Skip to content

High-Priced Talent – Pro Bono

Presidential Campaigns Relying More on Unpaid Advisers for Help

To conserve cash in the post-soft-money era, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates are increasingly turning to unpaid political advisers and part-time consultants to run their campaigns.

From Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and John Kerry (Mass.) to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton, virtually every candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination relies on a mix of full-time employees, part-time consultants and informal advisers to perform tasks traditionally handled by permanent, in-house staff.

“It is a little different than in the past,” said Steve McMahon of Trippi, McMahon & Squier, the firm managing Dean’s campaign.

The tactic reduces overhead while helping candidates quickly set up campaign operations.

“You get a lot of arms and legs working for you right away,” McMahon said.

The emerging trend means some of the most central tasks of today’s campaigns — from setting up media shops to running the day-to-day operations — are being handled by consultants who often receive paychecks from other clients, both political and corporate.

For example, Steve Murphy, who runs Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) campaign, works part-time for the presidential campaign while working for a range of other candidates retained by his consulting firm, Murphy Putnam Media.

Steve Elmendorf, another top Gephardt advisor, works as a lobbyist for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

Murphy, who says he works “inhuman hours,” expects to remain as a consultant for Gephardt and his other political clients until the presidential nomination contest is over.

Gephardt’s campaign is far from alone.

Edwards’ campaign manager, Nick Baldick, continues to receive a paycheck from his consulting firm, the Dewey Square Group. Baldick plans to take a leave of absence from Dewey Square when his campaign workload gets too burdensome.

“There is no reason to have a full-time manager sucking off the budget when all we are doing is fundraising,” one Edwards adviser said.

Meanwhile, two of Baldick’s colleagues at the consulting firm, Michael Whouley and Jill Alper, serve as advisers to Kerry’s campaign while keeping their day jobs.

Dewey Square, a Boston-based firm founded by Whouley, provides communications advice to a range of clients, including several corporate interests with business on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic firm recently signed a contract to provide public relations work for the American Insurance Association and a coalition of insurance companies looking to head off asbestos lawsuits.

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) campaign manager, Craig Smith, is a consultant with MCapitol. “He is not an employee of the Joe Lieberman for President campaign,” said spokesman Jano Cabrera. “He’s essentially a paid consultant.”

Dean and Sharpton also lean heavily on consultants. Trippi, McMahon & Squier runs Dean’s campaign while Sharpton relies on lawyer Roberto Ramirez, a former New York state legislator and one-time chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party.

“It’s more efficient because you can pay one retainer and get what you need for one low fee,” McMahon said.

Joe Trippi, McMahon’s partner, serves as the campaign manager in Burlington, Vt., while McMahon runs the show from the firm’s Virginia headquarters.

Another top Dean aide is Rick Ridder, a consultant with Denver-based Ridder/Braden Inc.

One of the few presidential operations being run by a traditional, in-house campaign manager is Kerry’s, whose campaign is managed by Jim Jordan.

To be sure, media consultants and pollsters have long worked for multiple campaigns, and informal advisers are no strangers to the presidential campaigns of Democrats and Republicans alike.

But this year is the first time candidates have turned to outside consultants to serve as campaign managers.

“We did not have anyone like a Nick Baldick who was also part of a consulting firm,” said Frank Greer, who worked for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and now works for Kerry through his media firm, GMMB. “Having a consulting firm running the campaign is just kind of puzzling. You want people managing a campaign who are full time.”

The Democrats also are increasingly turning to unpaid advisers to help organize their staffs.

Carter Eskew, a partner with the Glover Park Group, helped set up the communications office for the Lieberman campaign, hiring Communications Director Jonathan Sallet, spokesman Cabrera as well as Tovah Ravitz-Meehan and Dan Gerstein.

Federal election law permits political consultants to work for presidential candidates on a voluntary or part-time basis as long as they maintain their workload for their non-campaign clients or take a pay cut.

In other words, the advisers need to show that they continue to work for their private clients and are not simply receiving a paycheck from these clients.

“The legal issue is whether someone is subsidizing work on a campaign,” said Jan Baran, an election-law attorney with Wiley, Rein & Fielding.

Bobby Burchfield, an attorney with Covington & Burlington, added: “If you are paid by a regular employer and given specific leave to work on a campaign, that is an illegal, in-kind contribution.”

Election law on the topic stretches back to the 1980 presidential campaign, when the Federal Election Commission required an attorney with Atlanta’s Roger & Wells to prove that he was maintaining his workload for his law clients as he advised President Jimmy Carter’s campaign.

But proving that can be difficult, said Ken Gross, a lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagen & Flom.

“It’s hard to judge because these people are not clock-punchers,” Gross said. “It’s hard to measure their time.”

Last month the FEC made another landmark decision on the topic, ruling that GOP consultant Ralph Reed did not violate election law in 2000 by accepting consulting fees from Enron while informally advising the presidential campaign of George W. Bush.

Judicial Watch, which filed the complaint with the FEC, alleged that the Texas-based energy trader paid Reed to work for the campaign.

By dismissing the complaint, the FEC may have opened the door to more instances of consultants retaining private-sector clients while working for presidential campaigns.

“A lot of the campaigns feel emboldened by the FEC decision,” said an aide to one candidate.

Democratic strategists say that it is too early for consultants to give up their outside clients and sign up for full-time positions with the campaigns.

“Two years out is really a long time to drop everything,” said Mike Feldman, a consultant with the Glover Park Group who has not signed up with a candidate. “Most of these things can be done part time.”

Joel Johnson, an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) who was expected to work on his presidential campaign, said consultants can still serve their presidential campaigns and outside clients.

“My suspicion right now is that people are just adding eight to 10 hours to their days rather than splitting four hours here and four hours there,” he said. “You just have to work harder and make your days longer.”

However, Johnson added, “There comes a point in time when you are serving neither party well — and you have to make a cut.”

Recent Stories

Piecemeal supplemental spending plan emerges in House

White House issues worker protections for pregnancy termination

Senate leaders seek quick action on key surveillance authority

Officials search for offshore wind radar interference fix

McCarthy gavel investigation ends without a bang

Rep. Tom Cole seeks to limit earmark-driven political headaches