The campaign boss takes his bourbon on the rocks with just a splash of water. Kentucky bourbon.
“None of that Tennessee crap,” growls Bill Hyers.
He came to love bourbon while running a Kentucky gubernatorial campaign. He developed a thing for racehorses during an Upstate New York congressional race, a passion so pronounced that he now owns shares in a couple of thoroughbreds. A Wisconsin governor’s campaign made him a Green Bay Packers enthusiast. He is eminently adaptable and imprintable.
Hyers is also suddenly a blazing-hot commodity after managing Bill de Blasio’s New York mayoral victory. Almost without taking a breath, he has been snapped up to run the marquee 2014 Florida gubernatorial campaign of Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. America’s tannest politician appeared the day after the New York mayoral primary to chat up Hyers over drinks at a midtown Manhattan hotel lobby.
Hyers guides the careers of men and women whose identities must entwine with a sense of place. But ask him where he’s from and he hesitates, searching for a suitable answer. He’ll talk of small towns in Illinois and Florida, and other places he leaves unidentified, pieces of a troubled childhood he speaks of cryptically. He has spent a lifetime cloaking his youth in opacity. Even his last name, which he changed as a teenager, is a testament to his desire to disengage with his provenance.
Other star political pros might leverage their roots to burnish their legends — think James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun. Hyers, as he climbs in prestige at the age of 38, lacks an easily condensable origin story.
Yet this doesn’t mean Bill Hyers isn’t from someplace. His “place” is the perpetual American political campaign. He is a citizen of the campaign office in the fill-in-the-blank state capital or big city that he moves to every year or so. It is a place, an impermanent and ever-changing place, that is the natural habitat of his chosen profession. But he seems to embrace this conceptual locale all the more tightly because he doesn’t have another place that defines him or another to go back to.
“All of us who work in politics are sick in some way, shape or form,” says his friend Jefrey Pollock, the Democratic political consultant. “But if you’re a campaign manager, it’s a special kind of sickness.”
It’s a crisp, clear autumn afternoon, and Hyers is planted at a prime window table in the clubby upstairs restaurant at Aqueduct, the ancient racetrack in Queens. He’s generously proportioned, with broad shoulders and a predictable post-campaign paunch. His face, an aggregation of dark, thick and heavy features, seems constructed for the sole purpose of concealing emotion. It’s not that he’s incapable of smiling, it’s just that it seems to take monumental effort, a levering of muscles akin to a crane straining against a weighty load. It’s the face of a man who keeps secrets — his own and those of others.
Hyers’s horse, a pretty 3-year-old filly named Watercolors whose picture is the screen image on his iPhone, has been scratched from the seventh race because another horse’s illness has forced a quarantine of her stable. But Hyers has studied the rest of this field and places his bets with an air of confidence, figuring that a horse called I Jus Wana Hav Fun will place first or second. “I’m a pretty good horse-picker,” he says.
I Jus Wana Hav Fun breaks fast from the gate. She powers past the quarter-pole in just 21 seconds, with a huge lead.
“This is not good,” Hyers says, leaning toward the window.
Downstairs, horse bettors sit in row after row of cubicles, staring up at television screens and wagering with physical, and sometimes emotional, detachment. Not Hyers. He needs to be there.
“Maybe she can hang on,” Hyers says, with hope but without expectation. He can see what’s about to happen as I Jus Wana Hav Fun’s lead shrinks.
“She’s . . . she’s . . . nothing.”
I Jus Wana Hav Fun finishes limply. Fourth place. “Damn you, Hyers!” his friend David Kieve, a Washington-based political consultant who’d taken Hyers’s betting advice, says from across the table.
Hyers doesn’t like horses that start fast, for most inevitably fade. At this point, we must pause for a metaphor alert because, he explains, Hyers isn’t a fan of candidates who start fast, either. He’d rather that his horses and his candidates conserve their strength for the stretch run.
In the uncertain early days of Michael Nutter’s long-shot 2007 Democratic mayoral primary campaign in Philadelphia, donors were furious that Nutter wasn’t using ads of his own to try to keep pace with the early television ads of opponents who were faring better in the polls. Hyers, who was managing the campaign, “just really calmed everything down,” recalls Nutter, who went on to be elected mayor. “Bill had to step in and say, ‘We have a strategy. Stick with us.’ It was an important moment.”
Six years later, de Blasio was also down in the polls early on. But this time it was the candidate who was wondering aloud whether to start spending money on TV ads or mailers to boost his paltry name recognition.
“I was tempted,” de Blasio says. But Hyers “kept coming back to the virtues of marshaling your resources. . . . He kept sticking to his guns,” the mayor-elect says. The candidate listened to the campaign manager.
Whether Hyers can do for Crist in the Florida gubernatorial campaign what he did for de Blasio and Nutter is the question that will influence whether he remains an “it boy” of the campaign-managing set or watches his star flicker. Hyers suggests that the campaign will portray Crist as an effective executive who hewed to the middle when he was governor from 2007 to 2011. He cited Crist’s veto of a bill that would have required most women to pay for an ultrasound before getting an abortion. And Hyers indicated that they would paint the incumbent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, as “extreme.”
Some very early polling has Crist ahead. Hyers, though, seems most comfortable in the underdog role, and he takes pains to point out that he expects Crist will be “outspent, like massively.”
But there’s something else about the prospect of this race that comforts Hyers: Down in Tampa, there’s a woman he calls “Granny,” and working a campaign in Florida will give him more chances to see her.
She’s the woman who turned his life around.
“I’ve been dodging this for years,” Hyers says as the conversation turns to his upbringing.
His eyes redden. Words catch in his throat.
“It’s complicated,” he says. “I’m going to kind of dance around.”
Between races at Aqueduct, he tells his life story in a mosaic of fragments and half-finished thoughts. He lived in many places, he says, mentioning two by name: Harrisburg, a small town in southeastern Illinois, and Brooksville, Fla., near Tampa. He won’t specify what made his childhood so awful, but it’s clear that whatever happened pains him still.
“People automatically put you in a category in their minds,” he says. “You learn not to talk about it; then people don’t put you in those pre-set categories.”
He was a bad student until he met Granny, whom he describes “as a very good person who ran into me at the right time” and offered him “unconditional love and support.”
“Doesn’t sound like all that much, but when you never had that in a real way in your life to that point it really meant a lot,” he writes in an e-mail one evening. “It changed the way I looked at myself, it started giving me confidence that I may be smarter than I thought, that I could accomplish something in life if I tried, and that even with flaws there was someone who would still love and support me at the end of the day.”
Hyers mentions her half a dozen times before pointing out that she isn’t his actual grandmother or a blood relative but was once related to him “tangentially by marriage.”
After high school, he joined the Army, motivated primarily because he “needed a place to live.” He did stints in South Korea and as a peacekeeper in Bosnia.
When he was 19, he made a big decision: Since Granny’s name is Virginia Hyers, he was going to be a Hyers, too.
“You want to have your name match with your family,” he says. “I’m a Hyers. That’s the family I care about.”
Granny, now 86, has been in bad health and was unavailable for an interview.
Hyers would later learn that he shared a bond with de Blasio, his New York client. Both men came from troubled families. De Blasio’s father was an alcoholic who committed suicide when he was a child; Hyers was estranged from his parents as a young adult and says he’s seen them only twice in the past two decades. The man he calls his “biological father” died last year, he says.
Hyers and de Blasio also had something else in common: They’d both changed their names. De Blasio took his mother’s maiden name and changed his first name to Bill because it was his family nickname.
As they grew closer, the candidate and the campaign manager connected over their parallel experiences, forming a “real understanding,” de Blasio says. “It seemed to me there was a lot of insecurity in his childhood. . . . We certainly compared notes on fathers who left us with very mixed feelings.”
Without parents to return to, Hyers ended up in Minnesota after finishing his five-year Army enlistment, eventually attending St. Cloud State University because it had low tuition rates. He’d served as a military police officer and thought he might become a civilian police officer, but he grew “a little disenchanted” with law enforcement culture.
While attending classes, he discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that he wasn’t half bad at schoolwork. He got heavily involved as a volunteer in a state Senate campaign and became fixated on the topic of income equality. He’d once thought that he might be able to “make a difference” by enforcing laws, but he was coming around to the notion that it might be better to play a role in changing them.
The Nutter campaign office lacked a basic amenity: running water.
“Bill expressed no interest whatsoever in trying to get water in our building,” Nutter recalls. It took all of Nutter’s powers of persuasion to persuade Hyers to get a cable television hookup. Years later, Hyers would furnish de Blasio’s campaign office with freebies that staffers found in Craigslist ads.
In the decade and a half before de Blasio’s triumph, Hyers zoomed from an internship on a 2001 Minneapolis mayoral race to the upper tier of Democratic campaign managers. But the graph line didn’t point straight up; it zigged up, then down, then up again.
“I was hot as can be after Nutter. I’ve been the hot prospect several times,” Hyers says. “I’ve definitely been the cold prospect.”
Managing Kirsten Gillibrand’s upstart 2006 U.S. House race and Nutter’s big primary win made Hyers into a Democratic campaign manager on the rise. But his ascent stalled in New Hampshire. In the summer of 2008, he was fired as manager of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen’s U.S. Senate campaign. He was replaced by another wunderkind of Democratic politics, Robby Mook, who steered Shaheen to victory and, more recently, notched a win with Terry McAuliffe in this month’s ferocious Virginia gubernatorial race.
“You can do your due diligence, but it’s not always going to be a good fit,” Hyers says of his ouster from the Shaheen campaign.
But there is always another race. Within weeks, he’d landed a gig as then-Sen.Barack Obama’s Midwest regional director; four years later, he would run the president’s Pennsylvania operation during the reelection campaign. (In Pennsylvania, he entertained fellow staffers at parties with something called a “shot luge,” an ice sculpture bearing a replica Obama for America logo and fashioned so that booze can be sluiced directly into someone’s waiting mouth. Friends took to Twitter to express their delight about word that Hyers would man the shot luge again at an Obama campaign-staff reunion this month in Philadelphia, dubbed “JoeBidenFest2013.”)
Over the years, Hyers had learned how to make his sale, to pitch his services and stay in the game, in so many ways. He synced with Gillibrand, now a U.S. senator, over a shared love of political biographies, she says in an interview. He sipped bourbon with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear during his 2011 reelection campaign, and he found a way to make an immediate connection with the governor’s wife, Jane. The first time Jane Beshear visited the campaign office, Hyers was wearing a Horses and Hope pin, promoting a program she’d launched to provide cancer screenings for racetrack workers. “He was clever enough,” Beshear says, to figure out that keeping the candidate’s wife happy was a smart move.
The hardest part about campaigns can be putting them behind you. Hyers says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s gubernatorial loss in 2010 “still eats at him every day.”
When Hyers worked on the unsuccessful 2004 U.S. Senate campaign of former Alaska governor Tony Knowles, he went into a deep, depressive funk. His state of mind was worsened by his crumbling two-year-old marriage and his divorce the following year.
For more than six months, he says, he cut off communication with almost everyone he knew. He needed to escape, to heal from the dual calamities in his life: the loss of a marriage and the loss of a campaign. But Hyers has a different concept of escape. His refuge was a gig working on behalf of unions, running the campaign against a raft of referendum measures backed by then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He’d never lived in California. He’d never worked in California. But it was a campaign. And for Hyers, this meant he was going to a place he could call home.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.