Obama Recruits on Hill

Posted July 25, 2008 at 6:11pm

Since securing his status as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has slowly but systematically started poaching top staff from the House and Senate to build his campaign apparatus.

The Obama campaign declined to comment for this story, but its Capitol Hill brain drain includes at least three well-placed chiefs of staff, numerous Democratic press aides and several policy staffers. Included in the recent spate of hiring are the top staffer to Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) to be the campaign’s chief of staff, the senior aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) to serve as Obama’s Congressional liaison and the chief of staff to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) to become his New Hampshire state director.

Obama also plucked a pair of staffers from Illinois Senate colleague Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a top floor aide to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), and several key aides in the offices of Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.).

“That’s where the Democratic expertise is,” explained one senior Senate Democratic aide of the hirings. “It’s pretty clear. That’s where the Democratic talent is — so that’s where he’s pulling from. It makes sense.”

The focus on signing up a Hill-heavy work force isn’t unexpected for Obama, who swore off bolstering his ranks with lobbyists. Plus, with Republicans controlling the White House for the past eight years, the presumptive Democratic nominee has few options within the executive branch.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said the House and Senate offer Obama a “pool of very talented people” to choose from. One of her former aides, Jon Samuels, who went to work for Clyburn, was recently hired by Obama. She argued that regardless of Obama’s vow to keep K Street out of his organization, he still would have put a premium on hiring Hill aides to his campaign.

“It’s not just a default position to come to staff on the Hill,” Schakowsky said. “It’s where you find people who share a commitment to policy, as well as an understanding of what it takes to win campaigns.”

Obama has been working furiously to implement a national strategy to compete in an expanded general election field, one that includes campaigning in states that Democratic presidential candidates previously have ignored. That approach, coupled with a compressed general election campaign, also has driven Obama to tap into a large number of able and available House and Senate aides, Democrats on and off the Hill said.

One Democratic strategist close to the organization said Obama needed to beef up his campaign quickly and smartly, and the most logical place to look was Congress. This strategist said that since Obama didn’t assume the party’s nod until the Democratic primaries concluded on June 3, he couldn’t afford to waste any time getting organized.

“Typically, you ramp up gradually,” this Democrat said. “That’s not an option.”

The makeup of Obama’s campaign operation is shaping up far differently from that of his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who outside of his own Senate office has added few House and Senate aides to his presidential team. Instead, McCain’s ranks are flush with veteran GOP campaign operatives, Washington consultants and one-time lobbyists.

Davis, whose senior aide Corey Ealons recently joined the Obama campaign as its communications director for African-American media, said McCain’s organization mirrors that of previous GOP White House hopefuls and occupants. Davis said Republican political talent is richer in the private sector, adding that hiring from the House and Senate “is not a regular path for Republican administrations.”

“Some of our best political and policy people are working on the Hill or at the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] or [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee],” he said of the Democrats. “On the Republican side, that’s not the case.”

Davis, an early Obama supporter, predicted that Obama will continue to steal staff from the halls of Congress to help run his campaign, and that he would also tap several Democratic lawmakers to his administration.

Obama is now looking to employ aides, rather than his Congressional colleagues. Numerous Hill Democrats have been brought on in the past few weeks, with some of the more recent being Samuels, Ealons, Waxman top aide Phil Schiliro and Baucus administrative assistant Jim Messina. Durbin recently excused to the campaign deputy communications director Sandra Abrevaya to run the New Hampshire communications effort, as well as his senior legislative assistant, David Lazarus, to serve as Obama’s deputy director of outreach. Whitehouse recently lost his chief of staff, Mindy Myers, who left to become Obama’s New Hampshire state director.

Waxman said he’s not surprised that Obama lured away his longtime aide, Schiliro, to be the campaign’s lead Congressional liaison. He called Schiliro “one of the most talented people I know in public service,” adding, “It reflects well on the Obama campaign that they see that in him. I want his campaign and his presidency to seek the finest and most capable people to do the jobs of running his election and running the government.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he believed Obama’s focus on pulling talent off of the Hill demonstrates that as president he would put a premium on seeking Congressional input and building a strong alliance with the legislative branch. Democrats have long panned President Bush for failing to work with Congress.

“Obama’s shown a willingness to reach out and listen and that’s a very, very strong signal that he can have a good relationship with Congress — with the Senate in particular, but also with Congress as a whole,” Nelson said. “Getting talent from the Hill only strengthens that.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), an early backer of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and now an Obama ally, agreed, saying the Hill recruiting “bodes well” for a prospective Obama administration. If his top advisers and aides know how Congress operates, it will only increase Obama’s odds at getting things done next year.

“When you serve here, you have much greater appreciation than when you don’t,” Menendez said. “You understand the dynamics of the politics, policy and process. It makes you much keener in your ability to advance a legislative agenda at the end of the day. It’s a very positive sign.

“As long as he doesn’t take any of my people,” Menendez said.