Political Footnotes

I first heard about consulting in high school. One of my more serious compatriots casually said: “I’d like to be a speechwriter when I’m older. Or a consultant.” He nodded, his chin weighed down with the gravity of the task he imagined himself undertaking—consulting—and I nodded too. No idea what it meant.

Piecemeal, as I took on consulting internships of my own, I would begin to understand. It meant questionnaires and donor requests, or opposition research for my boss Laura and one of her five or six clients; it involved hours on the phone with unwilling golf tournament sponsors and pages of unread grant applications. Still, that understanding was limited: as much as I grasped the mundane tasks and detailed policy briefs, the way it all added up remained fundamentally vague. Consulting has come to encompass an increasingly broad swath of tasks; every basic function of a campaign—organization, administration, management—has been co-opted by the label. The person who might once have been called a “finance director” or “campaign manager” is now often simply a “consultant.”

The romanticism of the campaign, the hard work of volunteers, the adrenaline of the unknown before polls close: none of this is a myth. And yet the scheduled predictability of the daily grind shields a larger, more troubling mysticism. Rarely is there any doubt which client is going to win—or lose—come the primaries; there is no demand for people who might point out those uncanny truths. But the work continues regardless: adhering to the predictable schedules laid out by advisors, interns spend weeks learning just the right way to hold a client’s hand and make sure he dials twenty numbers before lunch. There is always a demand for the consultant, and the consulting intern: a candidate will find you so you can start calling him a client.

 

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Despite having its own yearly awards ceremony (the Pollies), a license for practice (the New York City Lobbyist Registry), and the attention of thousands of ambitious college students (the Ivy League), political consulting lacks a history as well as a cohesive purpose. An obscure advisor to President McKinley was the first political consultant: his only other claim to fame is his potential status as Karl Rove’s personal political role model. (Karl Rove denies it adamantly.)

Nevertheless, consulting constructs an identity founded less on its history than on its characters. The contemporaries of political consultants always seem to remember them fondly: the Pollies are a genial and bipartisan affair where most people leave with a prize, often for tacky videos or cookie-cutter direct mail advertisements. But as the years pass, consultants pass through history anonymously—James Carville, Mark Hanna, Joseph Napolitan—content with having risen from the footnotes of political campaigns to become body paragraphs.

I had never worked on a successful campaign when I answered the call of my first Craigslist ad. Most of the consultants I encountered were hired out of college (Ivy Leagues, or tiny liberal arts schools) with one of two aspirations. Some were like Laura, my most recent sub-boss: independent and so waist-deep in student government campaigns and political rallies that the workplace was an extension of her extracurriculars. Others were like Annie, or Blake—not sure where to go, but smart in all the right ways, good at dressing in business casual and professional enough that they figured they could coast for two years as consultants while getting a masters in something (Public policy? Administration?) before law school.

My new company—the Advance Group—was not really the company I wanted to work for. I wanted to work for a political campaign. I had done it once before and relished the afternoons spent jogging through the streets of Chinatown with flyers, moving up and down the fire escapes of Lower East Side tenements. I acquired six words of Chinese (enough to order dollar dumplings in groups of five) and about as much Spanish, which was more useful when actually campaigning. I hassled old women outside of supermarkets to sign petitions, and commuted two hours a day.

But we lost that campaign. My candidate—a slightly balding thirty-year-old—was not the incumbent, and this meant he was doomed to failure, something my high school sophomore optimism could not fathom until I sat despondently with the other volunteers at a bar and watched Paul tipsily thank all involved. Really, the journey had just begun, he said; this was the first step to reclaiming the Lower East Side and we should all just drink and be merry. L’chayim! One of the volunteers ordered a beer and looked expectantly at his fellow underage drinkers. I left an hour later.

Two years later, I stumbled across the Advance Group on Craigslist. It satisfied what I wanted, which was to have a win under my belt—to know what it felt like to see my candidate achieve a majority percentage on the TV screen. But instead of the feeling of unity I’d hoped for, I found myself with a group of clients who wouldn’t endorse one other, who fought incessantly in the Senate or Assembly. In fact, the only thing they did seem to have in common was that they’d all turned to us to help them with their campaigns. I started to discover  a paradoxical need to not have a win under my belt: the innate ambivalence, the uncertainty, the Republican boss organizing for Democratic candidates.

 

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In an office strewn with messenger bags and bike helmets, the interns sat together in a conference room-cum-kitchen-cum-office. We had rotating shifts and usually two or three weeks of overlapping schedules. When the intern season was at its peak, there might be five or six of us at a table, laptops in front of us, typing up briefings or responses to endorsement questionnaires while trying to avoid the busy phones by appearing busier than we were. Daily, we were sent up and down the green and red lines, to nail salons or campaign offices or union headquarters to pick up checks: always checks, rarely any other form of paperwork.

I saw the Bronx, Bay Ridge, Harlem, the Financial District—some familiar haunts, others only fleeting—through the eyes of a suited intern. I forgot how to be a New Yorker: my skin felt too big for me, my clothes always stuck to the small of my back, I was always carrying too much in my purse. I could still navigate subways. But when I had to walk, I stumbled in heels with dozens of envelopes, copies of ballots, and petitions under my arm as I grabbed lunch on the go. Caught in a rainshower and sprinting through Spanish Harlem to the safety of the 6 train—checks stashed under my suit jacket to keep from the damp—I imagined how much easier it would be to complete the same tasks in jeans and sneakers, sans the button down and faux-leather purse. I slipped five times on my way to work in one summer: the sidewalks around Penn Station are smooth and wide, and my heels almost always lost traction, sending me sprawling into the intersection.

When I wasn’t stumbling my way in and out of subways, I was firmly a creature of the office. Most of the interns—who didn’t share my simultaneous feeling of enthusiasm toward the novelty of the daily tasks and ambivalence about their ultimate purpose—hated the work. For me, dissatisfaction only truly hit when I interacted with my boss, Scott.

Scott was a big presence, the kind that regularly embodied that adjectives that define consulting: loud, rude, demanding, sarcastic, sharp. He got in trouble for voter fraud with ACORN and admitted it on national television; the names and contacts he picked up in state and local races became the company’s primary clients. None of the interns quit because we didn’t interact with Scott enough to care about his brass humor, the way the air conditioner was never thrumming quite loud enough to drown out his shout for his personal assistant, the way our wallets bled money for the Metrocards and dollar-lunches our stipends could not cover because we did not have stipends, the way his son was the only intern in the office being paid despite him never being around the office. We just filed disbursement reports, meticulously, looking at the money we weren’t making.

His personal assistant did quit, though. Mousy, shy, face framed by enormous glasses, Danielle was sent three days in a row to attempt to recover Scott’s impounded Chrysler, sent off with only a paid Metrocard and a bagged lunch. The fourth day she didn’t show up to work, and the fifth day I was told to write my own reference letter, since she wasn’t going to be back.

 

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The more that information is disseminated, and the greater the prevalence of media, the more important consulting becomes. Consulting satisfies our need for expertise—to hear sophisticated explanations for what we already know how to do—but it also reflects the way campaigns are changing. Now consultants sit and update Twitter feeds, create sleek websites from mass-produced templates that interns update daily, discuss strategy that boils down to where to solicit money from and how often. Their college degrees give them an acute sense of how to tell people what they already know. This was the consulting world, from my vantage point: the consultants had an uncanny sense for what was predictable, particularly as it was already happening. That candidates could ignore details so brilliantly and with such flamboyance seemed more than just myopic.

More frustrating was that really, at the root of it, we were still unable to figure out what made a candidate a winner. Once, my boss sat me down in an office with a client running for State Assembly and told me to hand him call sheets. “Just make sure he makes his calls,” said Lauren, his consultant. “He gets distracted.” Two hours later, the candidate—jovial, with a baby face and jerry curls—had completed a grand total of six calls before calling it a day so he could make it to lunch. The stack of call sheets he was meant to get through—at least fifty more—sat on my lap, unmarked.

He went on to win his election. The other candidate whose work I did—he would lose. Tall, a little gangly, with a fluffy and poorly styled haircut, he would lock himself in the office for hours at a time, making dozens of calls in three different languages. His donors included Ed Norton and Matt Damon, but when I called unions, desperate to win their endorsement, they would point out the obvious: he was certainly qualified, but he wasn’t an incumbent. Didn’t have access to the Hispanic base. Laura’s trepidation whenever his future prospects were discussed was obvious: “He’s one of the ones you actually want to win,” she said to me over lunch, a month before he actually lost.

Those were the minds behind the campaigns we managed. The consultants of my office might not run fundraising events, but they were are a constant presence, collecting checks and chatting up donors. Blackberries were a familiar presence, perched on tables within easy reach. I’m pretty sure the Blackberries weren’t company-issue, but boxes of phones sat in the supply closet of the Advance Group, next to standard FedEx folders and extra letterhead. They came with the territory of consulting: unnecessary, for show, potentially useful in a more successful future in which the clients who won weren’t established incumbents. Half a dozen phones lay individually wrapped in boxes, waiting for use.

 

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The only thing consulting does not lack is a paycheck. You won’t see it as an intern, but you’ll keep coming back, thinking it’s waiting for you, hidden in some desk. As such an intern, you might find yourself hired after the following exchange with an associate consultant:

“Well, what do you think you would like to do here?”

“Um, I like politics. I’m really familiar with New York politics.”

That will draw a nod. “What really inspires you?”

“Sorry?”

“All of us in the office, we have something that just—just makes us tick.” He will wave a long arm in the direction of the ceiling, that place where all things that make people tick must come from.

“Oh.”

“Mine is labor relations. Working with unions. Labor-related protests and organizing are just incredibly compelling.” Expect an expectant look.

“I like, um, education. I’m really familiar with education.”

And finally, the telltale beam. “Great! We do some of that. When can you start working? And do you have any questions?”

Happy to be offered a job, you will not think to ask at the time: so what do you actually do? When did you realize that this was what made you tick? But you will quickly become very good at asking other questions, when they sit you down in a conference room and tell you to answer the phones: “Advance Group, how can I direct your call?”