A July 6 Style article mistakenly reported that Eileen Kirlin is director of the public employee sector for the Communications Workers of America. She holds that position with a different union, the Service Employees International Union. (Published 7/8/04)
There is President Bush and John Kerry and the merry band of bragsters, pollsters, pontificators, image-shapers flashing around on the higher reaches of cable TV. These are the brand names and faces of American politics.
Then there is Steve Rosenthal, a middle-aged Jewish guy with a big belly who looks like he'd be happy to live in Takoma Park, which he does, and coach his kid's baseball team, which he does. In this presidential election, he may be the most important person you've never heard of.
Rosenthal has $100 million at his disposal, no boss and only one job: to find, track and deliver Democrats to the polls come November. "Hopefully, a byproduct of this is that George Bush will end up back in Crawford and," he adds sardonically, "spend the next several years trying to figure out if he really did make mistakes."
Usually, get-out-the-vote operations start after Labor Day. Money gets spread. Precinct captains get their big day to swagger around. Not this time. The difference is that Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, is already prowling around out there. He is setting up an elaborate war plan that has more than a thousand paid foot soldiers marching up to doors in 17 battleground states. They come armed with Palm handhelds loaded with voter registration data and streaming video about education and jobs.
As head of America Coming Together, one of the best-funded political interest groups created after campaign finance reform, Rosenthal -- like the Republican National Committee -- has been at this for months. Like all ruthless fighters, he is not always nice.
"He is as mean and tough and vicious as they come," says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, "and that makes him more attractive. He's the last great hope of the Democratic Party."
On this hot day in Philadelphia, Rosenthal is being nice.
"What you are all doing is incredible," he tells about 45 members of the Palm brigade, canvassers searching rough neighborhoods for the real people to match the voter data they carry. He lavishes them with a few more phrases of praise -- he has learned to do this sort of thing -- then moves on to what he really relishes.
"I am going to give you two numbers: 172. And the other is 537. Anybody know what either of them are?" Rosenthal asks.
"Electoral votes?" somebody calls out.
"No," he says. "Not a bad guess."
Somebody else confuses 537 with 527, the section of the tax code that gives the political advocacy groups their label.
He waits. No one has any more guesses.
"There are 172 days left between now and Election Day," Rosenthal says on this day in May, "and 537 is the number of votes that they claim that George Bush won by in Florida."
"Boooooooo!" chorus the canvassers.
"What I do when I am thinking about an election is, I break it down," says Rosenthal, "person by person, name by name, every single voter that we talk to, and who they talk to, to connect them to what we need to do in this state." Pennsylvanians will cast between 4.8 million and 5 million votes, Rosenthal predicts, and "we have to get 21/2 million of them."
In the Trenches
In the billion-dollar business of modern politics, the highly paid consultancy chatters about the metric, the margin of error, the media buy, the group psychology dynamic, the focus group. The consultancy runs the air war, planning surgical ad strikes from a distance.
Rosenthal works down on the ground. In his big corner office two blocks from the White House, he is restless behind his desk. "He doesn't like to just stay in D.C. and go to all the same restaurants where you can have all the same conversations," says JoDee Winterhoff, a former top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and now political director for America Coming Together. From now until Election Day, Rosenthal will spend two or three days each week in states where the electoral votes are seen as up for grabs.
One of these visits takes him to black North Philadelphia with the canvassers, mostly middle-age African American and West Indian women. He knocks on doors, peers through torn curtains, steps gingerly past a rusting bike with missing wheels. He is looking for what works and what doesn't, constantly assessing and measuring. As Tom Lindenfeld, a veteran grass-roots strategist working with him, puts it, "You don't get what you expect. You get what you inspect."
It is hot, dirty and desperate on these blocks, but they are Democratic blocks. Philadelphia voted 80 percent for Al Gore in 2000. By Election Day 2003, Democratic registration in the city had surged by an additional 86,000, primarily from pilot efforts designed and funded under Rosenthal's auspices, and carried out by field workers close to Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). Now former Fattah aide Greg Naylor is state director for America Coming Together. Naylor's longtime colleague Donald Redmond is heading up the group's operation in Missouri. Since canvassing began again this spring, registration has grown more than 100,000 since 2000.
This feat is even more staggering when viewed from the pavement. Rosenthal is teaming up with Maria Watson, a nursing home employee in New York and one of 30 members of the Service International Employees Union who have moved to Philadelphia for six months, leaving their lives, and in Watson's case, her 4-year-old grandson, behind. The two peer at Watson's Palm, which displays a block list drawn from voter registration and property records. They knock on the first door. "Beautiful," Rosenthal mutters. "Nobody lives here," in contradiction to the data. The second house is abandoned. At the third door, a child nearby calls out, "Nobody live there."
"Thank you, baby," Watson calls back. Her grandson smiles out from a big button she wears on her shirt. "You must miss him," says Rosenthal. "I'm doing this for him," she says firmly. They walk past the Perfect Love Ministries storefront church and Jessie's Nice & Polite Lounge and tackle another block of houses with sagging porches, shabby roofs and DirecTV satellite dishes.
"What are your major concerns?" Watson asks a woman coming home from work. Her Palm prompts her with a list, so that America Coming Together can stay in touch on those particular issues and use them to motivate the voter to go to the polls on Election Day.
"Crime? Drugs? Education? Jobs?"
"Yes, yes, yes and yes!" says the woman.
Up another walkway go Rosenthal and Watson, stepping over the trash. "Hey, I'm a candidate," calls a guy with bloodshot eyes. "I'm running for president." At another house, a man in an NRA cap answers their knock. "Are you registered?" says Rosenthal. "Yes," says the man. As a seasoned organizer, Rosenthal knows that "yes" can be a way of saying "leave me alone." So he holds the man's gaze, until the man reaches into his wallet and pulls out his registration card.
On another block, they linger for a moment in front of a house with flower boxes and cleanly swept Astroturf covering the steps. "See this?" Rosenthal instructs, jerking a thumb at this example of homeowner pride. "These are your people you use to maintain contact on your block."
Across the street, a woman in tight stretch pants and a halter top puts down her grocery bags and makes a call from a pay phone. The conversation does not go well. Cursing loudly, she takes the receiver and starts hammering it, hard, over and over, against the phone.
The canvass team stops to watch. "Another dissatisfied constituent," says Lindenfeld. "Who's gonna go sign her up?" Everybody laughs, including Rosenthal, who then adds, firmly, "We don't leave anybody behind."
At age 51, with 30 years in organizing, and as a former deputy political director for the Democratic National Committee, Rosenthal is always teaching the basics. Put your foot between the jamb and the screen door before it gets slammed shut. Rattle the fence before opening the gate. Why? To make sure there's no nasty dog. "I got that advice from the letter carriers' union, long ago," he says.
"He's a great listener, and he steals things with no conscience," says his longtime friend Andy Stern, president of SEIU, which has donated money and bodies to the program. "He'll hone in on some . . . phone bank person discussing how many seconds you can talk on the phone before the person gets bored. And Steve will sit there fascinated and ask what would happen if you had to do it in four seconds." Rosenthal keeps index cards in his shirt pocket -- he rarely wears a suit -- and he jots on them throughout the day. "Then he organizes them at night," says Stern. "He's like a sponge."
But: "He's not very patient with people who think they know everything and want to tell him what to do. It is not his best skill to tolerate people who may not be very accomplished."
A Divided Partnership
Because of Rosenthal's success mobilizing union voters while at the AFL-CIO, labor leaders agreed to fund a new initiative, Partnership for America's Families, that he would direct, using $20 million to mobilize voters. But last summer, within a few months of its formation, the new effort was dissolving in a spasm of acrimony between two powerful union bosses, Stern and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The partnership's entire board abruptly resigned. McEntee charged that Rosenthal "failed to win the support of key labor unions and leaders and other constituency organizations."
Then a prominent black union leader attacked Rosenthal, saying his leadership amounted to "paternalism."
"We have told Mr. Rosenthal and his organization where he could go and what he could do," AFSCME Treasurer Bill Lucy said in a press release. The issue "is about who will decide how the black community will be involved in its own politics." Oscar Sanchez, then head of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, chimed in that Rosenthal, as the AFL-CIO political director, "was not sympathetic to the causes of the minority community."
"This is one of the criticisms that will haunt him for life," says Brazile, who is black. She jumped to Rosenthal's defense, taking him to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rosenthal is no racist, she says.
"He was trying to transition from 'old school' to 'new school,' " she says, "and he bumped heads" by making clear to some of the Democrats' traditional constituency groups that their time-honored methods were not getting enough voters to the booths.
"Don't expect to demand a seat at the table," she adds. "You have to earn it with Steve."
"People perceived that his demands were inappropriate," says Gina Glantz, who ran Bill Bradley's presidential campaign and has known Rosenthal since working with him on the Walter Mondale campaign. She rejects that argument. "If [he thinks] you're not getting the job done, it doesn't make any difference what color you are or what color your organization is. He is going to measure your performance."
Asked about this episode, Rosenthal says, "It's history. It was an ugly period. I have spent my adult life working to win power for the powerless, and I let my record speak for myself."
"He can be prickly," says Don Kaniewski, political director of the Laborers' International Union. "He can be disagreeable. I have not always felt that he was the most open and forthcoming person on everything I wanted to know about. That didn't prevent me from respecting the work he was doing. And by every measure he has been successful. And that is how he would like to be judged: Did I win, not who did I piss off?"
Lessons From a Master
The youngest of three children, Rosenthal grew up in a Levitt house in Hicksville, a white working-class suburb of Long Island. His father was a shoe salesman who started a union for shoe store workers, and Rosenthal's first real job, at 16, was selling shoes in a union shop. He sold a lot of shoes. "I learned from a master," he says of his late father. "He was really, really good at selling. He would have been very, very good at this stuff" his son does now.
Political organizing and fundraising is much the same. You scrutinize your customers' needs and make your pitch. Part of his job as head of America Coming Together is fundraising, and after a recent meeting with potential donors in New Mexico, Rosenthal reached for a retail metaphor, telling his staff, "We didn't sell any vacuums today. We made a couple of visits, we have a couple on layaway."
There wasn't much talk around the Rosenthal dinner table about politics and current affairs, although there was that time someone tossed a brick through the front window to warn his father away from organizing the union. His father was "probably a registered Republican" in GOP-owned and -operated Nassau County, and one summer, because his dad was friendly with the committeeman, Rosenthal got a job working at the local park, "the first and last thing the Republican Party ever did for me."
The passion came from his mother, he thinks, and the Judaic tradition of tikkun olam, which means "repair the world." She was religious, strictly kosher and insisted her children go to synagogue weekly.
"I shouldn't tell you this," Rosenthal says, "but I barely made it out of high school." He just wasn't interested. After a stint at community college, he transferred to the State University of New York at New Paltz, a liberal hotbed then and now. There, he majored in political science and urban studies, grew energized against the Vietnam War and hunger and volunteered for George McGovern.
After working on some local campaigns and Ted Kennedy's presidential race in 1980, he was hired to help run a campaign by the Communication Workers of America to represent New Jersey's state employees.
Rosenthal moved to Trenton, and met and married a fellow CWA organizer, "a Teamster's daughter," Eileen Kirlin.
"Working in New Jersey for the union, that was the be-all and end-all. That was the Lord's work," he says. "We had become a very big union in a small state, and this was what it was all about: organizing workers, building political power for working people."
The couple moved to Washington in 1986, when Kirlin was hired to head organizing for CWA. She is now director of the union's public employee sector, its biggest division. They have two children, Ana, 19, adopted from Brazil, and Sam, 15, adopted from Paraguay.
In 1991, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown borrowed Rosenthal for Bill Clinton's presidential bid. He went to work as an associate deputy secretary at the Labor Department after the election.
In late 1995, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hired Rosenthal to energize the federation's flagging political operation, and over the next six years he turned out increasing numbers of union voters, even as organized labor's political clout waned and its workforce fell. After the 2002 midterm elections, with Republicans solidifying their grip on Congress and statehouses, Rosenthal left the AFL. Federal election law was going to change, shutting down the "soft money," or unlimited contributions, that donors could make to the parties. Labor traditionally had given huge sums of this soft money to the Democrats to fund turnout efforts. That money would have to go somewhere else, and Rosenthal was keen to apply the get-out-the-vote programs he had built beyond union households.
That was the idea behind the Partnership for America's Families. After the flap, Rosenthal teamed up with Democratic fundraiser Ellen Malcolm, who had started Emily's List to fund pro-choice female candidates, and Harold Ickes, a senior aide during the Clinton presidency who masterminded Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the Senate, and the trio formed America Coming Together.
George Soros, the Hungarian who came to America with nothing and built a fortune estimated at $7 billion, had decided that defeating President Bush had become "the central focus of my life." Perhaps the best way to assure this, he decided after meeting Malcolm and Rosenthal, with the trio and seeing Rosenthal's PowerPoint presentation, was to pledge $10 million to their effort. Soros has persuaded other rich progressives to do the same. The group now has pledges and receipts totaling about $75 million toward a goal of $100 million that it is confident it will reach well before Election Day. There have been howls of protest from campaign finance watchdogs, editorial pages and the Republican National Committee that groups like this subvert the intent of the McCain-Feingold Act to reduce the influence of large donors.
Rosenthal loves to argue this point.
"How? Look, there are two kinds of donors -- access donors and ideological donors. Our donors are ideological. We can't give them anything. We have no tickets to the inauguration, no Lincoln Bedroom, no photos with the president," he says, shrugging. "All we can give them is the change they want, and that's all they want."
The Berlin Wall of the law forbids America Coming Together and the other 527s from coordinating with the Democratic National Committee or the Kerry campaign. Publicly, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe has grown used to saying, "It's illegal for me to discuss them." Privately, a senior DNC aide admits it can be quite awkward: Longtime comrades-in-arms, some who worked 16-hour days together through the primaries, now can't even speak to each other.
For Rosenthal, funny, acerbic, brusque, battered from his tussles over the years, this is exquisitely liberating.
Riding in the group's van in Philadelphia, he looks out the window and grins. "In a way, we don't have to take all their [expletive] anymore," he says. "Not the candidate, not the wife, not the manager. This is not so bad."
Foot Soldiers' Pitch
"Tell me the weirdest thing that has happened to you," he commands, back in the group's Philadelphia headquarters, an expectant grin on his face. The uniforms are too hot, the canvassers say. The ex-criminals they approach don't know if they have voting rights. The young hoods won't listen. And the Palms -- the expensive, sophisticated, darling Tungsten 2 Palms! -- are freezing up, jumping around, annoying the canvass teams.
"Those batteries don't last as well as we do," says one of the canvassers. Rosenthal frowns. "This is not good news," he says.
Still, the foot soldiers are cheerful, eager to share their persuasion techniques with the general: Groceries can be carried while working on a prospect. Children can be hoisted onto a hip while Mama fills out her form.
"We were at the mall," begins Watson, in her rolling West Indian accent. " 'Are you registered to vote?' I asked a woman. 'Why should I register to vote?' she says. I say, 'Is this economy okay with you?' She says, 'I think I should register to vote.' " Watson finishes this tale with a flourish, and the room claps and laughs.
Another canvasser from New York talks vaguely about not feeling welcomed by the local workers, then thanks Rosenthal several times for coming to the office to listen to her concerns.
"Are you leading up to some group hug or something?" he says. "Because that is where I draw the line."