The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How cheap is Hillary Clinton’s campaign? This cheap.

Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta rushes through Manhattan last week for a bus home to Washington. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — John Podesta — counselor and enforcer to two presidents, longtime Democratic sage and now the chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign — stood in line on a Manhattan street corner the other day, waiting to board a bus.

He was wearing jeans and running sneakers and carrying a scuffed duffel bag stuffed with dirty laundry. He did not look glamorous.

Like fellow passengers, who included thrifty senior citizens and college girls in sorority T-shirts, Podesta was paying just $30 to travel to Washington aboard a Vamoose bus. That’s about a third of the cost of the cheapest Amtrak ticket and less than the taxes on a coach seat on a shuttle flight — and that's the reason the Clinton campaign has decreed that staffers must schlep on the bus.

“It’s become solidarity to take it,” said Podesta, who agreed to let a Washington Post reporter and photographer accompany him on his subway-and-bus commute from New York to Washington last week.

There is plenty of eye-rolling among the staff, nonetheless. Campaign staffers are also using their personal cellphones for work — no land lines or campaign-issued models — to save a few bucks.

The edicts came from campaign manager Robby Mook, who proudly tells staffers and donors alike that he is “really, really cheap.” Like second-hand furniture and no-cab-rides cheap.

The tightwad mentality is partly out of necessity, since the campaign is confining operating expenses to a budget built from individual donations that cannot top $2,700 per person during the primary season. But it’s also partly for show — to demonstrate that Clinton is buckling down and making a 180-degree turn away from the dysfunction of her failed 2008 campaign.

[In 2008, Clinton couldn’t buy Iowans’ love. So she bought them snow shovels.]

That campaign wasted motion and money, including a last-minute flood of cash to turn out caucus voters in Iowa that succeeded only in making her third-place finish look worse.

This time, Clinton is running as a warrior for the middle class and trying to dispel the image of privilege acquired as first lady, senator and secretary of state. Clinton is flying commercial most of the time, albeit in first class, and she's been spotted on Amtrak. She alone may be exempt from Mook’s bus rule, although she is said to like riding in a Secret Service van that is no more luxurious.

The first measure of campaign fundraising and budget discipline will come July 15, when Clinton's quarterly financial report is due to be released. The campaign declined to release figures about office expenditures ahead of time.

A cheap bus ride has become an inside joke and something of a merit badge for Clinton staffers, many of whom commute frequently for meetings and other work in Washington. There is a hand-lettered, bus-shaped honor roll on the wall at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, listing those who have eschewed cushier train or plane rides customary for business travel:

“The expectation is that if you’re going to D.C., you’re supposed to take the bus,” press secretary Brian Fallon said.

There are exceptions for tight schedules and short notice, of course, but not for rank.

Although a large share of the Brooklyn staff also commutes to see families in Washington, only official campaign travel to Washington is reimbursed, Fallon said.

Fallon — who has six-week-old twin sons at home in Washington — is paying out of pocket for the bus for his frequent trips back and forth, and is among those staffers who are becoming connoisseurs of the various scheduled services. (Bolt is better about staying on time; Mega is a bit more generous with legroom; Vamoose serves the suburbs.) For the record, the fancier Vamoose Gold Bus — with leather seats and bottled water — is off limits at $60 a ticket.

As the most senior staffer, the ascetic Podesta embodies the new campaign’s tightfisted ethos.

“It’s already built spirit,” among the mostly young staff working long hours, Podesta said. “It’s a young person’s operation.”

Podesta is not young, although he's fit and lean at 66. He gleefully noted that he is the lone campaign staffer eligible for the senior citizen discount on Amtrak, not that it matters much now. There is no such thing on Vamoose.

Podesta left a senior job in the Obama White House to play the role of godfather and disciplinarian for Clinton’s 2016 effort. He’s supposed to be the guy who can snuff staff rivalries, deflect drama and make the trains — or buses — run on time. Usually cheerful, Podesta has a profane alter ego nicknamed Skippy you don’t want to meet.

Podesta said in four bus trips he has seen only one other fellow passenger he knew, and if any other riders recognized him they have not approached him.

“The Washington powerbrokers don’t seem to be riding this bus,” Podesta said with a grin.

He is enough of a regular that his phone and iPad connected to the bus WiFi automatically, and he passed much of his ride last Wednesday jabbing at his busted iPad screen.

“I could get it fixed, I suppose,” he said without much enthusiasm, after settling into a seat in the back. The WiFi and electricity are better there, Podesta said.

Before Clinton entered the race on April 12, Podesta was making about one trip a week to New York for meetings at Clinton’s personal office there, he said.

“That was before the campaign, so there was no bus rule,” he said. “The halcyon days of the Northeast Regional.”