Chuck Thies, Gray campaign manager, takes scorched-earth approach to D.C. mayoral race


Chuck Thies, manager for Democratic Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s reelection campaign, sits as Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) announces his endorsement of Gray at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on March 19. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
March 22, 2014

Contrary to popular belief, Chuck Thies does not believe that winning is everything.

“Winning is not the objective of this campaign,” says the man whom Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has entrusted to win him a second term. “The objective of the campaign is governing.”

As he holds forth, the 49-year-old consultant is driving a rented minivan across middle-class Northeast Washington, past scores of tidy homes filled with voters who overwhelmingly supported Gray four years ago and who now support him a lot less.

His point — a campaign shouldn’t make it hard for the candidate to do the job he’s vying for — is an obvious critique of the last Gray campaign, the scandal-ridden effort that has dogged the mayor since his earliest months in office and now threatens more than ever to end his career.

Forgive Thies, however, if it sometimes appears that he’s not taking his own advice.

He is presiding over a campaign unlike most others in recent D.C. political history, distinct in its aggression toward Gray’s critics, his Democratic opponents and, especially, the news media. He revels in playing the bad cop, the hatchet man, the mayor’s manic bulldog — a persona expressed in the campaign’s strategy, its communications and Thies’s Twitter account.

When federal prosecutors unveiled allegations that Gray knew of secret funds being spent on his behalf by city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson, Thies’s bluster didn’t abate — it surged.

His favorite words these days are “innuendo” and “smear campaign,” which is how he invariably describes the allegations leveled by Thompson. He has suggested that prosecutors produced a “made-for-Twitter zinger” meant to embarrass the mayor when they revealed that Gray referred to Thompson as “Uncle Earl.” When a reporter for The Washington Post mistakenly broke a news embargo last week, Thies tweeted gleefully about telling him off: “I ended the call with ‘F--- You.’ ”

The bellowing comes with a wink and a nod. His perception of politics — honed in big-city campaigns, national and international advocacy work and a working-class upbringing — does not involve having a long memory.

“Campaigning is like two professional boxers, and the key word is professional,” Thies says. “You try to beat the hell out of each other for 15 rounds, and when it’s all said and done, the bell rings, someone wins, you shake hands, and you say, ‘Hey, let’s do it again sometime.’ ”

Thies’s many roles

That the political future of a 71-year-old native Washingtonian lies in the hands of a native of the New Jersey Pine Barrens with a fondness for the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd is a product of circumstance.

Gray was faced with a quandary as he pondered a reelection bid. His core campaign advisers from 2010 had either pleaded guilty to federal crimes or were tainted by association.

Thies had been on the outside of Gray’s first mayoral campaign, working his way back into local politics after spending nearly three years with the Save Darfur coalition. He was among the first to raise alarms about former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s vulnerability, and he informally advised Gray on how to take advantage.

Around that time, after spending two decades flitting between campaigns in the District and New York, planning international meetings for the World Bank and occasionally doing construction work, Thies made himself into a media personality.

He parlayed his campaign work for D.C. Council members into frequent quotes in local blogs and newspapers, and, later, into a radio show on WPFW-FM and a column for WRC-TV’s Web site, where he frequently wrote in praise of Gray. As the campaign scandal erupted, Thies argued that Gray was the unwitting victim of unscrupulous and self-interested operatives and was being persecuted by a biased media.

When Gray decided in November to launch a reelection campaign and asked Thies to run it, Thies quit his column (“Run, Vince, run,” read one of his last) and jumped in.

Thies wears many hats in his role as campaign manager: signature-gatherer, campaign treasurer, news-release writer, photographer. On a recent Saturday, it was Thies heading to a Brookland car rental office to pick up a van. He made a supply run to Costco for muffins, York Peppermint Patties and bags of coffee for campaign workers. He ferried stacks of yard signs from the garage behind his red-brick home in Northeast Washington to campaign headquarters — better to ration the signs, he says, than let volunteers hoard them.

And Thies talks to the media — or, rather, does battle with it. A sampling: He accused WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood of “journalistic malpractice” after he blocked the mayor’s path when he tried to leave a January event. Last week, after WUSA-TV’s Russ Ptacek reported on an audit of the 2010 campaign, he suggested that Ptacek was better suited to “covering health-code violations at strip joints.”

But his most biting comments have been reserved for The Post, in which a string of opinion pieces have advocated against Gray’s reelection. Recently, Thies told National Journal, “If Vince Gray cured cancer, The Washington Post would come out in favor of cancer.”

Aggressive tactics

Douglass Sloan, a local political consultant who is friendly with Thies, says the aggression allows Gray to remain above the fray. “You have to have a hatchet man,” Sloan said. “You need someone like a Chuck Thies there. You really do.”

Other fellow travelers don’t know what to make of him. His willingness to burn any bridge and deploy any tactic or strategy makes him unpredictable, they say. Dangerous, even. A mercenary.

“His methods, his quotes can be unconventional,” said Sean Tenner, a Chicago-based consultant who has worked with Thies on D.C. voting-rights advocacy and council campaigns. “But there’s nobody I’d rather have on my side than Chuck.”

Thies insists that he has rules. He will not work for a candidate who is against abortion rights or “full equality, period.” Nor will he work for anyone “who is going to be a train wreck in office,” he says. And he says he is a stickler for campaign laws.

Ask him about more deeply held beliefs and not much is on offer. “I believe in Bigfoot,” Thies says. In recent years, he has built a business advising the wealthy on how best to spend their money on their favored causes. He does not discuss his clients except to say they are “global.”

Although he works for Democrats, his tweets reveals little patience for self-described “progressives” or the party’s initiatives, including the new health-care law. On Twitter, he mocks those he deems self-aggrandizing (such as former D.C. Council chairman Kwame R. Brown) and pumps up those he deems noble underdogs (such as candidate and pro-marijuana attorney Paul Zukerberg).

His sense of outrage is sometimes deployed on his campaign rivals’ behalf. When a Post profile of D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) mentioned the candidate’s “pallid white skin,” Thies tweeted his shock. When council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) called fellow candidate Andy Shallal a “rich socialist,” Thies accused her of “tea party rhetoric.”

Occasionally, his aggression has backfired.

When the Current newspaper group endorsed Gray this month, a Thies-penned news release praised the paper in fulsome terms, saying it had its “finger on the pulse of our communities.” When the paper withdrew its endorsement in light of Thompson’s claims, Thies was left to deal in ad hominems, saying the paper “traded in its spine for a wet noodle.”

A comprehensive strategy

The blustery quotes, Thies insists, represent only the most obvious facet of a cutting-edge campaign strategy that involves micro-targeting Gray voters using not only voting records, but also demographic and marketing data. Fall outside the campaign’s “universe” of likely or persuadable voters? “You’re dead to us,” he says.

The analytics are welded to a decidedly old-school apparatus. Several times over the course of five hours, Thies takes calls from council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a former mayor who has not been shy about lending campaign advice — in this case, how to handle the first days of early voting. And as Thies checks in at headquarters, a caravan of vehicles filled with Gray supporters pulls into the parking lot after plying Ward 5’s streets — perhaps the oldest-school move in D.C. politicking.

Thies is happy to share one part of the Gray reelection strategy: “Every campaign needs a foil,” he says, and this time, it’s the media.

He has long cultivated relationships with local and national reporters, talking shop and trading tips, often over beers at his favorite downtown watering hole, the Black Rooster Pub. Now he is glad to tell them not only what the strategy is, but also that they are the strategy.

“It’s part of the strategy,” he says. “It’s like meta times meta. It’s like splitting an atom. Once it starts, it can’t stop.”

There is a YouTube clip that Thies pulls up from time to time, a scene from the 1971 cult classic “Billy Jack.” The titular hero — sort of a half-Gary Cooper, half-Peter Fonda — strolls through the town square, where he is confronted by a racist sheriff and his gang of thugs. Thies can recite the hero’s lines nearly verbatim: “I’m going to take this right foot, and I’m gonna wop you on that side of your face — and you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it.”

Billy Jack wops away, as promised, and the sheriff crumples.

“And then, of course,” Thies says, “the mob just beats the crap out of him.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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