In early 2003, while leading the domestic fight against terrorism, FBI Director Robert Mueller had another problem on his hands, and he regularly questioned his chief of staff at the time, Lee Rawls, about the impending matter.
“About once a month he’d call and say, ‘Has he called you yet?’” Rawls recently recalled of his last days with the FBI. “So [Mueller] kind of sensed the shoe was maybe gonna drop.”
The shoe dropped later that spring when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) finally did call Rawls and convinced him to return to the Senate as his chief of staff, his fourth tour of duty in the chamber since the mid-1970s and his second go-round with Frist.
While his job may not have the same life-and-death consequences as it did with the FBI, Rawls has been given the burden of helping run the Senate at a particularly precarious time: with a presidential campaign often playing itself out on the chamber floor, a Minority Leader fighting his own re-election battle and a determined clutch of Democrats doing all they can to make life miserable for the majority.
Aides and friends say Rawls has remained a mature, calming presence in an otherwise chaotic world of filibusters, gridlock and, as always on Capitol Hill, a little backbiting among supposed allies.
“After keeping the country safe from terrorists, wrangling with a bunch of political hacks like us isn’t so bad,” said Alex Vogel, who worked under Rawls as Frist’s chief counsel before heading to K Street last spring.
Throughout his 33-year career in Washington, Rawls has been fielding calls from the likes of Frist and Mueller, becoming a sort of designated trouble-shooter. He tends to jump into hotspots and sticks around just long enough to shore things up.
Never one to stay in any one role for too long, Rawls, more than 16 months on the job with Frist, still has an office with barren walls and no sign of his own personal touch. His resumé shows that he hasn’t stayed five years at any one job, a peripatetic career style that Rawls jokingly compares to an Indian tribe that only stays in place for two years.
“They’d just burn their village and move on,” he said. “And so my style has always been, you know, kind of ready for a challenge, two, three, maybe four years. I decided I’d make Washington my career but I would move around.”
At each stop along the way, however, Rawls has tried to keep a similar management style that allows for him to delegate authority, empowering his lower-level staff to make the calls on big decisions.
Unlike some top aides, Rawls does not restrict access to Frist and allows for give-and-take with the Senator and some junior aides, most of whom have regular e-mail contact directly with Frist. Despite having a staff that was largely assembled by someone else — Frist’s first chief of staff as leader, Mitch Bainwol, hired most of the staff — Rawls trusts many of his aides to deal directly with other top GOP staff as well as in negotiations with Democrats.
“Sometimes there’s an inclination to suck up all the power,” said one top GOP leadership staffer from outside Frist’s orbit. “A lesser man would try to block down and restrict access.”
Oftentimes, Rawls will let Eric Ueland, Frist’s deputy chief of staff, or David Schiappa, the top floor adviser for Frist, handle negotiations with top aides to Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). This is by no means a hands-off approach, aides say, but more a tactic that frees Rawls up to do the broad oversight of dealing not just with other Senators and aides but also his counterparts on the House side.
Frist said that Rawls’ style is really just an extension of his own, a “team approach” that requires surrounding yourself with talented people and taking their advice.
When Frist was thrust into the leader’s position in January 2003, he said that he didn’t have the time for long searches, that he just had to turn to the people he’s known the longest, such as Bainwol, Vogel and some other folks who worked for Frist at the NRSC.
“I immediately turned to the people I trusted the most,” he said. One of those was also Rawls, knowing that Bainwol would only occupy the chief of staff role on a temporary basis.
Despite the fact that Frist, Rawls and Mueller are all Princeton graduates — Rawls and Mueller lived together in a group house their junior year — Frist knew stealing the FBI director’s top aide could be touchy. Before calling Rawls, Frist reached out to Mueller.
“I’ll go through you first,” he told Mueller, “but I want Lee Rawls back.”
Friends say Rawls is very different from Bainwol or David Hoppe, who served as chief of staff during Sen. Trent Lott’s (Miss.) six and a half years as leader. Other GOP staffers say that Hoppe was deeply involved in almost every big negotiation, every meeting.
And Bainwol, who came to the post after running the NRSC, is much more of a politically oriented strategist than Rawls. Comparing Frist’s political orbit to President Bush’s, Bainwol is much more of a Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, while Rawls is more line with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, the man in charge of keeping the president’s train running on time.
Now that Frist is running the Senate, not the hyper-political NRSC, those outside of the Majority Leader’s circle say Rawls is a necessity for Frist. “You need the manager more than you need the political,” said one GOP strategist.
Rawls is incredibly deferential to Bainwol for hiring what he considers to be a top-notch staff. “My view on it is, if you’ve got really good staff, let them run as far as they can take it,” he said, adding that there is too much going on in a chamber for him to control everything that’s going on at any given moment while trying to anticipate what’s coming next. “If you try and do it all yourself, you’re just gonna choke the system.”
But Democrats know Rawls is no shrinking violet. Mark Childress, often the top negotiator for Daschle, said Rawls has been around town long enough to know the political angles and the policy angles. Childress said Rawls is very good at his No. 1 priority: “To keep from his boss problems he can solve on his own.”
In recent months, Frist has taken as much flak from his allies as from Democrats, particularly conservative commentators and activists disappointed that things like the constitutional marriage amendment failed to win even a majority of votes and that a class-action bill remains stalled. Some have questioned Frist’s leadership skills, but Rawls said the gridlock is mostly a function of presidential election year politics, not Frist.
“This place always has incentives, incentives for cooperation and incentives for competition,” he said, adding of the current calendar: “These kind of incentives rise and fall based on the calendar, how close you get to an election.”
Despite this intensity, Rawls said he and Childress have a solid relationship and an easy understanding of when they can work something out and when they know they’re going to have to battle. “He’s a pro,” Rawls said of Childress. “To be blunt, we don’t waste time when we know we’re going to compete.”
A native Philadelphian, Rawls came to Washington in 1971 and worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in its infancy, a job that led him to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee in 1975. His first time running a Senate office was in 1977, when he became Sen. Pete Domenici’s (R-N.M.) top staffer. He alternated back and forth between the Hill and law and lobbying firms until 1996, when, while working at the law firm run by former Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), he entered Frist’s orbit and became his chief of staff.
Impressed with Frist’s medical credentials, Rawls and Frist also enjoyed some natural connections, not just their Princeton backgrounds. Both are natural athletes: Rawls was a tennis star in college and still plays on the Senate’s court, usually with Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).
His latest passion is golf, which he picked up just four years ago and is now almost regularly breaking 90. Aides say Rawls will often break into fake practice swings in the middle of deep talks about gripping issues.
While he now projects a straight-laced persona, Rawls and Mueller did have some fun in their college years, although he won’t elaborate on what antics they got into junior year. “Everybody had a great time, then we realized no one was going to graduate,” Rawls said, explaining how their group house broke up and they took their studies a bit more seriously in their senior year.
Mueller and Rawls graduated in 1966, before Frist, class of ’74, set foot on campus.
After this election, when he turns 60 in November, Rawls is going to have another sit-down with Frist and figure out if he’s ready for another two years with the leader or if his nomadic style will take him somewhere else, possibly even into retirement.
“He and I will probably have a chat at the end of the year at some point,” Rawls said. “I mean, 60, 60’s up there. But I’m having a good time.”