By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
When Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was elected to his post earlier this year, it marked more than a decade spent working within the party infrastructure -- inside and outside the government -- to elect GOP candidates, a rewarding though not particularly lucrative endeavor.
Mehlman's humble background ruled out the possibility that he would follow the lead of several recent national party committee chairs and not draw a salary. Instead, Mehlman earns roughly $205,000 a year for his service -- the equivalent of what the top Republican leaders in Congress make, according to RNC officials.
It is a salary few would argue he does not earn. Take, for example, a two-week period late last month. In that time, Mehlman traveled 6,000 miles, stopping in at 25 events in five cities; he also participated in seven radio interviews, four television appearances and several dozen chats with local and national newspapers.
Howard Dean, Mehlman's counterpart at the Democratic National Committee, is paid $4,392 biweekly, which adds up to a yearly salary of approximately $114,000. A DNC spokesman said Dean's yearly salary is significantly higher than the public figure, which is his pay after withholdings. Unlike the RNC, the Democrats would not release Dean's exact salary and would say only that it is commensurate with what the senior staff at the committee earns.
"There are lots of things [Dean] could do in the private sector where he could make a whole lot more money than he does now," the spokesman said.
How much (or little) chairmen are paid for their services, which include trolling the country for campaign cash, speaking at party functions and moving the message of the moment on the airwaves, remains entirely subjective and -- at times -- controversial.
When former Montana governor Marc Racicot emerged as the preferred candidate to head the RNC in late 2001, he said he would not accept a salary but would instead work to build his lobbying portfolio through his affiliation with Bracewell & Patterson, a shop with considerable clout in Washington.
Racicot said at the time he simply could not afford to give up his lucrative lobbying clients after spending much of the past few decades in public office. "The chairman is not a government employee," he told The Post. "I'm going to be involved in the political activities of our nation as a volunteer."
Democrats -- and some Republicans -- took umbrage at Racicot's decision, arguing that there was an inherent conflict of interest when the chief fundraiser for the national party was also aggressively pursuing clients for his lobbying work on the side. Less than a month later, Racicot announced he would forgo accepting lobbying clients, though he still maintained his status as an employee of Bracewell & Patterson. He called the process "a learning experience." Racicot is now head of the American Insurance Association.
Terence R. McAuliffe, who headed the DNC from 2001 through early this year, never accepted a salary -- the only chairman of either national party to do so, he maintains.
McAuliffe explains his decision with an anecdote. The DNC staff would often bring returned direct-mail pitches to the chairman's office with "crumpled-up dollar bills" from senior citizens giving what they could, he recalls. "I wasn't going to have these old ladies paying my salary," McAuliffe adds. Left unsaid is that he came to the DNC post already a multimillionaire; he made stacks of cash in the early 1990s as one of the chief fundraisers for President Bill Clinton, among others.
Typically, the individuals selected to lead the party committees have, like McAuliffe, already accumulated significant assets. For many, it is a career capper when money is no longer an issue and political influence becomes the currency they most value. A list of recent party chairmen reads like a who's who of Washington elite: uber-lobbyist Haley Barbour, now the Republican governor of Mississippi; Ron Brown, who was Clinton's first-term commerce secretary; lawyer Charles Manatt (DNC); and American Gaming Association President Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. (RNC).
Even the more youthful Ed Gillespie, now 44, who led the RNC from mid-2003 until Mehlman took over, had his lucrative partnership in Quinn Gillespie -- one of the up-and-coming lobbying firms in the city -- waiting when he left the chairman's office. (Gillespie has rejoined his firm, while also serving as a strategist in the campaign to confirm Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Mehlman's yeoman-like work on behalf of Republican candidates -- including his stewardship of President Bush's 2004 reelection effort -- has not left him with the financial firepower of his predecessors, RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said. "The bottom line is that Chairman Mehlman is someone who does not have an outside income. He is a full-time chairman and is paid a full-time salary," she said.
Dean, on the other hand, comes from a background of considerable means. His father and grandfather were Wall Street executives, and he grew up in comfort on Manhattan and Long Island. Dean and his wife, Judith, are doctors, though he has not actively practiced since assuming the governorship of Vermont in the summer of 1991.
Even so, a DNC spokesman said that Dean's decision to draw a salary is the result of his having two children in college. "He is still someone who needs to provide for his family," the aide said. "No one has said anything, and I don't think he was concerned anyone would."
Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com. The Fix, his political column, can be found daily at www.washingtonpost.com/thefix.