We hear a lot about and learn a lot about candidates during an election cycle. Frankly, it can be argued that we can sometimes know too much, particularly now that partisan trackers are running around with video cameras capturing a candidate’s every move. We hear and know less about the people behind the candidates and the campaigns, the number crunchers, the people who formulate strategy, who communicate with the public, who organize the volunteers, people who are doing the hard work to make a candidate and a campaign work. They tend to want to stay out of the limelight, but sometimes they play a bigger role than the candidate does.
In almost every political campaign there is a campaign manager or coordinator. Additionally, statewide campaigns usually have several political operatives filling a variety of positions such as press secretary, scheduler, volunteer coordinator, field directors and more. While statewide campaigns may have large staffs, most of the smaller races have only one or two campaign staffers who do everything and are often hardly paid or are volunteers.
It’s stressful work, often made more stressful because candidates can be control freaks with big egos. And then there’s the spouses. One of the biggest challenges for campaign staffers is often to get the candidate out of the way.
Here are just a few of the more visible operatives who worked in Alaska this election cycle, who fought to get the candidate out of the way.
Ben Sparks, campaign manager. Sullivan for Senate campaign–This 32-year-old Texas native came to Alaska most recently from the New Jersey Republican Party, where he was the communications director. Before that, he worked for the Republicans in Wisconsin. He could have stepped out of a film featuring a high-strung campaign manager. He paces. He smokes. He can be foul-mouthed. He wears cowboy boots and blue jeans. Everything’s a crisis and a disaster until it’s not. He yells a lot, until he can’t help himself and he laughs. And just when you think you’ve pegged him as an ironically-detached, Machiavellian gun-for-hire, he gets very serious and talks about how lucky he has been to work for such great men like Chris Christie and Dan Sullivan. So, a simple party hack? Not so fast. He’s also a graduate of St. John’s College, where they study ancient Greek and read Plutarch and Aristotle. He’s big winner in Alaska, and the world of campaigns will take note. Expect his next hook-up to be on a presidential trail in the haunts of Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
David Dunsmore, campaign coordinator. Interior Democrats– If Alaska has a pure party operative that it can call its own, it would be the 29-year-old David Dunsmore from Anchorage, who ran for Anchorage mayor when he was 18 years old and came in fourth out of 11 candidates. (Full disclosure: I was the first reporter to interview him then, and because I joked that he was the only candidate who couldn’t grow a beard, he holds me responsible for the beard he’s had since.) He’s smart and ruthless and has winning in his blood, which you might think would be difficult for a political operative in Alaska who belongs to a party that hasn’t had tons of wins. But it helps that he believes in what he’s doing, and also that all things considered, he’s done pretty well. He managed Pete Petersen’s 2008 campaign where he unseated incumbent Bob Roses for State House, and again managed Petersen’s most recent Assembly win. He also had an Assembly win in Fairbanks. In this cycle, he managed a handful of Democratic candidates in Fairbanks, two of whom staved off Republican challengers. Arguably, the biggest win for Democrats in this election cycle came from Dunsmore’s domain in Fairbanks, where Adam Wool beat incumbent Republican Rep. Pete Higgins.
Lindsay Hobson, spokesperson. Walker/Mallott campaign – A spokesperson’s job can be frustrating and nerve wracking, but Hobson has handled it with surprising aplomb, which is particularly impressive because she’s new to the game. She knows what the media wants and she gets it to us fast and she seems not to take things personally. Hobson is Bill Walker’s daughter, which means that she probably won’t be in his administration. This is too bad for us in the media, but likely good for her. After all, she has a law degree from Gonzaga and a BA degree in Spanish Literature from Southern Oregon University. Prior to the campaign, she was a lawyer in her father’s law practice.
Fred Brown, press secretary. Mead Treadwell for Senate campaign – Fred Brown, from Fairbanks, was one of the bright lights of the Treadwell campaign. Quick and biting, particularly on twitter, he was snatched up by the RNC pre-primary, it’s said because he was doing too good of a job for Treadwell, who wasn’t the RNC’s pick. In any case, he headed to Arkansas to help Tom Cotton’s candidacy against the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor. The rest is history. He’s now in Louisiana. Republicans should hope that Brown returns to Alaska.
Susanne Fleek-Green, campaign manager. Begich for Senate campaign – It was said that Mark Begich largely ran his own campaign. However, although he was likely very involved, he had plenty of help from the unflappable Susanne Fleek Green, who has been with Begich since his time as Anchorage mayor. Before the campaign, she was his state director, and so she knew a few things about Alaska. It also helped that she’s from Anchorage. Fleek-Green has a Bachelor’s degree in political science from University of California, Berkeley and master’s degree in public policy from the same school, and has been involved in climate change policy.
Max Croes, spokesperson. Mark Begich for Senate campaign — Croes worked on Begich’s campaign in 2008, when he was young and bright and full of energy. After the 2008 campaign, he worked in Begich’s D.C. office, then went to work for Sen. Jon Tester’s successful campaign in Montana. He’s still got some of that energy, but he’s now also got some battle scars and he now knows how to go to the mat for his candidate. He worked tirelessly for Begich and was as cantankerous and unreasonable as he needed to be. If he leaves the state, we’ll be worse off for it.
Mike Anderson, spokesperson. Dan Sullivan for Senate campaign — Earnestness and politics don’t normally go together, but 27-year-old Anchorage native Mike Anderson, is nothing but earnest, and political, so there you have it. After Anderson got his degree in political science from UAF in 2010, he worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski first as a staff assistant, then as press secretary. Then he did tough duty as Rep. Don Young’s spokesperson before moving back to Alaska to work for Sullivan. It was a big job for a 27 year old, particularly considering that this was his first time working on a campaign, and all things considered, he did an impressive job. Word is that he’s sticking with Sullivan and will likely be heading back to D.C.
Tom Wright, campaign manager. Parnell for Governor campaign — Tom Wright was brought in to take over the Parnell campaign about a week after the formation of the Unity ticket on Labor Day. What he found was a demoralized campaign without a foundation. Wright was and is the COS to Speaker Mike Chenault. He is often times referred to as the 41st member of the House. He walks tall and fast and full of purpose, and will just as readily bite your head off as to say good morning. But get him in a good mood and he’ll belt out a country song. And there’s nobody more loyal. While Wright had never run a statewide campaign before, he brought along a considerable amount of campaign-related experience developed by working on state House races over several election cycles. It doesn’t appear that he was able to save this one, but he did bring in some politically experienced legislative staffers who were able to help him stop the bleed and turn things around some.
Jerry Hood, campaign manager. Don Young for Congress – This former Democratic National Committeeman and Teamster Local 959 leader, Hood cut his teeth in the rough and tumble world of union politics, supporting mostly Democrats. Somewhere along the way, his philosophies softened and his party allegiance changed. Hood has managed Young’s last two congressional campaigns. He works year-round in his capacity doubling as chief fundraiser during the off season. The biggest challenge that Hood seems to face is the candidate himself. Don Young is not an easy person to work for and managing his gaffes is full-time work.
Nancy Peterson, campaign manager. Walker/Mallott for Governor campaign — Peterson had never run a campaign before this one, but she brings organizational skills with lots of experience in local government. She was a former Public Works Director for the City of Unalaska and Assistant City Manager for the City of Valdez. At all the fundraisers, she was the most energetic person there. A particular talent of hers was to corral volunteers. She didn’t take no for an answer.
Zoë Gorman, campaign manager. Matt Claman for House–Here’s a scene: I’m taking a walk in West Turnagain and I see a beat up car parked on the side of the street, with classical music blaring out of it. It’s an odd site for this tony neighborhood, so I look closer. The backseat is jam-packed with Matt Claman signs. Sitting in the driver’s seat is Zoë Gorman, checking voter registrants. It was probably the fifth time I had seen her in the same number of days. That day, it was a Sunday. She had worked all day, and was likely going to work into the night to get Matt Claman elected. Gorman went to school in Yale and is in Alaska through fellow Yalie Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who’s brought a number of his ivy league friends to Alaska. I don’t know if she plans on staying, but I do know that she’s a hard worker, and it looks almost certain that her candidate won.
That’s just a few. There’s so many more, and I know I missed a lot of them, including people here working for the parties, and those guys who had to trail their opponents with video cameras. They deserve a book written about them. One of them, Travis Neff worked for a Democratic group and was charged with following Sullivan around–which he did faithfully. It’s probably the most hostile and the least fun job of a campaign, and it seemed to wear on Neff, who appeared to get increasingly grumpy as the campaign wore on. He didn’t talk to the press during the campaign, but at some point after the election, Neff came up to officially introduce himself to me. He was smiling. The strain was gone from his face. He’s actually a really nice guy. “I’m glad this is over,” he said.
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