The last of four profiles of Congressional campaign committee executive directors.
The job of an offensive tackle is to block for the quarterback or whoever has the football, and it just so happens National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison brings that gridiron experience to his role.
A former college right tackle steeped in Texas football, Harrison has practice playing offense. Now the longtime aide to NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) is charged with making sure Republicans make up ground by winning back the House — or at least get into the red zone by making a dent in Democrats’ 77-seat majority.
“I’m a firm believer being an offensive lineman taught me a lot,” Harrison said in an interview in his sparsely decorated office at NRCC headquarters. “Being an offensive lineman means you have to count on the people beside you to be successful. There’s no such thing as a star offensive lineman.”
Burly, brusque and slightly baby-faced, Harrison is often curt in his first interactions with those outside the NRCC’s inner circle, and he is known for punctuating his sentences by spitting chewing tobacco into a cup.
But those close to Harrison say to meet him once is not to know him. GOP consultant Brad Todd, a longtime associate who also does work for the NRCC, said Harrison approaches the job with a certain “humility” and aims to organize the committee in a flat structure.
When the two were interviewing potential staffers, Todd recalled, Harrison would ask some applicants if they would be willing to take the job under the position they were seeking. Most respondents were confused, but the question was merely a test to see how badly the applicant wanted to work at the NRCC — and the correct answer was “yes.”
After working together for 16 years, Sessions said Harrison’s strength lies in his ability to dissect information.
[IMGCAP(1)]”His greatest asset is to see something that may be pretty complex, and to boil down his thinking and study the issue to put it in a context that can be rationally understood,” Sessions said.
History dictates that the party out of power in the White House will pick up seats in a president’s first midterm elections. House Republicans also are armed with a plethora of strong recruits. But the NRCC still has its fair share of challenges, with fundraising still lagging well behind its Democratic counterpart. At the end of January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s bank account balance was more than four times that of the NRCC’s.
“We’ve got to get more money to make sure we have enough funds to be involved in the races that we need to be involved in to get back the majority,” Harrison said. “It’s probably our only limiting factor right now.”
Harrison, 38, was raised in Dallas and then headed to Dartmouth College, despite the allure of playing for one of the Division I football schools that recruited him. Harrison compared fighting the university on its control over the Greek system as head of the Interfraternity Council to his passion for fighting government control over individual freedoms.
After graduation, Harrison moved back to Texas and pledged six months of unpaid work on the campaign trail for Sessions, who put him in charge of organizing the lower 10 counties in his race against Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas) in 1994.
In that race, the NRCC gave them no support, and Sessions lost by about 3,000 votes. The irony isn’t lost on the pair who are now running the show.
Sessions and Harrison didn’t have any money for TV ads in that race. Instead, the future Congressman drove around a flatbed trailer filled with manure that had a sign that read: “The Clinton health care plan stinks worse than this trailer.”
“What that did, for Pete and Guy both, is it gave them a challenger mentality,” Todd said. “Neither one of them, especially Guy, never will accept the boundaries of what is conventional strategy.”
When Bryant ran for Senate in 1996, Sessions won his House seat. Harrison has been a top aide to Sessions ever since.
When former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) ran against Sessions in 2004 after being redistricted out of his seat, Harrison and the Congressman were overjoyed at the challenge.
“Pete said, He’s been in every one of my races, now I get to be in his,'” Todd recalled. “And he and Guy were just thrilled about it. They have a taste for the fight, and they are good at it.”
arrison is, according one associate, a true “guy’s guy.” Some staffers said they were somewhat apprehensive about working with him given his intimidating reputation. But perhaps to their surprise, most colleagues consider him to be warm, pleasant and friendly. While he pontificates in meetings, they say Harrison is open to ideas and exhibits the kind of hyper-competitive nature that is required for the committee to be successful.
“Greatest strength, and this might be surprising to some, is that he knows what he doesn’t know,” said NRCC Deputy Executive Director Johnny DeStefano. “He is an inclusive manager and he likes to have his own views challenged.”
Harrison also has a reputation for being long-winded in meetings.
“He is as smart as he is verbose, and if you know him, that is saying a great deal about his intelligence,” quipped DeStefano, who is also a political aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Harrison admits he is not a “wallflower,” but often when attention is directed toward him — on a panel with his counterparts or in a media interview — he blushes bright red.
His sense of humor is understated to outsiders, but he loves to tease his colleagues and make light of a situation. Not surprisingly, several people compared Harrison and his sense of humor to the camaraderie of a locker room or a fraternity house.
When Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) heard his name, he smiled mischievously and complemented Harrison’s ability to keep his sense of humor even under the stress inherent in campaigns.
“Guy is a hard worker,” Shuster said. “He’s got a great sense as humor, and he’s tough as nails.”
In many ways, Sessions is the opposite of Harrison. The affable and friendly Congressman calls his colleagues “brother” in the Speaker’s Lobby.
And, of course, Sessions played quarterback in college.
“He’s a tackle. I was the quarterback,” Sessions said. “I respect his abilities to effectively protect the quarterback, because he’s been doing that for 15 or 16 years for me.”