About a year ago, after Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak had celebrated his rout of Peter McLaughlin by diving off the stage into the arms of his supporters, I noticed John Blackshaw wandering through the crowd of well-wishers, a slight smirk on his lips and a look of satisfied exhaustion in his eyes.
Blackshaw had rescued the Rybak campaign after a near debacle at the city DFL convention in May, and now, six months later, he was ready to move on to the next campaign. I congratulated him and asked a couple of well-worn questions about turning points and challenges—queries he artfully dodged.
Few voters would recognize Blackshaw or any of the dozens of campaign operatives who ply their trade each election cycle in the Twin Cities and beyond. They are, for the most part, passionate political animals with an almost neurotic attraction to candidates and campaigns. Only a select few earn a paycheck from their political work, and those who do aren’t boasting about the hourly wage. It’s work that, as one of Blackshaw’s peers puts it, “can suck up your life.”
But there always seems to be enough political intrigue, adrenaline-pumping events, and social-change potential to keep most of them coming back—year after year, campaign after campaign. “Besides serving in the military, working in politics is the most patriotic thing you can do,” said Blackshaw, who most recently piloted the Becky Lourey gubernatorial campaign. “It’s the essence of government.”
In the following profiles, we’ll meet a half-dozen political operatives who are directing or have directed major campaigns at the local or state level. They are deeply attached to the democratic process, brutally candid about the inadequacies of most candidates and their handlers, and surprisingly idealistic about the future of American politics.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ben Goldfarb, the architect behind Amy Klobuchar’s U.S. Senate campaign, was in a meeting, as usual. The white-cubicled Klobuchar headquarters on University Avenue in Southeast Minneapolis was mostly quiet. A colorful paper “countdown chain” was looped over one of the nearby cube walls, and a makeshift “Welcome Volunteers!” sign greeted everyone who stepped off the elevator. A bicycle leaned against a far wall. A young woman took calls at the front desk, her ancient computer monitor sitting on a couple of phone books. A single cigarette and lighter lay poised on the desk in preparation for her next smoke break.
“The candidate,” as her manager always calls Klobuchar, was in Detroit Lakes. Goldfarb was conferring with new recruits; a rush of new volunteers had recently arrived, and he had to find the right role for each of them and brief them on their job descriptions and the campaign’s goals, schedules, and general operations.
Goldfarb would call me later, the antsy receptionist said, ignoring my request to poke about the premises to look for a little color in the sterile office. Such a preoccupation with security was not surprising, though. The race against Mark Kennedy for Mark Dayton’s open Senate seat had long ago assumed the blistering intensity of a blood sport, with both campaigns running attack ads and challenging any utterance with a salvo of contradictory claims.
A couple of weeks earlier, Goldfarb had been forced to fire his communications director after he learned she had peeked at a Kennedy ad sent by a partisan hacker. The revelation sparked a media feeding frenzy and put Goldfarb and Klobuchar on the defensive for one of the few times this election season. It was, he said later, in his typically low-key style, “a difficult situation.”
When we finally connect that evening, twelve hours into his work day, Goldfarb apologizes for his inaccessibility, explaining that when he’s not in a meeting, he’s on the phone. It’s all part of “keeping the ship moving forward.”
On a normal day, he’ll arrive at the office about seven a.m. to do a series of check-ins with staff on the morning’s headlines and discuss the communications needs for the day. Then he’ll get on the phone with the candidate (Klobuchar seldom shows up at the office; she’s almost constantly on the road) to talk about her schedule for the day. The job, Goldfarb said, is similar to running a small start-up company (he’s been there). There’s a pure management role, as well as finance, research, communications, and policy duties. “You sort of spread your arms and push the whole thing forward,” he said.
A high-profile Senate campaign operates at an insanely accelerated pace and features daily, sometimes hourly, attacks from the opposition. Every day, Goldfarb said, he has to deal with “incoming” from the Kennedy campaign and ensure that the media are covering those salvos—and his candidate’s responses—in a way that’s favorable to the campaign. “A lot of time is spent thinking about communicating the right thing,” he explained.
Since late September, Kennedy has been blasting away at Klobuchar’s performance as Hennepin County’s attorney, alleging that she’s giving out too many plea bargains—a soft-on-crime accusation designed to appeal to both Republicans and blue-collar Democrats. An earlier Kennedy ad slammed Klobuchar for her stances against lobbyists, special interests, Big Oil, and the pharmaceutical industry, noting that she was a registered lobbyist herself, that she took money from a “far left” special-interest group, and that she held personal investments in oil and pharmaceutical companies.
But little of this has stuck, as Goldfarb and his media staff have moved quickly to rebut allegations, cranking out hundreds of media releases to set the record straight. Much of this work is done by the candidate herself while on the stump. In an October 9 campaign stop in Wabasha, Klobuchar lashed out at Kennedy’s campaign ads and vowed to fight back. “They are smearing us. They are swiftboating us,” she said. “I predicted it in June. It’s their strategy, and we won’t let them get away with it.”
After Kennedy’s soft-on-crime ad, Klobuchar countered with one that used personal testimony from three crime victims to demonstrate her effectiveness in dealing with everything from identity theft to murder. The parents of Tyesha Edwards told how Klobuchar promised them she’d put the gangsters responsible for their daughter’s death behind bars—and then did it. The spot responds directly to Kennedy’s allegations, with Edwards’ mother telling Kennedy he “should be ashamed.”
That rebuttal is a perfect example of how Goldfarb and his crew have refused to make the mistakes that sank the Kerry campaign. The lesson: Hit back hard, and hit back fast.
Klobuchar has been running against Kennedy from the beginning of the campaign, despite the DFL endorsement challenge from Ford Bell, and the campaign has been resolute in painting its Republican opponent as too radical for mainstream Minnesotans, too tied to the failed Bush administration, and too ruthless to be embraced by voters who want solutions, not dogma. Despite Kennedy’s attempts to portray himself as an independent voice (and a nice guy) in his ads, he is in some ways still feeling the fallout from his nasty reelection campaign against Patty Wetterling two years ago, during which he did everything but call Wetterling a terrorist. Goldfarb has picked up on that vibe and worked hard to position Kennedy as an attack dog willing to do anything to keep his Washington job.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, slid through the DFL endorsement battle and is on the verge of a victory by leaning constantly toward the center. In a Star Tribune profile less than a month before the election, she called herself “my own kind of Democrat”—meaning someone to the right of Senator Mark Dayton, the Republicans’ favorite whipping boy.
That position infuriated DFL progressives who rallied behind Bell’s endorsement bid, but Goldfarb clearly understood that, in these partisan times, DFLers ought to be more interested in winning elections than in making a statement—especially when control of the Senate could hinge on their votes in the Klobuchar-Kennedy race.
That climate has allowed Klobuchar to dance around many of the issues in the campaign. She refused to take the bait from Bell, who challenged her repeatedly to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Instead, she remains committed to a phased withdrawal with a vague timeline. She’s also stayed away from the universal health care mantra and focused instead on “fiscal responsibility” in Washington, a tried-and-true campaign tool as nebulous as it is bulletproof.
It’s not that this has been an error-free campaign for Goldfarb and his crew. He said he’s had to deal with plenty of emergencies. But none was as serious as when word got out that his communications director looked at a Kennedy campaign ad sent her by a Klobuchar supporter. The news made headlines for a couple days before Goldfarb announced he’d fired the staffer and turned over evidence to the FBI for investigation.
The story quickly died, and later attempts by the Kennedy campaign to revive it have gone nowhere.
Goldfarb declined to comment on the Kennedy-ad debacle except to say it was the “biggest fire” he’d had to put out. He said he responded to the dustup the way he responds to any campaign emergency. “I take a little bit of time and be quiet and think about it, and not rush to immediate judgment,” he said. “Then I bring in the senior circle of folks to talk about what we want to do. Then we make quick decisions and go.”
At the age of twenty-nine, Goldfarb is no newcomer to the political scene, having run Jay Benanav’s unsuccessful St. Paul mayoral campaign in 2001 and coordinated John Kerry’s get-out-the-vote drive in 2004. But few political insiders could have predicted his role in one of the nation’s highest-profile Senate races.
The New York native cut his organizing teeth doing Saul Alinsky–style community work while taking a semester of urban studies classes in Chicago. He came to Minnesota to study at Macalester College, where he graduated in 1999 with a degree in urban studies. The following year, he ran the St. Paul schools referendum campaign, and he later worked for AFSCME and Progressive Minnesota.
Goldfarb was working in the private sector when Klobuchar called last February. Part of a Minneapolis-based media distribution start-up called InRadio at the time, he was newly married and negotiating deals with artists and their record labels in New York, where his wife, Nora Whalen, was attending graduate school. “I was enjoying life a lot,” he recalls, and though he was flattered by Klobuchar’s offer (noting “there’s lots of great people who do this stuff”), he actually wasn’t all that keen to come back to the Midwest.
Whalen wouldn’t finish grad school until May, and Goldfarb admitted that the prospect of being separated from her for several months was not particularly appealing. “It wasn’t like a no-brainer,” he said of the decision. “I took a little bit of convincing.”
But he and Klobuchar clicked from the beginning. They agreed that the campaign would rely more on grassroots organizing than on massive media ad buys and direct mail. And Goldfarb knew how to build a campaign from the ground up. “We see things very similarly,” he said of himself and Klobuchar.
Still, Goldfarb hesitated until Whalen weighed in on the matter, and she was fairly blunt: “She thought I was an idiot to consider not doing it,” he says.
As election day nears, Goldfarb said he doesn’t regret the decision. He’s learned a lot and has had the opportunity to work with some “incredible” people. The schedule is brutal, but he still finds time to play soccer once a week, spend time with his wife, eat periodically (“You’ve got to remember to make time for food,” he advised), and sleep as much as possible. “I’ve had to reduce all the other components of my life.”
As intense a job as it is, Goldfarb pushes on each day with the knowledge that what he’s doing is really important. “It’s a sense of purpose [driven by the fact] that our elected officials make really important decisions that affect all of our lives,” he said.
So there’s no sense that this job—especially if your candidate wins—might add a little luster to your résumé?
“I really only do this because I think it’s important. I have no interest in being a candidate or being in the legislative system or running other campaigns. It’s just the most important thing I could do this year,” he said. “After this, I’m going to do something else.”
Following the election, Goldfarb will spend “a couple of weeks” closing down the campaign operation before heading off to New York for Thanksgiving and then taking an extended vacation with his wife.
Any particular destination?
Not really, he said. “Just a quiet time in a place where there are no Blackberrys.”
John Blackshaw’s first campaign-organizing effort landed him in the office of his school-district superintendent. He and a fellow freshman at his Pasadena, California, high school wanted to know who the best teachers were. Because there was no other way to obtain evaluations, they conducted a survey among their classmates.
“We were really serious about it,” he recalled. “But the teachers went nuts.”
Blackshaw and his pal were summoned to the superintendent’s office, various attorneys were called in, and eventually, the impromptu survey was permitted (with some compromises). Blackshaw later headed a two-person ticket for president and vice-president of the student body—the first time that approach had ever been considered at the school—and won.
Such leadership aspirations came pretty naturally to Blackshaw. The son of active California Democrats, he had volunteered for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and still vividly recalls watching on television that June evening as his candidate was shot and killed after having essentially secured the Democratic nomination with his California-primary victory.
But rather than giving up on the political process, Blackshaw dove in. He took his political science degree from the University of California– Santa Barbara to Washington, DC, where he interned for U.S. Senator Harrison Williams during the Abscam scandal, which cost the New Jersey politian his seat in 1982. After law school, Blackshaw rose to the upper echelons of the doomed 1988 Michael Dukakis presidential campaign.
Two years later, Pat Forceia asked him to come to Minnesota to work on the long-shot U.S. Senate campaign of a Carleton College political science professor named Paul Wellstone. Blackshaw ended up running that campaign and finding a new life in the political arena.
Blackshaw stayed on as Wellstone’s chief of staff for a year before wandering away from non-stop politics and building his marketing, communications, and public relations résumé. He spent some time with Forceia and the Minnesota North Stars, did some consulting with the Minneapolis-based Tunheim Partners, and headed up ad guru Bill Hillsman’s company for a couple years.
Blackshaw never completely left the political world, though. Like many campaign operatives, he continued to advise candidates even as he maintained a full-time consulting business. In the end, it’s all about sales. “We’re not selling a product, but many of the same principles apply,” he explained. “We’re selling ideas, selling personality, selling a vision.”
These days, Blackshaw’s marketing and communications skills, honed inside and outside the world of politics over the past two decades, allow him, like any well-connected consultant, to slide into and out of any political campaign that’s smart enough to call. He was part of the Howard Dean phenomenon in 2004 before getting a call from Rybak last spring.
The Minneapolis mayor, Blackshaw said, was “very coachable” about ideas and style but had trouble articulating his vision—especially around the issue of public safety. It was clear early on in the campaign that his opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, was going to hammer him on crime. Blackshaw recalls how long it took Rybak and his staff to grasp the importance of the issue. At a meeting, he told them they needed to put more cops on the street or Rybak could lose the election. “The staff kept saying, ‘We can’t do that. There’s no money,’ ” he recalled.
“Turn off some streetlights,” Blackshaw suggested.
After much wrangling, the staff came back with a proposal to hire three more officers. “They were really congratulating themselves for that, and I’m saying, ‘Three?’ ”
Rybak eventually found the money to hire sixty officers. “He finally got it,” Blackshaw said.
For all its ups and downs, last year’s Rybak campaign was easy compared to the Lourey contest. Blackshaw came on board early in the game as a comanager, along with longtime local political strategist Joe Barisonzi, and the team soon had the scrappy state senator in a position to win the DFL nomination at the state convention in June. But when Blackshaw arrived in Rochester the first day of the convention, the Lourey operation was in a shambles. “The campaign just imploded,” he said.
Lourey staffers were obsessed with persuading party officials to remove the Mike Hatch signs that covered the walls of the convention hall, taking away energy and staff from the floor operation, which is so critical to counting and swaying delegates. Distracted by the sign issue, Lourey forces lost valuable ground to both Hatch and Steve Kelley, and wound up finishing a disappointing third.
“The campaign was decimated after the convention,” Blackshaw said. “We had to rebuild it.” But he couldn’t. In the September primary, Hatch buried Lourey by a margin of almost three to one.
Just another campaign? Maybe, but Blackshaw moves on knowing that the game has changed. Campaigns are getting more expensive, meaner, and more personal, he said, pointing particularly to the attacks on congressional candidate Keith Ellison. “It’s more of a blood sport.”
Running a political campaign, especially a “bottom-of-the-ballot” contest like the race for Hennepin County attorney, is not a glamorous job. At this level, the campaign manager has to do everything: coordinate volunteers, communicate with the media, schedule events, and coach the candidate. But for Gia Vitali, who’s running Andy Luger’s bid to succeed Amy Klobuchar, it’s just part of a larger learning process.
“Everybody comes to you,” said the thirty-year-old Little Canada native. “You have to prioritize things every day, every hour.”
The former aide to U.S. Representative Bruce Vento and U.S. Representative Betty McCollum is running her first campaign, and it’s proving to be a test not only of her perseverance and organizing abilities but of her long-term interest in serious campaign work. Vitali, seen by some local politicos as a rising star, admits that she’d love to make this a career even as she wonders how she’s going to survive through Election Day.
“You don’t get into this business for the money or the job security,” she said. “You’ve got to love it.”
And to hear Vitali tell it, you have to be in it to win.
Unlike many of the campaign managers I talked to for this story, Vitali has little interest in the underdog campaign—the principled candidate who’s running primarily to raise a set of issues or to make a certain point about the process. She says she understands that perspective, but she’d avoid such a campaign.
“If I was going to put everything into this and the candidate was going to put everything into this, you ought to get something out of it,” she said. “There has to be a reality check.”
Vitali hasn’t always been that competitive; helping to get out the vote for Kerry in 2004 may have lit a fire. When Luger asked her to run his campaign more than a year ago, she agreed only to meet with him and see if he was a serious candidate. “I asked him, ‘Do you know what you’re getting into, and do you really want to work that hard?’ ”
That’s tough talk from a woman who was entering kindergarten when her candidate graduated from college. But Vitali wanted to be sure Luger was serious before she committed to the eighteen months of grinding campaign work that would be required to place an unknown local attorney in a position to challenge Mike Freeman.
As the campaign moves into its final days, Vitali has done just that. Luger won the DFL endorsement and is likely to prevail on November 7. But as Vitali noted early on, nothing comes easy. To win, you must surround yourself with committed people who have different perspectives, you must be able to communicate effectively, and you have to work hard—really hard.
“There’s tons of pressure,” Vitali admitted, but she does her best to maintain a little balance by running twice a week, setting aside some time for family, and remembering that there is a finish line to this and every election. “There are seven more weeks to work for this goal,” she said. “I can do anything for seven weeks.”
And if your candidate loses?
“I’m not going to lose,” she snapped. “I don’t think about losing. If you think about losing, you open the door to losing.”
Vitali’s also trying not to think about what her life will be like on November 8. If Luger wins, there will be transition-team work as he readies himself for office, but beyond that, she really doesn’t know what’s next.
“I’m not sure I’ll be working another campaign after this,” Vitali said, noting that she has some interest in marketing, lobbying, and the labor movement, but despite the long hours, the anonymity, and the utter inevitability of that first loss somewhere down the road, she’s not sure she wouldn’t dive back in. “There’s a piece of me that fears that if I’m not a part of this, I’ll be missing something.”
By his own count, Michael Guest has worked on about twenty campaigns over the past decade. He’s been instrumental in guiding underdog city council candidates to victory (including Don Samuels’ hard-fought win over incumbent Natalie Johnson Lee last November) and helped deliver the DFL endorsement to Keith Ellison.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to find Guest working in the background of several campaigns simultaneously. “I like to shape the dynamics,” he admitted.
And while the thirty-nine-year-old strategist has been known to characterize his political activity as part public service, part addiction (he says he’s been trying to retire since 2004), he remains one of the area’s most sought-after consultants.
In January, when her campaign was faltering, Lourey called on Guest to help rebuild morale. “They ended up calling me ‘Captain,’ ” he recalled.
Not that such demand necessarily translates into a living wage. Over the years, Guest has parlayed his skills and network into a series of political organizing and lobbying contracts on the local, regional, and national scenes. It gives him the flexibility he needs to maintain his connections to local politics while paying the mortgage on his South Minneapolis home.
His diversity of experience has prompted Guest to forge some concrete opinions about what can make or break a campaign. Chief among these is that too many candidates spew messages that never reach beyond their own inner circle of advisers. “It’s not what resonates with you, it’s what resonates with the public,” Guest said. “And most people don’t spend five minutes a month thinking about politics.”
That’s what happened in the Samuels-Johnson Lee race, he explained. Four years earlier, Johnson Lee pulled a shocking upset of then City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes. But that was an anti-incumbent year. In 2005, there was no such sentiment, but Johnson Lee still ran as an outsider. “It was a casebook example of not knowing what got her elected,” he said.
Samuels, on the other hand, turned out to be one of Guest’s favorite candidates. “He understood his shortcomings and took advice.”
So the message needs to be simple, practical, and relevant to voters. But even when you craft an effective message, it doesn’t guarantee success.
At least that’s the lesson Guest learned from his own city council run in 2001, when he challenged incumbent Kathy Thurber. That challenge ultimately convinced Thurber not to run for reelection, Guest argues, but it wasn’t enough to win him the DFL endorsement, which went to Gary Schiff—with Thurber’s support.
Guest doesn’t lose much sleep over the setback. “I like selling other people. I’m not effective selling myself,” he said.
Besides, there’s a clear upside to being outside of the city hall power structure. A Samuels supporter tiled Guest’s basement floor in thanks for his work on the campaign. And State Representative Tim Mahoney of St. Paul trades plumbing work for Guest’s speechwriting and other services.
“I can never run for office, because I’d have to give up all the free work,” he said.
At the 1988 DFL caucuses, Sonja Dahl was standing alone in her Nuclear Freeze/Skip Humphrey subcaucus, wondering whether there were any other principled DFL peaceniks in the hall, when a handsome young man approached her and indicated his support for her cause. It was Norm Coleman.
This is only one of the many ironies this Minneapolis veteran of the political wars can point to when she recalls her more than twenty-year career as an activist, volunteer, and campaign manager. Dahl was purged, along with most of the campaign staff, during State Senator John Marty’s run for governor in 1994, dispatched to Willmar to work for Congressman David Minge, and helped elect Paul Wellstone to the U.S. Senate only to have him die on her birthday.
“I’m the person who knows everybody,” Dahl said. Indeed, Rybak once compared her to Forrest Gump. Given that she’s been a fixture on nearly every significant political campaign since the early 1980s, it’s probably an accurate description. Still, the forty-eight-year-old Dahl is more the prototypical campaign worker than the high-octane political strategist. She’s the one who knows how to get your signs up in the best location in a convention hall, the one who knows how to represent your campaign in the ballot-counting process, and the one who can get your phone banks working for those last-minute get-out-the-vote drives.
Dahl’s résumé ranges from stints at Clean Water Action and the Nuclear Weapon Freeze Campaign to statewide campaigns for Wellstone, Marty, Tom Daschle, and Tom Harkin, a congressional race for Minge, and innumerable local contests. She recalls Marty firing almost his entire campaign about three weeks before the 1994 gubernatorial election despite the fact that his fundraising operation was so effective that he “couldn’t spend the money fast enough” in the days leading up to the election.
Then there was the Minge race in 1992, when the campaign manager tabbed her to travel to Willmar and organize Kandiyohi County in the two weeks before the election. “We had no volunteers, no phone banks,” she said. “My volunteers were a high school kid and an eighty-year-old farmer.”
Minge won the election by a mere 500 votes, but he carried Dahl’s county by 2,500 votes. “I really felt like I made a difference,” she said.
For delivering Kandiyohi County, Dahl was paid $500.
Dahl can handle the modest compensation; what bothers her is how people look at campaigns and assume the tide turns on some isolated issue rather than on the grueling labor of the campaign workers. The 1990 Wellstone victory is a case in point. Conventional wisdom suggests that incumbent senator Rudy Boschwitz lost the election because he circulated a letter to Jewish supporters claiming that he was a “better Jew” than Wellstone. Dahl points out that the groundwork for that upset was laid weeks beforehand, recalling the moment she first noticed that there were more volunteers for the phone banks than they could use. “The energy and momentum were just palpable,” she said.
When he was five years old, Peter Wagenius met Walter Mondale, and soon after, he was doing literature drops for his mother’s campaign and making lawn signs out of plywood. He’s not one to idealize politics.
Wagenius, the son of longtime State Representative Jean Wagenius, now works as a senior policy aide for Mayor Rybak and has worked on more campaigns than he can remember. Yet he’s managed to maintain a reasonable perspective on the process. “If you want to change the world or your community, political activism is the way to do it,” he said.
Which is not to say that “the carnival of politics,” as Wagenius called it, doesn’t get a bit bizarre at times. After all, those who are most attracted to politics tend to be people who want something either for themselves or for their community, people with too much time on their hands, or people who like to be close to power. This can lead to odd behavior, long meetings, poor candidates, or all three.
Wagenius recalls his first state convention, in 1990, when convention officials dealt with a bomb threat by debating the pros and cons of evacuating the hall—never deviating from Robert’s Rules of Order. And he remembers without much fondness when the new manager of the John Marty campaign fired the whole fundraising department before realizing that it was the only aspect of the campaign having any success. The manager then tried to keep the newly-fireds from leaving by promising them jobs, when everyone on the staff knew Marty was going to be buried by Arne Carlson.
Wagenius later helped State Representative Phil Carruthers oust longtime Speaker of the House Irv Anderson. When news of the vote was reported on the radio, Wagenius had to pull over. “I was screaming in my car,” he recalled. “When I got home, I was literally congratulating the furniture.”
If that sounds pathological, Wagenius wouldn’t disagree. “In order to clock the hours, you need to believe you have history in your hands. You need to believe you can control the outcome if you work hard enough,” he said.
Those beliefs can lead to heartbreak and “complete and utter helplessness,” of course, as Wagenius learned firsthand when Skip Humphrey “got his clock cleaned” by Jesse Ventura. But it can also bring you the kind of joy he felt when Rybak beat two-term incumbent mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001.
All of Wagenius’ coworkers thought he was insane to work for Rybak, but he says he was convinced Rybak was going to win. So, as he had done with John Marty and Phil Carruthers, he set out to prove them all wrong—and succeeded.
“I knew,” he said, with more wonderment than hubris. “Do you know how good that feels?”