Patrick Gaspard: President Obama's low-key political director

By Anne E. Kornblut and Jason Horowitz
Monday, November 2, 2009

During the past year, Patrick Gaspard, the low-profile White House political director, kept showing up in the middle of high-profile predicaments.

It was Gaspard who in September confronted Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.) and discouraged him from running for office again in 2010. News of the meeting leaked, causing an uproar in the New York political establishment -- and discomfort for President Obama when he visited the state a few days later.

Gaspard led the effort to persuade a recalcitrant Doug Wilder to support R. Creigh Deeds in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race -- spending two hours with the former Virginia governor but failing to get his assent, in the midst of a campaign that has been dismal for Democrats.

And when Republicans began targeting White House staff members for criticism, Gaspard, a proven grassroots organizer, made the list -- unfairly, administration officials were quick to note -- because of his alleged ties to the embattled community organizing group ACORN.

Throughout, Gaspard, a writer of poetry and reader of Russian literature, has maintained an even temper and dry wit that have earned him the admiration of peers in Obama's inner circle. They describe the 42-year-old operative as persevering in an impossible role: White House political director in a building full of political heavies -- chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (former chairman of a campaign committee with virtually every House Democrat on speed dial), deputy chief of staff Jim Messina (former chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus of Montana with extensive ties to Capitol Hill), senior adviser David Axelrod (a longtime political operative who has run campaigns across the country) and senior adviser Pete Rouse (former chief of staff to then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, so politically plugged in that he is nicknamed the "101st senator").

Surrounded by so many other political hands, Gaspard has found his niche as the clearinghouse for information, the liaison to Democratic campaigns and the gateway to the grassroots and labor organizations where he got his political start. While even his allies acknowledged that his first few months at the White House were rocky, they said, in interviews, that Gaspard has adapted the job to suit his strengths.

A new model

Rather than follow the wide-reaching model of some of his predecessors -- Ken Mehlman, who would go on to chair the Republican National Committee, had the job early in the Bush administration, running the administration's politics alongside Karl Rove -- Gaspard has gone the opposite route, rarely giving media interviews, looking for substantive policy openings where the political office can be helpful and closely coordinating with the rest of the in-house experts.

"The political director, I think, really focuses as a coordinator for all these strong personalities," said Messina, who is inarguably one of those strong personalities. "Patrick has a personality that is such that everyone likes him and respects him. He's one of the most grounded people I've ever met."

Over the last few days, Gaspard has also had a quiet hand in some of the good news to come Democrats' way.

Steeped in New York politics, he played a pivotal role in the effort over the weekend to persuade Republican State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to endorse the Democratic candidate in the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, two senior White House officials said Sunday. One senior official added that Gaspard was the "air traffic controller" of multiple parties as events in the district unfolded. Scozzafava, a rare Republican who who supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights, endorsed Bill Owens rather than the Conservative Party candidate two days ahead of Election Day, a major victory for Democrats in arguably the most closely watched contest in the country.

But Gaspard is the last person to boast about his efforts and the first to bestow credit to larger personalities. He tends to talk through larger-than-life figures -- he's an avid comic-book collector. He declined interview requests for this article -- and would not address questions put to him by e-mail on Sunday asking about his role in the NY-23 race -- in what his allies said was a trademark style that stands in contrast to the frequent aggressiveness of his West Wing peers.

Asked about how Gaspard fits in amid the high-testosterone level of the Obama White House, David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager and a strong advocate of Gaspard's, laughed. "You need a balance, right? You have the testosterone, and then you have someone like him," Plouffe replied. "He's got a great dry and ironic sense of humor. He's the kind of guy who's very calm even during a crisis. He doesn't go off the handle -- and provides a good balance there. He's very Obamalike in that regard."

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