Democratic operative Steve Hildebrand goes rogue

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

On a recent afternoon in his exposed-brick office, Steve Hildebrand coolly explains why his latest target is the woman down the hall.

"She voted against health care because she thought it was bad politically," Hildebrand says, referring to South Dakota's Democratic congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, whose office is located on the other side of the Coke machine in a four-story brick building near the Big Sioux River.

Over the past year, Hildebrand, the soft-spoken deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, has repeatedly raised his voice to rebuke Democratic leaders, including the president, for compromising on the principles and promises that got them elected. When he speaks up, the national media come running, eager to portray his spirited critiques as dissension within the Obama ranks.

But in the Obama universe, Hildebrand is a volatile element.

"I'm definitely stabilized," says Hildebrand, who at 47 sports a graying goatee, light stonewashed jeans and a black polo shirt stretched over his belly. "But I'm not over depression."

A progressive true believer who rose to national prominence as the political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, campaign manager for Tom Daschle and the architect of Obama's fearsome ground game, Hildebrand has for years suffered from the debilitating disorder. As Hildebrand shuttles his dog, Cooper, around town, he speaks openly, and at times painfully, about his low moments: The months spent staring blankly at computer screens during the 2008 primary battle, his cycle of resignation and rehiring from the campaign, his caustic e-mails to Hillary Clinton staffers, his unshakable torpor during the general election. Since Obama took office, Hildebrand thinks he has snapped out of it; with his newfound energy, he expresses "disdain for the officials in my own party" and acts as "a progressive voice from the outside."

Obama officials -- mindful that the Hildebrand Strategies Web site promotes the consultant's connection to the president -- see Hildebrand's new phase differently and dismiss his admonishments as the ravings of a sick man.

"You get the good Steve and the bad Steve. When Steve is healthy, he's a world-class operative. And when he's not, things get pretty crazy," says a White House official, who would only speak about a former colleague anonymously. The official, who acknowledges that Hildebrand has never requested to join the White House, adds that given his behavior, "it's tough to see a role internally for Steve."

Into the fray

Hildebrand owns a gray three-bedroom house on a residential stretch of Sioux Falls' main drag with Mike Pierce, his partner of 17 years. On a recent Tuesday, an American flag hangs over the porch, and a spruce wrapped in Christmas lights stands in the front lawn. A repairman works on the vents in the 106-year-old house's renovated kitchen, where Hildebrand likes to make risotto and where Pierce, 57, keeps a collection of salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of Santa Claus heads and snowmen. Hildebrand opens the door to drop off Cooper, who immediately jumps over Ann Basche, an 80-year-old neighbor who looks after the dog when Hildebrand's at work.

"I'm the nanny," she says.

Hildebrand owns and rents out two of the surrounding houses, and grows tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, strawberries and raspberries in the combined garden. He and Pierce bottle 150 jars of their own salsa a year.

A photo of Obama by the front door is signed: "To Steve, I wouldn't be here without you!" and hangs above a portrait of the Hildebrand clan beside Lake Superior. Above the stairs are signed photos of Hildebrand shaking Al Gore's hand ("This is when Gore hired me to run the Iowa caucuses," he points out). In the bedroom, wooden block letters on one dresser spell out "Relax."

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