By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009; C01
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."
Mandy Grunwald, a veteran campaign consultant and longtime Franken intimate, calls Schriock "spectacular . . . one of the best campaign managers I've ever worked with, and I've been doing this a long time." But what has clinched the current acclaim for Schriock is her planning for something few campaign pros have had to plan for: Weeks before Election Day, Schriock sensed that the vote could be close and drew up a road map for a recount.
She trained some 2,000 volunteers to bird-dog the state canvassers in every jurisdiction as officials hand-sorted nearly 3 million ballots. Schriock marshaled hundreds of attorneys, turning party headquarters into a law firm. Field staffers who had been door-knocking for Franken became paralegals prepping his legal exhibits.
"She ran the decathlon," Schumer says of those miserable Minnesota months. For Schriock, though, the most dreadful part was shedding staffers near the holidays, when money got tighter and the prospects got dicier. "Every week was a week when we were just laying people off," she says quietly.
Now, after guiding Franken through a tumultuous race and recount, Schriock is the talk of Democrats back in Washington, who speak of her in almost heroic terms. Schumer calls her "a saint," crowing about the party's 60th seat and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
"Stephanie's one of the absolute stars of American politics now," says White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, who's spent years in Montana and predicts that Franken's campaign will make new opportunities for "my girl," as he chummily calls her. "She has gotten to the place where she has a full-court game."
Schriock got her first taste of politics growing up in Butte, Mont., a multiethnic copper-mining town with a mighty union, and a boisterous Democratic haven rising in a vast conservative terrain. In the 1980s, after a long strike, the mine shut down and hundreds of jobs disappeared.
"At that moment, I knew that at some level, in some way, I've got to be involved in politics," Schriock says. "You just realized that your livelihood could change in a split second and you don't have any control over it unless you organize and you come together."
So she got involved. At Butte High School, she ran several times for class president -- "there might have been some lollipops involved," she jokes -- but to no avail. Then she made her move in a run for student body president and won. After graduating from Minnesota State University in Mankato with a degree in public administration and business, Schriock got hooked on campaigns, later landing a finance job at the DSCC and a stint as chief fundraiser in Howard Dean's innovative, Web-savvy presidential run.
But in politics, where some staffers have a sense of self that rivals the candidate's, Schriock is the selfless if not egoless conductor behind the scenes making sure the trains run on time and to the right stations, former colleagues say. She is both feared and loved by her subordinates.
"She inspires people to work hard and do well, but people are also terrified of not succeeding," says Matt McKenna, Tester's campaign spokesman.
On the Franken campaign, Schriock talked shop each evening with the candidate before they called it a night, forming a bond that kept Franken's spirits high. The two, even as they now part professionally, display an intimacy forged in difficult moments that they now, of course, can laugh about. They toss back and forth some details of the night Franni Franken, who hails Schriock as "a warrior and a goddess," nervously and repeatedly asked her husband and his top aide whether the votes coming in were landing in their column. "What's going on?" she kept asking the campaign manager. "Are we gonna win?"
"It's really close," the methodical Schriock says she told the candidate's wife. "Very, very, very close."
Al Franken trusted Schriock not just to soothe his spouse but to call shots in his own political game, comparing her to longtime Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. "She's like a coach who makes you a better person," Franken says. "It's like, 'I don't build athletes; I build human beings.' You know?"