With cancer under control, Jesse Ferguson keeps message under control, too


Jesse Ferguson is shown on Friday in the House chamber of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, where he started his career. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)
January 28

Jesse Ferguson was having a busy week. On Dec. 17 two Republican lawmakers and one Democrat announced their plans to retire. Each seat was up for grabs. For Ferguson, the mouthpiece of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, this is what he lives for.

Controlling the message meant sending out tweets, working on press releases and answering queries from national news outlets. At some point in the midst of the news cycle, medical personnel wheeled Ferguson into an operating room, sliced open his throat, removed his parotid gland and lymph nodes, stitched him up and returned him to his Blackberry, iPad and computer in a private room at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I’ve gotten really good at typing with an IV stuck in my hand,” Ferguson said.

At first blush, critics of Washington, D.C., would be hard-pressed to find a better person to personify their problems with the nation’s capitol. He is part of a cadre of government staffers whose nickname, when said with spittle flying off the lower lip, sounds like a violent curse word: flack. In a town constantly worried about spinning talking points and issuing sound bites, flacks are the professional trolls at the heart of the operation.

But don’t tell Ferguson, who plans to return to work full-time this week, that his job is superficial. Flacking got him through cancer.

Ferguson, 33, came to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2010 election cycle. Working as the press secretary covering the Southern region of the country, he was part of a team that watched the Democrats suffer their worst congressional defeat since 1938. Still, Ferguson got promoted. Democrats had a better 2012, but fell far short of their goal of re-capturing the House of Representatives. Ferguson got promoted again, this time to communications director and deputy executive director. The odds of winning the House never looked great for the 2014 cycle, but Ferguson refused to see Sisyphus when he looked in the mirror at the start of last year. What he did see, however, was a lump on the left side of his throat.

Thinking it was just irregular weight gain — Ferguson has struggled with the regular variety most of his life — he grew a beard and tried to pretend it wasn’t there. After his mother noticed and demanded he have it checked out, doctors stuck a needle into the mass in his neck and pulled out some bad news: he had a tumor. An advanced and aggressive salivary duct carcinoma, to be specific. A rare, possibly deadly cancer to be clear.

He got the news May 21, called his parents from outside of the hospital, wept and “made a scene” out on the street. Then, he went back to work.

“This is a theme you’ll get throughout talking to me, work was a good point of focus, a good distraction,” he said last week in an interview at his childhood home in Richmond, where he has spent a great deal of the past year recovering. Radiation, chemotherapy and two surgeries have left him with sunken eyes, fresh scars and a neck wattle that has been hollowed out on the left side. But he can still pitch a theme. “At 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night there was nothing I could do to cure cancer. But at 8 p.m. on that Wednesday night there was something I could do to help get potential candidates to run.”

Ferguson likes to say that he can talk in quotes or intentionally avoid speaking in quotes. He likes to be in control. When pitching stories, he looks at the potential upside (heroic tale of overcoming hardship) and tries to anticipate potential lines of attack. His own story felt well fortified. “If I have enemies,” he said, “I doubt they’d say anything bad in a story about my cancer. That would take real [guts].”

Before telling almost anyone else, Ferguson told his boss, Kelly Ward, executive director of the DCCC. Ward says she expected something when Ferguson had gotten tired during a four-hour planning meeting just a few days earlier. That never happens, she said. But standing on her roof with him, the news hit her hard.

“Your job for the next few months is to fight cancer,” she told him through tears.

Physically, Ferguson couldn’t be around nearly as much. He and his family had opted to get treatment 1,500 miles away at MD Anderson, one of the premier cancer centers in the country. But with the help of modern technology, Ferguson managed to stay plugged in.

“He never missed a beat,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the DCCC. Israel said that throughout treatment, Ferguson and he exchanged e-mails as late as 2 a.m. “He did not permit me the luxury of leaving him alone. He eats and breathes and sleeps this job.”

Of course his boss is going to say this. Why wouldn’t the chairman of the DCCC lionize his own team? But he’s not the only one.

“You’d never know he was gone,” his counterpart at the National Republican Campaign Committee, Andrea Bozek said. “He was still the same 100 percent pain in the a--.”

As if to prove this true, Ferguson fired off e-mails to me, letting it be known that he knew when people were talking about him. “My ears were burning as you talked to people about me so the flack instinct in me wanted to check in,” he wrote in one e-mail. “Heard today you’ve been calling ALL my bosses btw,” he said in another.

This is my world, he seemed to say, and I’m the omniscient narrator. In fact, just hours after an interview in Richmond, Ferguson sent six e-mails with suggestions for the story, including reminders of themes discussed and ideas for how to quantify how much work he had done during treatment. Sure, there were times he was offline, like during radiation when his head was completely wrapped in bandages. But it seemed like he was always available for comment.

“I get e-mails from him at midnight, talking about a story, spinning something,” said John Bresnahan of Politico. “And I’ll be like, ‘Dude what are you doing? You’re supposed to be getting chemo, or radiation or getting better.’ ”

But for Ferguson, this was getting better. For getting cancer would require everything from the flack toolkit. And it wouldn’t be enough to just try and spin it away.

“It’s just your cells growing fast; what’s wrong with being fast?” Ferguson said, his words running out of his mouth and tripping over a cackle. “Fast means that you’re moving, you’re being aggressive. . . . No, even I can’t spin cancer. I can come up with a couple of points, but they’d fall apart pretty quick.”

Shortly after being diagnosed, Ferguson said he grew tired of “pitching” his friends, family and colleagues about his cancer. So he started keeping a blog on his progress — leaving in what he wanted and keeping out what he didn’t want others to know. After his first post he received 1,000 e-mails from well-wishers.

Next, he needed to make sure he had the sound bites. When people asked him how he was doing, he needed the perfect response. “Not loving it but surviving” sounded too depressing, “Hanging in there” wouldn’t let people know if he was actually getting better, and “I’m doing great” would be a lie. He decided he’d respond via e-mail: “I’m really doing ok.* *Some conditions and restrictions may apply.”

And in person, when people would tell him it was good to see him, Ferguson had internally poll tested the perfect response: “It’s good to be seen,” he’d say.

This week, eight months after being diagnosed, Ferguson returns to the job he never really left, this time with no sign of the cancerous cells that threatened his life.

He’ll still be the first one into the office and the last one to leave. But did the brush with death make him rethink these decisions? At work his coworkers adore him, and even the reporters who have to deal with him professionally can’t help but think of him as a friend. (“I talk to him more than some of my immediate family members,” said USA Today’s chief congressional reporter Susan Davis.) But a job like this makes it tough to have a family or even a girlfriend.

“It’s given me perspective on health-life balance, not work-life balance,” he said. “If I got up in the middle of the night uncomfortable from radiation, I’d much rather roll over and check my e-mail and respond to thoughts on a poll than roll over and stare at a wall to think about how uncomfortable my throat felt.”

No matter how far away he was physically, work always situated Ferguson in the outside world. No matter how lonely and isolating chemo and radiation can be, there was always that BlackBerry with a blinking red light telling him people wanted his response. Even in a dark and empty room in MD Anderson, it was good to be seen.

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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