CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the sea of high-level staffers and strategists toiling on the 2008 presidential election, David Bonior is the antithesis of those who worked their way up to prominence on the proverbial dues-paying ladder.
When the former Michigan Congressman and party leader volunteered to do whatever grunt work necessary to help elect former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) — including stuffing envelopes — he wound up becoming campaign manager instead.
Bonior discussed how he initially offered to work for Edwards, whom he grew to know over the past few years through their shared focus on issues such as poverty eradication and workers’ rights, in an interview this week at his office here.
“I called him and said, ‘I want to give you a year of my life,’” Bonior recalled, adding that he was at a point where he had the flexibility to put everything else on hold.
“‘I’ll work for a year. You tell me what you want me to do. I’ll stuff envelopes. I’ll knock on doors. I’ll do anything you want to get you elected,” Bonior said he told Edwards.
Bonior’s decision to take the job as campaign manager came as little surprise to close associates of the 13-term former lawmaker, who for more than a decade served as House Democrats’ top vote counter as both Majority and Minority Whip.
While describing him as a low-key, methodical tactician, those who know Bonior best say above all else he believes passionately in social and economic justice — causes that dovetail with Edwards’ “two America’s” mantra that he adopted in his 2004 White House race.
“When you peel back John Edwards’ campaign, that’s what his campaign is about,” said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). “I just think it’s a natural fit.”
Stupak is one of 14 House Members who have endorsed Edwards in the 2008 race. He said he called up Bonior after he heard he would be involved in the effort and asked what he could do to help.
“This is where his heart is,” added Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who called the former Congressman one of her dearest friends despite the fact that she is committed to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in the White House race.
Pro Bono Work
It is indeed a labor of love and not money.
Bonior, who turns 62 next month, is not taking a salary. He works out of the campaign headquarters here — a nondescript office building in the neatly manicured Southern Village planned community just below the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus. On most weekends he travels back to Washington, D.C., where his wife, children and grandchildren are living.
He hasn’t shed all evidence of his Michigan ties, though. He drives a Cadillac with Michigan license plates.
Prior to joining the campaign, Bonior was teaching labor studies at Wayne State University in Michigan and serving as chairman of American Rights at Work, a foundation he launched in 2003.
But at some point last year he had an epiphany that landed him in a small, sparsely decorated corner office that bears little noticeable evidence of his 26-year Congressional career — even though he is still addressed as “Congressman” by some on the campaign staff.
“I decided at some point that there was nothing more important that I could do in my life to advocate for the things I cared about than to work for him,” Bonior said.
Edwards called Bonior “a good friend and a great leader.”
“He shares my commitment to fundamentally changing our country and lifting up all Americans,” Edwards said. “David’s passion and energy inspire everyone around him — especially me.”
It All Started in New Hampshire
Bonior’s association with Edwards dates back to the 2004 presidential race, in which the former Michigan lawmaker initially backed then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the former Democratic leader whom he had served under as Majority and Minority Whip.
After a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, Gephardt pulled out of the race and Bonior and his wife, Judy, headed to New Hampshire to find another candidate to hitch themselves to.
The couple spent three days listening to the candidates speak at town hall meetings.
Bonior was compelled by what he heard and saw in Edwards and was most taken by his willingness to talk about the social and economic issues that other candidates weren’t addressing.
“These issues probably weren’t the top issues that [New Hampshire voters] were concerned with in their lives but they were I think moved by the fact that somebody would step up and raise them because I think deep down we all know that they’re at the heart of our democracy and they are issues that we have to face and talk about,” Bonior said. “That’s when I became really attracted to his message and to his candidacy.”
Edwards eventually became the 2004 vice presidential nominee and after the campaign ended the two men continued to keep in touch.
Bonior asked Edwards to join the board of the American Rights at Work, and Bonior traveled to visit the poverty center Edwards established at UNC.
“There was really just a natural affinity there as a result of our mutual passion for these issues,” Bonior said.
Fighting — and Fighting History
Although Bonior’s liberal ideals of fighting for the oppressed and underprivileged are above all else what is driving his work for Edwards, there also is a great paradox in his role.
Of the three leading candidates vying for the Democratic nomination next year, Edwards is the only white male.
Still, Bonior makes no apologies in working to defeat the historic candidacies of Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).
“I got behind who I think, was and is the most progressive, enlightened person in the race and that’s John Edwards,” he said.
Edwards’ message, however, took a hit recently from widespread media attention given to two $400 haircuts the well-coifed candidate received at a Beverly Hills, Calif., salon that were mistakenly paid for out of campaign funds. Edwards acknowledged being embarrassed by the high dollar mistake and repaid his campaign treasury.
Bonior, whose beard, glasses and soft-spoken demeanor make him appear more professor than hardened political operative, gets most impassioned when addressing criticism that the millionaire trial attorney from modest roots is disingenuous.
“He’s walked picket lines. He’s been on hunger strikes for workers’ rights so that they could have decent pay and benefits for their family. He started a program for youth to go to college in Western North Carolina … he’s raised the money to make that happen for people,” Bonior said. “This $800 inadvertent bill compared to all of the fabulous things he’s done for three years, you weigh that in the scales of goodness and justice prevails for John Edwards here.”
A Former Colleague Empathizes
Former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) said he believed that Edwards handled the haircut gaffe properly and that in the end it probably won’t matter. But he also warned that little mistakes can be the undoing of any campaign.
“To a great extent what David’s role is is to be the big thinker,” Coelho said. “But also to make sure that little mistakes are not made. To a great extent you’ve got to do both. … Little mistakes can sometimes become a big issue in a campaign.”
Coelho understands Bonior’s current situation perhaps better than anyone.
The ex-California Congressman served as chairman for the first part of then-Vice President Al Gore’s (D) 2000 presidential campaign. He left in June 2000 and was replaced by former Commerce Secretary William Daley.
Coelho said one of the top priorities for any campaign manager is to facilitate a good working relationship between senior level staff — everything else will flow out of that.
Coelho, who was a vocal critic of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign, also warned against the personality clashes that have hampered previous campaigns.
“The responsibility is to make sure that the team is functioning and working and they are doing that on behalf of the candidate,” he said. “Egos get involved, they get divided and they start pursuing their own individual agenda’s instead of the candidate’s agenda.”
Coelho served as Majority Whip before leaving Congress under a cloud of scandal in 1989, and Bonior was one of his top lieutenants. He and Bonior have spoken about the 2008 race, however Coelho is not backing any of the Democrats at the present time.
Coelho, like Bonior, did not take a salary when he worked for Gore and he believes Bonior is being driven by a similar passion.
“David’s a real passionate person in things he believes in,” Coelho said.
A Broad Portfolio
Bonior has spent much of his time thus far addressing the administrative minutiae involved in getting a campaign operation off the ground and running. At a 10 a.m. planning meeting Tuesday, Bonior spoke over top drills and other noise from the office furniture that workmen were assembling.
While marvelling at the broad scope of his duties — “This is something that will grow to hundreds of people so it’s huge just the administrative piece of it,” Bonior said — he plans to get out on the campaign trail as a surrogate more in the lead up to the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
“It’s a balance,” he said. “I have to be here obviously to oversee things but I will have my own role as a surrogate as well.”
Bonior has close ties to organized labor and Edwards is banking on getting the strong support of unions in early states such as Iowa.
He also keeps in regular touch with his former colleagues and staffers who are still on Capitol Hill and has stayed active in politics back in Michigan since leaving office, too.
Joe Trippi, the media guru who ran former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) 2004 presidential effort recently joined the Edwards’ campaign as senior adviser and is now on the ground with an office at the headquarters in Chapel Hill.
The need for top-notch communication staff was one of the greatest lessons Bonior learned from his failed 2002 gubernatorial bid in Michigan. He finished in second place with 28 percent of the vote.
Bonior also said he was hampered by his late start.
“John has done it much better than I did,” he said. “I started to run for governor two years out. This is not something you can do in two years and it’s very difficult and he’s been at it much longer than that.”
Deputy Campaign Manager Jonathan Prince, who worked on Edwards’ 2004 race, said he was very proud of the previous campaign.
But among the things Bonior adds to the table, Prince said, is “a perspective and maturity that can only come from spending so many years in public service. Appreciating what matters and what is just annoying. Try to keep your eye on the ball sensibility.”
But Bonior said that having the continuity from the 2004 race is key.
“Fortunately we have a lot of people who have experience on the last campaign and we’ve worked together and I’ve learned from them and I think they’ve learned a few things from me,” he said. “We work well as a team. I think it’s going well.”