High-stress position, low-key personality
Patrick Gaspard, the White House's political director, keeps it cool and calm

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."

Gaspard is an unlikely political director in other ways. He is not, people close to him said, obsessed with obscure House races, and can tire of endless talk of polling numbers involving distant contests. He began to settle into his role this summer, other advisers said, when the Obama political operation got involved in promoting health-care reform. "We are all campaign hacks," Messina said. "Patrick is a movement guy. He really came up through the movement and the grassroots."

Gaspard is not a household name except in those clipboard-and-canvassing circles, especially in New York, where he served as executive vice president for politics and legislation of the nation's largest local union, 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. He also worked as deputy national field director for Howard Dean, and as the national field director for America Coming Together, the liberal political action group formed by George Soros.

Early in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama invited Gaspard to join his presidential campaign, pleased that the two shared a nontraditional approach to politics and a family history with roots in Africa -- Gaspard was born in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Haitian parents. Gaspard turned Obama down, however, waiting until the general election to accept a position as political director.

'I'm a better political director'

The initial meeting, anyway, became the stuff of legend; it was during that encounter, according to an account in the New Yorker, that Obama told Gaspard: "I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."

Maybe so, but as president, Obama has had to delegate. While the president does keep close watch on campaigns across the country -- and has devoted a substantial chunk of time to fundraising for 2009 and 2010 contests in the last few weeks -- most of the day-to-day decisions about where and when to send the president to conduct politics have been spread among his political staff. And with other major issues consuming the administration -- Afghanistan, for example, has become an increasing focus for the senior staff -- much of the important decision-making on politics has fallen back to Gaspard.

Earlier this year, a special election in New York's 20th Congressional District -- the seat vacated by now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand -- became the first test of the new White House political operation and, in particular, Gaspard. As its resident New York expert, he is credited within the administration for helping work toward the election of a Democrat, Scott Murphy.

The 2009 contests since have been much more difficult, in part because there are so few. The only two gubernatorial elections this year, which will take place on Tuesday, are in Virginia and New Jersey. Virginia appears headed toward a big Republican victory, and New Jersey remains close. The contest for the House seat in New York's 23rd District has been thrown into chaos with the ascent of a conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman, who helped drive Scozzafava out of contention.

A looming test

Tuesday night could bring either triumph or disaster for Democrats. If Democrats lose all three of those races, the postgame analysis will almost certainly be that Obama's national sway has lessened in his first year in office.

But will it reflect poorly on Gaspard?

His colleagues insist it will not, but there are skeptics. Gaspard appears to have found it exceedingly difficult to tear himself away from New York politics. He still reads the New York political blogs and frequently corresponds with local New York reporters about local New York affairs. And while fighting political fires in his own back yard may be necessary for an operative with a national profile, New York elected officials and veteran political operatives have expressed surprise about the degree to which Gaspard has concerned himself with local issues since his departure, given all the national challenges for Democrats. Among other things, Gaspard got involved this year in the race for city comptroller and made rounds of calls to support Bill de Blasio, a close friend of his, in the race for public advocate.

Gaspard was just as involved in such minutiae at the height of the presidential race. In October 2008, as Obama operatives launched a massive national get-out-the-vote operation, Gaspard, then the campaign's national political director, participated in local strategy calls opposing Michael Bloomberg's extension of term limits, according to a person with firsthand knowledge of the calls.

This past September, Gaspard's fingerprints were all over the White House's effort to force Paterson, the first African American governor of New York, to withdraw his bid for reelection. The effort was sanctioned at the highest levels of the administration, but became a public relations nightmare when news of the meeting seeped out -- and Paterson declared he would not quit.

"Patrick is making some difficult political calls that are in many cases sloppy by definition," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). "But the key thing is that most people who are affected by these things breathe a sigh of relief that he's gotten involved."

Other members of the New York congressional delegation spoke more critically. "Throughout the delegation, everyone thought it was amateur hour," one New York House member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the Paterson meeting, adding that the leaked encounter "hurt the president and made it harder for the governor to bow out gracefully."

A senior Obama administration official said Gaspard did not craft the Paterson strategy alone, and that the White House "learned something" from the ensuing debacle, presumably that trying to determine the outcome of a state race comes with great risk. "But in the end, it will work. Paterson's name will not be on the ballot," the official predicted.

Another senior official said that, in fact, Gaspard deserves credit for taking on tough assignments. Getting Paterson off the ticket "was a priority for a lot of folks, and without Patrick, there is no one else who could have tried."

Dr. 'No'

At the end of his first campaign season as political director, Plouffe said, Gaspard has honed one skill in particular: being the bearer of bad news.

"One of his most important jobs is that he's got to say 'no' to a lot of people," Plouffe said. "He has a way of doing it that I think is as pleasant as 'no' can be."

Getting involved in difficult negotiations is "the nature of the job" of political director, Messina said. "But Patrick is able to do a lot of it because people respect and trust him. Not having an agenda is important. People know Patrick is going to mean what he says and say what he means."

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