Profile of Stephanie Schriock, campaign adviser to Sen. Al Franken
Monday, July 13, 2009
Last summer, Stephanie Schriock took leave from her Capitol Hill job and drove her Toyota hybrid westward toward Minneapolis. In her car was packed a wood-framed 5-by-7 photo of a burly, flattopped man in a gray pickup -- Montana's Jon Tester, the organic farmer-butcher whom she helped hurtle to the U.S. Senate and had been serving as chief of staff. She was en route to jump-start another unlikely political career, that of a curly-topped, bespectacled professional jokester named Al Franken.
The famous comedian was lagging in the polls with six months till Election Day. But the faltering candidate and his new campaign manager were able to fix the serious problems in making him into serious candidate by bonding over humor; they simply got each other.
A little more than a year later, the newly revered operative and the newly seated senator are still sharing laughs, in his new Hart Building office, recounting their improbable journey. The junior-most of all 100 senators -- and lowest-ranking member of the judiciary panel -- paces around his brown-carpeted, empty-walled new digs, grousing about the last-pick furniture left to him. Could he have made it without Schriock? His conclusion: "No way."
No way would he have successfully convinced voters that he was fit to serve. No way would he have come within a few hundred votes of defeating a popular incumbent, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), triggering a painstaking automatic recount. No way would he have prevailed in a mind-numbing legal marathon that left Minnesota without a second senator for 245 days, until Franken was sworn in last Tuesday.
"She's a great manager, a great strategist and someone who really knows how to knit an organization together," Franken says of the 36-year-old Schriock, who has returned to Tester's employ but is enjoying some reminiscences with Minnesota's new junior senator. Franken's statements are entirely sincere, if uncharacteristically dry -- part of his quest to be Serious. But cackles are still filling the room -- his louder than hers -- as the two look back at recount low points and how this towering Big Sky native has all the energy and savvy of a sideline-shouting basketball coach.
When Schriock arrived in Minneapolis, the campaign was no laughing matter. Down in the polls, Franken was struggling to overcome questions about his unpaid taxes and some old jokes that had offended women. He couldn't seem to convince Minnesotans that a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and goofball actor could really become a statesman. Voters who were once open to unconventional candidates like the late senator Paul Wellstone and onetime governor Jesse Ventura were balking at any potential silly factor in serious times.
In Washington, Democrats hoping to knock off Coleman knew they had to send Franken some help -- and fast. So Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who ran the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, staged a kind of political intervention. Schriock had shown in 2006 that she could not only help bounce a GOP incumbent but also send to Washington a senator who, as Tester's cheeky ads boasted, would never look like the 99 others.
What Franken's young staffers brought in energy they lacked in experience, and they responded quickly to Schriock's frenetic, fearless leadership. Schriock remapped the Team Franken headquarters -- and the race itself. "Right away, there were like -- 'Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!' -- moves she made that we went: 'Of coouuurrse!' " Franken says in a gravelly accent that doesn't hide the decades he spent as a New Yorker. "Like moving the communications staff and research people into [the same] room as opposed to having them have separate offices. I mean, it was like crazy that we hadn't done that. . . . We went, 'Ohhhh, I get it. We're kind of dumb.' "
Upon her arrival, Schriock immediately rearranged the staffers' desks into a bullpen, refined job descriptions and, crucially, hired more staff -- the payroll more than tripled. She convened 7:30 a.m. conference calls to hash out a message for each day. She raked in new funds -- first, $20 million for the campaign and, later, another $10 million for the recount. And she redirected the public discussion away from Franken's qualifications and toward Coleman's record in Washington.
Schriock also personally channeled the tight-focus, let-loose spirit of the candidate. No matter how much pressure she was under, staffers say, she was always cracking up. "I love to laugh," Schriock says, recalling the frenzied campaign while still toggling between an in-person interview and a flurry of BlackBerry exchanges. "Al was the same way. We were going to work really, really hard, and we were going to laugh at ourselves when things get a little crazy and pop some jokes here and there."
In breaks away from the bullpen, Schriock hung out with Franken's wife, Franni, sharing brownie sundaes and tiramisu at Minneapolis restaurants. In the campaign's closing days, Franni made a daring and highly personal call: She wanted to film a commercial talking into the camera about how her husband stood by her side through her battle with alcohol dependency. Schriock thought hard about whether to release the 60-second spot, she recalls, but went for it. The visceral ad captured voters' attention, and added an unseen dimension to a known performer.
"It was unbelievably brave," Schriock says of the video confessional. "That moment was the first time we actually started moving ahead."