GOP Spinner a Star Who Stays Out of the Limelight

Posted January 20, 2004 at 4:59pm

Todd Harris is known as a spinner extraordinaire in the world of political communication. He’s a public relations specialist who has worked on some of the most celebrated Republican campaigns in recent memory.

Last Thursday, this career press man spent his morning picking out carpet patterns for the new Sacramento, Calif., office of the public affairs firm DC Navigators, which he has recently been tapped to help set up and run.

“He’s an absolute star and a real up-and-comer in the party and one of the best communications guys we’ve got,” said Michael Murphy, a Republican consultant and partner at DC Navigators.

Coming off his most recent role as spokesman for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) successful campaign this past fall, Harris, 32, is a young campaign trail veteran who can count among his career highlights his role as communications director for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) victorious re-election campaign in 2002 and his position as communications director for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid in 2000.

Between his work for the California Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee and various candidates, Harris has worked on dozens of campaigns. And while he is not with the Schwarzenegger administration, Harris said he hopes to help bring in new political clients and work new campaigns from the Navigator’s Sacramento base, using his connections to Schwarzenegger as a selling point.

“Mike Murphy brought Todd into our campaign and it was one of his best decisions,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “I quickly saw that Todd was a very talented and aggressive media handler. He was a hugely valuable asset to my campaign and I was thrilled when he moved back to California so I could enjoy the benefits of his considerable talents.”

A graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, Harris got involved in his first campaign when he was 17, volunteering for the ill-fated 1988 campaign of California state Senate candidate Bill Polacek (R) on the East Bay.

“I think he became interested in the press because our campaign was suffering from a news blackout from a hostile publisher,” recalled Dan Hazelwood, an

Alexandria, Va., political consultant who was the campaign manager of Polacek’s run. “There was only one newspaper that was covering that race and we had been blackballed by it.”

Hazelwood fondly recalled how Harris’ mother used to have to drop him off and pick him up from campaign headquarters.

“You know, I think he walked in the door to get his 10 hours of community service for his high school civics class,” Hazelwood joked.

But Hazelwood, who has worked with Harris in numerous other campaigns since 1988, said the reason Harris is so successful in media relations is that “he’s a throwback to the traditional press secretary that is supposed to supplement their boss, not supplant him.”

“Kids today look at [former White House Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer and see how much face time he got and they want that,” Hazelwood added. “When they are in Congressional races they worry about getting their name on the camera — Todd’s not like that.”

And Harris’ sincere style has earned him the respect of the people on the other side of the podium as well.

Anne Kornblut, a political reporter for The Boston Globe who worked with Harris during the Schwarzenegger and McCain campaigns, said Harris impressed her because when he is a candidate’s spokesman he doesn’t view himself as a gatekeeper.

“There’s a lot of people in their party who won’t tell you the sky is blue, but Todd was always straightforward,” Kornblut said. “The whole Straight Talk Express business was something Todd was very comfortable with,” Kornblut said, referring to McCain’s campaign bus.

Kornblut noted that Harris handled himself admirably near the end of the Schwarzenegger campaign when a number of allegations emerged about possible improper conduct by the actor turned politician.

“There was a bad run of press there in the end and they didn’t try to lie to us,” she said. “They admitted it was a bad time for them.”

And even when he butts heads with reporters Harris seems to maintain their respect.

Brian Crowley, political editor at the Palm Beach Post, was a reporter who caused more than a few headaches for Harris during the Bush campaign — enough so that Harris lovingly named his pet rat after the Florida reporter. But despite their press sparring, Crowley said he still admires Harris for his professionalism during that campaign.

“Todd is easy to work with,” Crowley said. “He does a good job of looking out for his candidate and clearly understands the role of the press. He didn’t always answer every question, but he never lied to me.”

Harris’ abilities in political communication have taken him not only across the country but also around the globe.

Before joining the Bush re-election campaign Harris spent a year overseas working with the International Republican Institute to advise the Croatian government on political communications and message development. His work also took him to Cambodia, Bulgaria, Serbia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and the Democratic Republic of East Timor to train others in political communication.

“I would hate to have a desk job,” Harris said. “I love campaigns. I love the fact that every morning when you wake up you have no idea how your day’s going to unfold and where you’re going to sleep.”

But the California native also said he’s happy to now have a base in his home state.

“California is and always will be my home,” he said. “Also, I collect wine, so it’s nice to be so close to Napa Valley.”