The juice: Russ Sullivan, top aide to Sen. Max Baucus

Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

Russ Sullivan isn't a senator. He just emulates one.

In an era in which the proverbial trusted aide has come to be known as a politician's Mini-Me, Sullivan, the top aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), may take the prize.

"I would love to be characterized as a mini-Baucus," Sullivan admits. "I'm doing my absolute dead-level best to think as much like him and become as much like him as I can. That's what I want to do."

It would be difficult to out-Mini-Me Sullivan. When Baucus made him staff director in 2004, the senator told Sullivan he'd need to travel to Montana at least six times a year to "get to know and understand my bosses," Sullivan recalled Baucus saying.

Sullivan, who is from Arkansas and had never lived in Montana, has developed such a loyalty to his boss's bosses -- otherwise known as Montana voters -- that he turned his luxurious staff director's office into "the Montana Room." A beautifully carved wooden "Montana" sign hangs above a large office window, and the walls are adorned with Larry Zabel paintings of Native Americans and cowboys, and breathtaking Big Sky scenery.

But the room's desk is unoccupied. At 49, Sullivan chucked his upscale digs for a cramped cubby in the main Finance Committee office alongside 20-somethings who answer the phones. This is part of Sullivan's humble core, which masks his tremendous influence throughout the Senate, and along K Street.

"Russ is in a league of his own," says Michaela Sims, a tax lobbyist and former aide to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a moderate who played a pivotal role in the 2001 tax-cut negotiations, which Sullivan brokered on behalf of Baucus.

Senators rushed to heap praise on the Senate's top Democratic tax staffer, who played a central role in hammering out the details of last year's landmark health-care legislation and in cajoling enough moderates to support the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Sullivan a "problem-solver who has been instrumental in completing our agenda from health-care reform to tax cuts for middle-class families."

"We could not do our job without him," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a member of the Finance Committee who described Sullivan as an "enabler" for Baucus.

Committee member Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) called him simply "a jewel."

Still, some Democratic aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about a colleague, criticized Sullivan for, like his boss, ignoring liberal interests and tacking to the right. (Sullivan admits: "I spend more time with the Republican moderates.")

Russell Sullivan decided to leave Arkansas on the advice of a young partner at the law firm in Little Rock where he worked as a summer associate in the 1980s. Her name was Hillary Clinton. "She was awesome," Sullivan said. (The former first lady, former senator, one-time presidential candidate and now secretary of state obviously took her own advice.)

Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel during the Clinton administration who later committed suicide, was Sullivan's mentor at the Rose Law Firm.

Despite his embracing of all things Baucus and Montana, Sullivan has stayed true to his Arkansas heritage and his Southern Baptist roots. He is a devout Christian with a zero-tolerance policy on cursing, which can be challenging for certain senators (his boss included).

He occasionally serves as a guest preacher at his church in Clarendon and is considering getting ordained as a Baptist minister. (Sullivan likes to sing and is known for his witty tax presentations at staff meetings, and for an uncanny ability to translate arcane tax code into plain English.)

Single, with no biological children, Sullivan is also a foster parent. He has cared for 12 underprivileged teenage boys and young men; four of them, between the ages of 18 and 19, currently live with him.

Sullivan said he chooses to foster disadvantaged kids because "every child deserves a caring adult to love him or her unconditionally. It is in the security of that unconditional love from which the child listens, trust develops, and wisdom is transferred."

His community service and foster parenting, he said, have better prepared him to "serve the Finance Committee on issues such as health care, welfare, education, finance and low- and middle-income tax matters."

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