From the Ground Up
By Kevin Merida
“All of our letterhead has been used up on thank-you notes,” says Johnson. “And we’re completely out of T-shirts.”
For five months this 37-year-old Frank Sinatra fanatic with short blond hair and a sandpaper voice was managing a presidential campaign. Now she is managing the dismantling of a presidential campaign. Specifically, John Kasich’s campaign, which technically never became a campaign but rather was an “exploratory committee,” which allowed the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee to raise money and travel and give speeches as though he were running for president, which he was for a minute. So we’ll call it a campaign.
In the race on Feb. 15, out on July 14. That’s when Kasich surrendered.
“The hardest part was telling the staff,” says Johnson, a former Republican National Committee hand who became an admirer of the Ohio congressman’s speechmaking ability while traveling the country teaching GOP candidates how to run campaigns. “Everyone who worked for John was emotionally involved.”
As it happens, several of the emotionally involved are here this morning. Here is the Fairchild Building on South Capitol Street, second floor, around the corner in the back, a cluster of offices to which no signs point the way. The signs have been taken down. Visitors must figure out where Suite 2000 is on their own, and it ain’t easy. But if you make it here, you will discover that Kasich’s campaign headquarters is still up and running, and upon entering you will discover an autographed baseball sitting on a table by the door, a baseball signed by pitching legend Bob Feller, who once played for the Cleveland Indians and who has autographed other baseballs for John Kasich, who gives them out as perks. Kasich loves Bob Feller.
The “emotionally involved” are here this morning because they are still working, and that’s because Kasich wanted to give his paid troops six weeks to look for new jobs. That would be 10 staffers in Washington, six in Iowa, four in Ohio and three in New Hampshire, as well as seven scattered fund-raising consultants. So the lights will stay on until Aug. 31, and then it will be dark everywhere in Kasich Land.
In Suite 2000, the mood is some strange amalgam that might be called upbeat sadness.
“We did this with the idea we were going through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and then lightning would strike,” Johnson reflects. “And we would continue on in Ohio. And we would gain momentum, so much momentum that we would finish up . . .”
She doesn’t need to complete the sentence. That’s what dreams are about.
Unfortunately, George W. Bush is this year’s dream crusher.
“When you raise $600,000 in one quarter and somebody else raises $30 million, it’s a wake-up call,” laments Johnson. That somebody would be the governor of Texas, whom Kasich promptly endorsed as soon as he dropped out. Had a big endorsement announcement in Washington, Bush at his side, and then sent 150 copies of the videotape to his major contributors.
“Sure, we could have kept going,” Johnson says, still in reflection mode. “We could have made it through the Ohio primary” next March 7.
Tim Fermoile, the finance director, jumps in. “With such limited resources, we couldn’t have competed. It would have been like sending him down to Morton’s with $1.50 and telling him to have a nice dinner.”
And that wouldn’t be very nice at all. Because at Morton’s of Chicago, you can’t get a roll and a pat of butter for a buck-fifty.
Johnson continues the tour. She stops at her office and points to “the infamous four-month calendar,” a laminated rectangle on a wall that guided Kasich’s life for a season. A blocked-off week for fund-raising later this month. An upcoming hog roast in Ohio. A bunch of “Hold N.H.” notations for events in New Hampshire that hadn’t been scheduled and won’t be. All of that’s moot now.
Johnson begins talking about the little things that need to be done. Most of the leases were signed for a year and expire at the end of March 2000. Contracts for pagers, phones, copiers, fax machines, the server for the Web site. Some have 30-day escape clauses. Need to check out which ones.
Steve Forbes’s campaign is buying up the Kasich office furniture in Iowa, though the Bush people seem to want some of it. All the campaigns are pining for the hotel rooms the Kasich camp had reserved in Ames, Iowa, where the state GOP will be hosting a high-stakes presidential straw poll Saturday. The results promise to send other contenders on the road to campaign dismantlement. Won’t be long before Kasich gets some company.
Johnson wants to make a point about her boss’s quick exit: He leaves without any debt.
Furnished the entire headquarters for a grand total of $350. Johnson is smiling. She spins around in the black leather swivel chair behind her desk. This, she says proudly, was found in the hallway. Someone had put it out as trash. And that aqua-green seat over there? Five bucks at a yard sale.
“When you manage the campaign of the chairman of the House Budget Committee,” she says, “you do not spend money foolishly.”
The tour continues. Introductions are made:
Wilma Goldstein, the scheduler. Kim Boyer, the comptroller (he pays the bills). Chris Singerling, “the body man,” meaning he travels almost everywhere with the candidate – uh, former candidate. Jeanette Corcoran, the deputy finance director. She is sorting through a stack of pictures Kasich signed during a photo-op at a New Jersey fund-raiser. Must mail those out.
And then there’s Duke Hipp, the deputy communications director, who is still cranking out press releases – like the one about Kasich’s appearance at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Omaha over the weekend. Other releases are sure to follow, because Kasich is not going away.
He will be speaking on behalf of Bush at the Ames straw poll, and then it’s back on the thank-you circuit, which began last month in Iowa. He’ll host a reception for his Cleveland area finance team, a thank-you luncheon for his Chicago finance team. There will be one-on-one thank-you meetings in California’s Silicon Valley and a thank-you dinner in Boston. In September, thank-yous to New York and New Jersey.
Kasich has turned into the Mad Thanker. Every day he comes into his office at Suite 2000 and spends an hour writing notes and making calls. Thank-you calls.
“Just staying in touch,” says Johnson.
Because this is what you do when you shut down a presidential campaign. Because John Kasich would still like to be president one day.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company