When Carlos M. Gutierrez took over the Commerce Department in February, he was new to government and without a stable of federal associates to draw from to help him run the sprawling agency.
Many of the advisers he brought on board did not have any connection to either the agency or the secretary -- but nearly all had long-standing ties to the White House, through President Bush's two presidential campaigns, his governorship in Texas or his father's administration.
Gutierrez has charged a small group of aides, led by David A. Sampson, the agency's second in command, with helping him steer a department that boasts a $6.5 billion budget, more than 38,000 employees and disparate offices including the International Trade Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau.
The secretary's aides said they have spent the bulk of his tenure working to win approval for the Central American Free Trade Agreement that Bush signed into law Aug. 2. Now, Gutierrez's office is focusing on protecting American intellectual property rights abroad -- an issue his advisers said was driven home to him when, on a recent trip to China, he was offered a copy of the newest "Star Wars" movie for $1.
The agency identified the following individuals as Gutierrez's inner circle:
* Sampson, the deputy secretary, is tasked with managing the agency's day-to-day operations. He may have the most unusual background of any of Gutierrez's advisers. Sampson, 48, was an ordained minister in the Church of Christ for more than a decade before deciding to pursue more worldly interests at the Arlington, Tex., chamber of commerce. There, in the early 1990s, he was charged with ensuring that the Texas Rangers -- which had just been purchased by a group led by a young George W. Bush -- did not move to nearby Dallas. The baseball club stayed in Arlington. When Bush became governor, Sampson was named to a state commission on economic development. He followed Bush to Washington, to assume an analogous position in the Commerce Department. Last month, Sampson was confirmed as deputy secretary by the Senate.
So how does a life in the ministry prepare one for politics and the government? "If you can survive church politics for 20 years, you can survive any kind of politics," he said.
* Claire Buchan, chief of staff, joined the agency in February after spending four years at the White House. She was a spokeswoman there for Bush's entire first term, the latest in what had been a string of positions in public relations. Buchan, 43, previously represented the Republican National Committee, home-maintenance giant ServiceMaster, George H.W. Bush's Treasury Department and the U.S. trade representative's office in the Reagan administration.
* Christine Gunderson, 35, is the communications director, responsible for keeping the agency on message. Gunderson, who recently married and is still better known around town by her maiden name -- Iverson -- also has worked in similar capacities for a number of GOP politicians and organizations in Washington, including the Republican National Committee. Gunderson, who joined the department in March, is responsible for crafting talking points, tending to reporters, and coordinating the secretary's appearances and interviews.
* Nathaniel Wienecke, 33, is the agency's point man for Congress, tasked with responding to lawmakers' inquiries for everything from economic data about their congressional districts to requests for Gutierrez's testimony before their committees. But Wienecke's key responsibility is to help sell the administration's policies, such as CAFTA, to the Hill. He joined the agency in August 2001, and held a number of jobs there before assuming his current post in June. He previously worked for two Republican members of Congress and the RNC.
* David Bohigian, the policy director, is tasked with ensuring that the secretary's policies are in sync with the White House and are also being faithfully implemented throughout the department. Bohigian, 35, joined the agency 21/2 years ago, after working in venture capital in London, New York and Washington. He briefly worked on the Hill, interning for then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) while in law school.
* Dan McCardell, 39, is the agency's liaison to the business community, charged with keeping the department abreast of the issues and concerns of the nation's chief executives. He came to the job in 2003, from a similar position at the Treasury Department. McCardell got his start in politics and government working as an advance man for President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign. He worked in the private sector during the Clinton years, before joining Bush's 2000 bid for the White House.
* Chris Israel, 35, is the agency's intellectual property czar, a newly created position that puts him in charge of the government's efforts to crack down on international pirating and counterfeiting. He is a holdover from Donald L. Evans's tenure, having served as the former commerce secretary's deputy chief of staff. Israel previously worked as a lobbyist for Time Warner and, before that, for a pair of Republican lawmakers in Congress.
* John J. Sullivan, the agency's general counsel, is the secretary's principal legal adviser and head of the more than 400 lawyers who work for the agency. He is also one of the newest additions to Gutierrez's inner circle, having been confirmed only weeks ago. Sullivan, 45, came over from the Defense Department, where he was deputy general counsel to Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Like many of his colleagues, Sullivan served in President George H.W. Bush's administration, working in his Justice Department. Before that, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.
Chris IsraelJohn J. Sullivan