that Rubio might be picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate; this week, an interview with GQ magazine in which Rubio said he doesn’t know how old the Earth is. But to those stories and others, Conant said, Harris brought “a level head.”
In a time when digital communications have become more important than ever for political campaigns, Gerrit Lansing is in charge of the digital operations for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Lansing, 29, bolstered his reputation as a political communicator early on with a job blogging for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. After roughly a year and a half, Lansing moved to the Hill to work as the new media director for Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois. He then jumped to Rep. Paul Ryan’s staff, working as his press secretary on the House Budget Committee. Since then, Lansing has adapted his blogging beginnings at Heritage to his work at the NRCC — and in his own Twitter account. His personal Twitter mixes the professional — tweets directed at reporters or supporting Republican lawmakers and candidates — with Lansing’s own interests — photos from a Bruce Springsteen concert, for example, or, more recently, a Guns N’ Roses show.
Paul Lindsay, the communications director at the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, has a sense of humor. “Undecided Voter. DC Native. No apologies. I don’t follow politics, and am not much of a reader,” his Twitter bio reads. But Lindsay, 31, takes his job seriously as the head of messaging at the organization responsible for widening Republicans’ majority in the House of Representatives. It’s a position he’s held since 2008; before that, he directed communications for John McCain’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania and Ohio. “Paul is relentless: He is always on message, aggressive and creative,” said Jesse Ferguson, Lindsay’s counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He drove us crazy, which is probably an indicator that he’s doing a good job. … His aggressiveness and speed make him one of the better competitors in this town,” Ferguson added, pausing. “To be clear, he is aggressive and fast — still wrong! But he’s done as good a job as anyone I’ve seen at making their case.”
Dayspring, 35, is the very definition of the classic combative, acerbic flack. The New Jersey native cut his teeth in the Bush White House before jumping to Capitol Hill, where his acid tongue quickly made him one of the most influential operators under the dome.
Dayspring first came to Capitol Hill with a “Jersey hockey-player mentality,” according to Michael Steel, Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary, who has known Dayspring since both were newly minted press secretaries for members of Congress.
“He’s always aggressive and playing to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is,” Steel said.
That might have contributed to Dayspring’s departure from Cantor’s office earlier this year, which was a well-documented bit of Washington drama involving a near-physical altercation between Cantor staffers, followed by Dayspring’s resignation.
But Dayspring’s reputation for hand-to-hand combat with the press belies the reality that he is also able to maintain strong personal and professional ties with his colleagues and reporters.
Now off the Hill, Dayspring is helping direct YG Action Network and Fund — outside groups affiliated with Cantor that are playing an increasingly larger role in the development and support of the next generation of conservative politicians.
“I think he is one of the most honest and genuine people in D.C., and in this town that’s hard to come by,” said Erica Elliott, who has known Dayspring since they shared an office on the Hill. “You always know where you stand with Brad.”
Even before he was tapped to run press operations for vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan on the campaign trail, Michael Steel was a fixture on Capitol Hill as press secretary to Speaker John Boehner — a role Steel will reprise post-election. “He has a depth and breadth of institutional knowledge about this place that I respect and admire,” said Erica Elliott, spokesperson for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. Part of that respect for the institution stems from the time Steel has spent working in Congress: He started his first job on the Hill in 2003, as a press secretary for Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican. Brad Dayspring met Steel when they were both brand-new press secretaries on the Hill. Kevin Madden, then in Tom Delay’s office and who worked most recently on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, recognized potential in the young men and took both “under his wing,” Dayspring said. Today, Steel “gets a little testy when stories are bad about his boss — but that’s a good thing,” Dayspring laughed. “I’m the same way.”
Erica Elliott arrived on Capitol Hill in 2008 — and now, just four years later, she has climbed the ranks to become the highest-ranking female Republican communicator. As the communications director for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Elliott has promoted her boss; along the way, she has earned the respect of her colleagues. “She’s a combination of friendly, well-informed and tough that is extremely effective,” said Michael Steel, press secretary for Speaker John Boehner. And, he added, “She has an extremely amusing Twitter feed.” And like her most successful peers, Elliott keeps her channels of communication open with reporters. Brad Dayspring, who shared an “office cubby hole” with Elliott on the Hill, says many young flacks have a “dislike for the press corps that they’re supposed to manage and relate to. Erica doesn’t have that. … Unlike a lot of younger communicators who build a wall, she builds relationships.”
In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden has been called “the McConnell whisperer” for his rapport with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — but few people understand the Senate’s top Republican like Josh Holmes, 33, McConnell’s right-hand man. “He is one of the nicest, funniest guys that I’ve worked with on Capitol Hill, and simultaneously does one of the biggest and most important jobs and has won and earned universal praise for how he’s done it,” said Michael Steel, press secretary for Speaker John Boehner. Steel worked with Holmes closely during the protracted fight on the Hill about the Affordable Care Act — which, with Democrats in control of both chambers, Republicans ultimately lost. Nevertheless, Steel recalled, Holmes spearheaded an “incredibly effective communications effort against the law.” He adds: “It’s one of the reasons that it emerged with people knowing as much as they did about some of the crooked deals that were involved in getting it passed. It’s a testament to work that he did.”
Colleagues describe Brian Fallon, the chief spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, as a savvy political communicator who puts in the hours to truly understand the policy issues he crafts messages about.
Those qualities have earned Fallon the trust of his boss, who “treats Brian like some cross between a son and a consigliare,” said Adam Jentleson, the communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Fallon has worked for Schumer since 2007, and, in that time, has established a communications style as “a hybrid new-school, old-school kind of guy,” Jentleson said. “He notices everything that’s happening on Twitter, but he also reads the hard copies of all the major dailies cover to cover, and I think really enjoys the old-school approach too.” Fallon has deftly avoided such press coverage himself — such as The New York Times piece that documented Schumer’s prolific matchmaking among his staff. Fallon and his wife, Katie, are among that broad group of married couples who owe their unions, at least in part, to their boss, but Fallon did not appear in the story.
The most recent election cycle saw Democrats trounce the Republican Party in competitive Senate races nationwide — and Matt Canter worked behind the scenes for two years to help make that happen. Canter, the head of communications for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, spearheaded the messaging that helped Democrats win over voters and seats in the Senate. He brought with him to the job a lengthy history of work in politics: Most recently, as communications director to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. “Matt is a talented operative who has a bright future in Democratic party,” said Brian Walsh, who holds Canter’s equivalent position at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, “and while he has made a few of my days tougher this cycle, I have a lot of respect for him.” During the election cycle, Canter and Walsh took to Twitter for a few spirited exchanges about candidates. “He’s a tough adversary,” Walsh added.
As super PACs became an inevitable, prominent feature of the election landscape this year in the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, some Democrats were initially hesitant to enter the fund-raising fray. Not so for Rodell Mollineau, who left Capitol Hill in April of last year to run American Bridge 21st Century, a prominent Democratic super PAC. That move placed Mollineau firmly among a group of Democrats “that is changing the way that campaigns are run,” said Jim Manley, who worked in the Senate for 21 years, most recently for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Before he jumped to American Bridge, Mollineau worked as Reid’s staff director. That position had been years in the making: Mollineau got his start on the Hill in 2000 as the deputy press secretary for then-Sen. Tom Daschle; by 2007, he was heading up communications for Reid. His approach to his work on the Hill was aggressive, even by D.C. standards. “Far too many Democrats felt the need to play patty-cake while Republicans were lobbing the bombs at us,” Manley said. “He’s not one to share that view.” More recently, Mollineau has taken this approach to the political fund-raising sphere via American Bridge, which served as a powerful source of support for Democratic candidates and causes during the election.
As Congressional leaders grapple with how the government might avert the looming fiscal cliff, Adam Jentleson will be at the forefront of crafting Senate Democrats’ message.
“He combines the fast pace and level of aggression of a campaign operation with the deep policy grasp you need when you’re working on the official side, especially when you’re dealing with complex issues like the fiscal cliff,” Fallon noted. Indeed, Jentleson got his start in politics working on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign; and, in 2007, Jentleson returned to the trail as a speechwriter for John Edwards’ presidential bid. After years of work with the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, Jentleson moved to Capitol Hill in April 2010 to work for Reid. Since then, he has established himself as a strong voice for the leader of the Senate and his party — even on social media. “On Twitter, I think he’s been a reliable, active voice for our side,” Fallon said. “The social media space was a place where, even a year ago, we were underrepresented. He recognized that and has tried to fill that void a little bit.” And, as if Jentleson’s high-powered job wasn’t time-consuming enough, “he just had a baby,” said Fallon, referring to Jentleson’s new son, Daniel. “We all admire the job he’s doing now in being a new father right as fiscal cliff negotiations are heating up.”
On Twitter, Jesse Ferguson’s avatar is a ham sandwich — an indication as much of Ferguson’s sense of humor as his camera-shy disposition. “Search for me on Google Images,” he dared us as we were preparing this profile. “You won’t find one photo!” But in the hard-scrabble arena of congressional elections, Ferguson, the head of communications for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, isn’t shy to call out Republican candidates. What makes him unique is that he usually does so with a smile. “All flacks tend to be relentless and passionate, but Jesse has set himself apart by using his wit and a great sense of humor to augment those characteristics,” Paul Lindsay, Ferguson’s foil at the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote in an email. “He kept it interesting for both of us over the past few years, and I’m grateful for it.” After the election, Ferguson tweeted at Lindsay: “#FF to @Paul_Lindsay. Good opponent and a good cycle. You should read what he tweets (just don’t start believing all of it).” “We’re like Ron & Tip,” Lindsay responded. “Putting our partisan differences aside on Twitter.” Outside of Twitter, however, Ferguson’s job will continue to center on those partisan differences: He was recently named to succeed Jen Crider as the deputy executive director of the DCCC.
Crider is arguably Democrats’ best-kept secret. Elusive and press shy, Crider has built a reputation over the years as a master political operator and consigliere to the party’s political leadership.
Crider is a throwback to an earlier time in politics — when operatives plied their trade in obscurity and shunned the spotlight. Just try googling her and you’ll see.
As the deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Crider helped to guide her party’s candidates through a tricky election cycle in 2012 — and even while Democrats did not retake control of the House, Crider reinforced her reputation has an elite communicator for her party. She got her start on Capitol Hill, where it was only natural that Crider, who went to the University of California Santa Barbara, would end up working for another Democrat with ties to the Golden State: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Crider rose quickly, and in 2003 began working for Pelosi. In 2011, Crider moved over to also work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — where, even by Republicans’ accounts, she has flourished. “Jen Crider is a Bears fan, so she clearly has her priorities straight, and I respect that,” Gerrit Lansing, digital director at the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote in an email. “Like all good flacks, she’s aggressive and keeps us on our toes. The DCCC made a smart move making her deputy executive director.”
As the press secretary and deputy communications director to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Drew Hammill, 34, has cemented a reputation as a reliable voice for Pelosi and House Democrats.
An Illinois native, Hammill received a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics before heading to Capitol Hill in 2004. In addition to that rigorous schooling, Hammill’s colleagues say his political instincts have been just as vital. “In order to succeed in this profession you need to have instincts — and certainly Drew does,” said Nadeam Elshami, who has worked with Hammill for six years. “He understands how politics really works and how it intersects with press and message and policy, and nothing is put forward without thinking through the many steps and the ramifications. … If I’m in a fight, that’s the one person I want in my bunker.”
Kristie Greco left Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn’s office in the Spring of 2011 to be the chief communications officer for the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
On the Hill, Greco earned a reputation as a hard-scrabbled defender of her boss and the Democratic Party. Republicans and Democrats alike respect Greco and regularly list her in the top communicators in Washington.
The former press secretary for Rep. Peter DeFazio was faced with the challenge of dealing with assaults from both the right and the left, with many Democrats upset by the convention’s placement in a “right to work” state that passed an anti-gay marriage amendment.
Republicans were steadfast in pointing out that the convention, which pledged to avoid taking corporate contributions, was millions in debt, even after relaxing that rule to allow corporate money outside the convention hall.
But in the end, the convention, and Greco, emerged not only unscathed but with positive reviews from detractors and supporters alike.
Andy Seré distinguished himself at the NRCC as a bulldog, drawing liberal ire for comments attacking many a Democratic congressional candidate during the hugely successful 2010 cycle. Sere, Rep. David McKinley’s former chief of staff, now cuts ads for GOP firm DMM Media, which works for clients including the U.S. Chamber and an array of House candidates.
BECCA GLOVER WATKINS
Becca Glover Watkins, the deputy communications director for firebrand House investigator Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee, has led the communications effort on her boss’s Fast and Furious investigation, which has dogged the Obama administration — and in particular Attorney General Eric Holder — for over a year.
Issa, who brought Watkins in in 2011, has found himself at the center of political attention ever since, and Watkins has been an effective both on offense for his various investigations as well as an aggressive defender.
Watkins, whose sister Juleanna Glover is a mainstay of official Washington, helped steady the Issa ship, and has played a key role in making him one of the best congressional Twitter personalities.
Her relationships with reporters and the opinion class in Washington has also proven invaluable to the former spokesperson for The Daily Caller.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor has spent nearly his entire career working for Barack Obama, joining his Senate office in January 2005 after a stint on the John Edwards campaign. The Massachusetts native rose to be Obama’s press secretary on Capitol Hill before leaving to join the campaign, where he played a key role in Obama’s crucial Iowa victory. When he was promoted from White House Assistant Press Secretary to his spokesman for the national security staff in 2011, one member of the press joked, “The little boy is all grown up.”
In his current position, he’s frequently the voice of the Obama administration on major international news of the day, including shooting down a New York Times report that the U.S. and Iran had agreed to one-on-one talks barely two weeks before the election. Behind the scenes, Vietor is among the protectors of Obama’s brand — particularly on foreign policy — leading the charge against Republicans arguing Obama was “soft” on Israel, often armed with talking points and fact sheets on Iron Dome.
Marie Harf got her start in politics at the Central Intelligence Agency, where she worked in the Directorate of Intelligence, focusing on Middle East leadership. In June 2008 she became the agency’s spokesperson, fielding media requests for the agency during one of its highest-profile moments in its history — the killing of Osama bin Laden. At the Obama campaign, Harf led the charge on eviscerating Mitt Romney for his many foreign policy stumbles: leaving Afghanistan out of his RNC Convention speech, the foreign policy trip, and his debate performances.
Harf was quickly embraced by Obama-world, her stock rising so high in Chicago that she was one of the handful of aides brought into the Williamsburg, Virginia, debate camp to help Obama turn things around in the second presidential debate.
Tim Miller spent the 2012 cycle as RNC Deputy Communications Director and as Jon Huntsman’s national press secretary, and is well known across D.C. for his snark-filled Twitter feed.
One of the few openly gay Republican operatives, the Glover Park Group veteran and former McCain ’08 Iowa spokesman developed some of the most biting attacks on Mitt Romney in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, then went to work with his team once he became the GOP nominee. While some chafed at bringing a former enemy into the inner circle, Miller quickly became a central player in the unified GOP communications team, turning his guns on President Barack Obama and his aides — often by baiting fights on social media.
Joe Pounder is single-handedly responsible for “half the content on Fox News,” joked an RNC colleague. The RNC research wizard is responsible for bringing terms like “Fast and Furious” and “Solyndra” into the vernacular, serving as a perpetual thorn in the Obama administration’s side. Maintaining the RNC’s vast oppo book on Obama, Pounder led the GOP’s effort to tarnish the shine off Obama’s image in an election year, pointing out flip-flops and misstatements in well-placed tips to reporters and research documents that have become some of the RNC’s most-read releases.
The bookish aide’s glassed-in RNC office is cluttered with papers and binders of campaigns past and present, ready to be deployed at his whim.
The Obama reelection spokesman cut his teeth on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and on Capitol Hill for Rep. Jan Schakowsky before joining then-Sen. Barack Obama’s office as press secretary in 2007. Within four months, LaBolt moved to the Obama campaign as deputy press secretary under Robert Gibbs. In the White House, he handled communications on justice, energy and the environment, including two Supreme Court confirmations. He left the White House in 2010 to be Rahm Emanuel’s communications director in his successful bid to be Mayor of Chicago. Both at the White House and on the Obama campaign, LaBolt proved to be a dogged defender of the president, with sparring matches with reporters becoming something of a legend both in Chicago and among the White House press corps.
President Barack Obama’s traveling press secretary is among the most well-liked aides in an otherwise prickly press shop. The quick-witted flack served as deputy communications director and deputy press secretary in the White House, initially responsible for dealing with the press on the economic crisis and the stimulus when Obama first took office. Psaki left the Obama administration for Global Strategy Group in 2011, only to join the campaign in June. She was a frequent face on Air Force One and at campaign stops across the country, briefing the press alongside Jay Carney. Among reporters and D.C. insiders, she’s consistently mentioned as the likely pick to replace Carney in the podium job when he moves on.
The 37-year-old Walsh has seen the highs, the lows, and everything in between during his time on Capitol Hill since first coming to D.C. as a staff assistant in the Washington office of then Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. His work as a press secretary for former Rep. Bob Barr — and deftly handling his boss’s many fumbles, incendiary comments, and mini-scandals helped prepare him for his time in former Rep. Bob Ney’s office. Ney, as you may recall, was arguably the highest-profile casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal, and Walsh earned a reputation as a tenacious defender of the besieged Ohio lawmaker.
Walsh’s jump to the Senate marked the start of better times for him, working for Sen. John Cornyn first in his personal office before moving over the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. During his tenure at the NRSC, Walsh has played an integral part in Cornyn’s successes, turning his tenaciousness toward attacking Democratic candidates.