One day in 1989, David Hoppe explained to an audience how to pull the levers on Capitol Hill. His rising-star conservative credentials were impeccable, his advice was blunt and his description of the denizens of Congress was painful.
“First, people do not read,” Hoppe said of staff and lawmakers. “They review things very quickly, scan things … Second, they do not think. Nobody thinks in Washington. They react. They have a problem and they react to it.”
Hoppe, then a top aide to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), gave the candid account at the Heritage Foundation, where he had recently served as vice president. Official Washington is a “totally political atmosphere” consumed by a “political game” at every level, he said, according to a transcript. People on Capitol Hill are a “very strange sort,” not necessarily “stupid people or incapable,” but “harried people who … think they are much busier than they are.”
“You not only have to lead this horse to water. You have to try and show him that it is real water and drink a little bit with him and push his head into it,” Hoppe said.
Nearly 30 years have passed since that day, and now Hoppe has returned to the Hill, this time as the chief of staff to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The task of taming the warring herd of House Republicans will largely fall to him.
What may have come across as contempt then has been supplanted since by a deep understanding of Washington. Today, Hoppe is described by multiple friends and former associates as an effective strategist and operator, a silent man-behind-the-man who quietly deploys his instincts and connections on behalf of the office he serves.
The austere Wisconsinite is known for his privacy, and in the last three decades, Hoppe has become something of a cipher, eschewing media coverage and the speaking circuit, even after he left Congress for multiple stints on K Street. Over the course of his career, Hoppe has also demonstrated a remarkable capacity to listen patiently and take a political beating with poise.
On the rare occasions he does speak to the public — such as a 2008 C-SPAN appearance when a caller said he should be guillotined for his lobbying work — Hoppe was unfazed. “Once again, you may disagree with somebody, but that doesn’t mean they are evil,” an expressionless Hoppe told the C-SPAN caller. “It just means you have a disagreement with them.”
Hoppe declined, through a Ryan spokesman, to be interviewed for this piece.
Ryan did not know Hoppe well before hiring him, although they are both former aides to the late New York GOP Rep. Jack Kemp.
But they have much in common: both are from Wisconsin, both are Catholic and both have three children.The difference is that where Ryan, 45, is known as a policy wonk, preferring briefing books to the political circuit, Hoppe, 64, is a longtime Washington player with close ties to both conservative outside groups and the lobbying industry.
Ryan’s success as speaker requires a carefully calibrated approach by Hoppe, aimed first at overhauling the relationships between the speaker’s office and conservatives both in and outside the House.
“Someone asked Dave, ‘Are you overwhelmed?'” Jimmy Kemp recalled from a recent gathering at Hoppe’s home. “And he said, ‘No, I’m just leaning into the storm, and I’m planning on that straightening me up.'”
Hoppe’s first task is to quiet the restlessness of the House Freedom Congress, the 40 hardliners who repeatedly demanded that then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) follow their lead. The debate over U.S. refugee policy in the wake of the Paris attacks could produce the first big skirmish, as conservatives call for Ryan to stop the Obama administration from admitting people from Syria and Iraq (Ryan says there should be a “pause” in the refugee program).
In part because of Hoppe’s longstanding ties to the conservative movement, outside groups seem to be giving Ryan’s new top aide the benefit of the doubt.
“The movement knows that Dave is of us,” said Ed Corrigan, vice president for policy promotion at the Heritage Foundation. “He would speak of the conservative movement as a ‘we’ and not a ‘they.’ I don’t think we’ve had that in leadership for a long time … That’s going to be a refreshing change. You get a lot more running room if you have the same goals and respect us.”
Hoppe built his career working for Rep.-turned-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) after first landing on the Hill in 1976 as a policy analyst for the Republican Study Committee (RSC). That year, he married a Heritage Foundation staffer, Karen, whom he met in a carpool (The two were engaged three weeks after their first date). By 1981, he was serving as Lott’s top aide and would do so off-and-on for 16 years. He left the Hill in 2003 to lobby before returning briefly eight years later as former Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) chief of staff.
Former colleagues trace Hoppe’s ethos back to Kemp, the optimistic supply-sider who also inspired Ryan.
“Happy warrior comes to mind,” said Sharon Soderstrom, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who calls Hoppe a friend and mentor. “He makes work fun, all in the cause.”
Hoppe’s sense of humor shows itself unexpectedly, colleagues said. In the Senate, Hoppe would sometimes gather his staff to demonstrate that he could perform a box jump from a standing position onto a tall desk. There was a “frighteningly elaborate” Batman costume he would sometimes wear to race around the Capitol. “You’d see his shadow appear in different places throughout the building,” said one former aide. “It was very funny.”
But most of the time, Hoppe exudes seriousness. For the irrepressible Kemp, this made him a sobering influence. “Dad did not like being told what to do, so he would shoot back at Dave, ‘Oh, it’s just your Catholic judgmentalism,'” said Jimmy Kemp.
Hoppe also acts with a certain formality, even with old friends.
“After almost 40 years, Dave still won’t stop calling me ‘sir,'” said Ed Feulner, a founder of the Heritage Foundation who hired Hoppe for his RSC job. “I’m thinking, will you stop calling me ‘sir’? I’m only eight-years-older than you.”
Over the years, Hoppe has reacted calmly when confronted by angry lawmakers, advocates and members of the public. That personal armor helped him with what may be his biggest policy achievement: the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disability Education Act.
Hoppe led six weeks of delicate public meetings on behalf of Republican and Democratic staff. Hundreds of people attended, and dozens posed hostile questions to Hoppe, who never mentioned the fact that his son, Gregory, has Down’s Syndrome.
“He is one of the true gentlemen of policy and politics that I’ve ever come across,” said Robert Silverstein, then an aide to former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “We had so much trust in him. Instead of a panel of folks, it was him. He just stood there for himself, responding for questions for two or three hours, as well as fielding personal attacks.”
Several Democrats who have worked with Hoppe also praised him, suggesting his style could help bring the House together.
“He’s an honorable guy,” said Pete Rouse, a former adviser to President Obama who worked with Hoppe while serving as chief of staff to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.). “You knew with Dave there were never any games being played.”
Rouse and Soderstrom were with Hoppe on Sept. 11, 2001. Soderstrom described how Hoppe calmly cleared the Capitol building, including the Rotunda, and gathered staff at a local hotel.
“He was on the phone with Lott, and argued that as soon as it was safe, we should get back into the Capitol … Dave drove all of that, both from getting us physically out to getting Congress physically back in,” she said. “He felt the symbolism was important, that the country needed to see us going back to work. He was completely clear-headed that day.”
After leaving the Senate in 2003, friends said Hoppe went to Quinn Gillespie & Associates to save money for Gregory’s future care. He served as the firm’s president from 2007 to 2011, and later ran his own small lobby shop, Hoppe Strategies.
But the ex-Hill staffer didn’t break ties with conservatives, continuing to attend weekly meetings organized by leaders like Grover Norquist and the late Paul Weyrich. Attendees said they admired Hoppe for never bringing his K Street business inside the room. “I’m not sure I could tell you who any of his clients are,” said one conservative activist.
The storm that swept Ryan into the speaker’s office reached Hoppe six months into what was expected to be his final job in politics. In April, he rejoined Lott in a senior role at Squire Patton Boggs.
Hoppe recently lobbied for Ford, which pushed for stronger rules against currency manipulation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Ryan has been broadly supportive of). Hoppe also lobbied for Delta Airlines as it fought the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (which he opposed).
Lobbyists will also be pleased to see Hoppe in the job, as Ryan lacks deep connections with K Street. The exception might be Lott, Hoppe’s longtime boss.
“I’m mad at Paul Ryan,” Lott joked in a recent interview. “We just got [Hoppe] settled in here.”
Paul Kane and Catherine Ho contributed to this report.