Jim Messina, Obama's Enforcer
Gay rights was another major issue on which Messina clashed with Obama supporters. The relationship between the administration and gay rights groups was strained from the outset, when Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation. “It is difficult to comprehend how our president-elect, who has been so spot-on in nearly every political move and gesture, could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his inaugural invocation,” wrote Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in the Washington Post.
After reading the op-ed, Messina sternly rebuked Solmonese during a meeting at the White House. “I’m never going back to another meeting like that again,” Solmonese angrily told his staff afterward. From then on, HRC, to the consternation of other gay rights groups, toed the administration line.
With Messina as a top liaison to the gay rights community, the White House was reluctant to make repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) a key legislative priority. “The White House, under Rahm and Messina, suffered from political homophobia,” says Joe Sudbay, who writes about gay rights issues for AMERICAblog. “They’re not homophobes in the traditional sense of the word, but they think it’s dangerous to do gay issues in politics.” Groups that questioned Messina’s strategy, such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, were frozen out of key White House meetings. “I felt like he was constantly angry with those of us who would not fall in line,” says Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United (no relation to SLDN).
The president reiterated his commitment to repealing DADT in his second State of the Union address, in January 2010. But a few days later, in a meeting with gay rights groups, Messina spoke of the difficulty of ending DADT in the midst of two wars, a remark many of the activists in the room found offensive. The Pentagon needed time to survey the troops on the impact of repeal, Messina said, which wouldn’t be done until December. That meant there likely wouldn’t be a vote on repealing DADT until 2011, even though the Democratic Congress of 2009-10 presented the best opportunity to repeal the law. “People on the Hill kept saying, ‘The White House doesn’t have a strategy’ right up through the lame duck session,” Sudbay says.
On November 16 gay rights activists picketed the Common Purpose meeting and shouted at Messina as he entered, “What’s your plan?” It was only after the administration’s tax cut deal with Congressional Republicans enraged liberal Democrats that repealing DADT became a last-minute priority for the White House, which badly needed a legislative victory to soothe its progressive base. “It was a Hail Mary pass with ten seconds to go in the fourth quarter,” says Brad Luna, a leading gay rights activist who runs a progressive-oriented PR firm. Sudbay says the DADT repeal passed “in spite of Messina,” and Luna agrees. “At the end of the day I’d definitely label him an impediment,” Luna says. “He was not falling on a sword to get DADT passed.”
Solmonese offered a different perspective, calling Messina “unquestionably one of the great unsung heroes of DADT repeal.” The two stood side by side on the Senate floor as the bill cleared the body on December 18. When the sixtieth vote came in, Solmonese said, Messina began to cry. After it was all over, Messina touted repeal as a major victory for the administration and an example of Obama’s commitment to his base.
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Messina grew up in Boise, Idaho, became active in politics at the University of Montana and cut his teeth as an organizer for Montana People’s Action, helping disenfranchised trailer park residents in Missoula. Like Obama, he refers to himself as a community organizer at heart. When Messina started working for Democrats in the Montana legislature, “he was a flaming liberal,” remembers Gene Fenderson, a veteran state labor organizer. But when he took a job with Baucus in 1995, Messina shed his liberal roots. “He changed philosophies in a nanosecond,” Fenderson says. Messina became fiercely loyal to Baucus and wasn’t shy about doing his boss’s dirty work. “Jim is one of those campaign workers who reflects his boss,” says Pat Williams. “Max does not easily suffer dissent, and Jim saw himself as Max’s enforcer.”
In 1999 Messina became chief of staff to New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy but returned to manage Baucus’s re-election campaign in 2002. The campaign became infamous when the Montana Democratic Party ran an ad showing his GOP opponent, Mike Taylor, a former hairdresser, fondling the hair and face of a male client while wearing a ’70s-style leisure suit. Taylor dropped out days after the ad aired, accusing the Baucus campaign of “character assassination and personal destruction.” Gay rights groups condemned the ad as antigay, but it greatly enhanced Messina’s reputation as a top Democratic operative. “He touted the ad as the way to do politics in the West,” said Toole.
Baucus easily won re-election that year. Not long after, Messina visited Montana Democratic Party chair Bob Ream and demanded that he fire his executive director, Brad Martin. The Baucus camp regarded the state party as too grassroots and insufficiently loyal to Baucus. Ream resisted and his executive board unanimously recommended that Martin be retained. Then Baucus insisted that Ream resign. He refused. When Ream ran for re-election in 2004, Messina tried to find somebody to run against him, but could not.
These kinds of interventions earned Messina a mixed record back home. Baucus’s crew, colloquially known as the Montana mafia, loved him, but other Democrats did not. Those who know Messina say that, his politics aside, he can be funny, charming and generous, but also temperamental, vindictive and controlling. “People either like Jim or they don’t,” says Pat Williams. “I know a number of people who do not like him, which is unusual for political apparatchiks. The people who don’t like Jim seriously don’t like him. I have found none of those faults with Jim personally, but the truth is, they’re out there.” To this day, however, many of his critics shy away from publicly criticizing him. “If you want to have a future in Montana politics, you don’t criticize Jim Messina,” says James Anacker, a former field rep for Baucus. “That would be career suicide. People are afraid of him, to tell you the truth.”
Messina has become a controversial fixer for Obama as well. He generated bad press for the administration by offering a job to Colorado Democratic Senate primary candidate Andrew Romanoff when the administration was trying to get him not to run against incumbent Michael Bennet in 2010. Messina also reportedly praised the administration’s firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod after a tape surfaced of her allegedly discriminating against a white farmer, even though Secretary Tom Vilsack had dismissed her before learning that right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart had doctored the footage. “We could have waited all day—we could have had a media circus—but we took decisive action, and it’s a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere,” Politico reported, quoting a source who paraphrased Messina’s remarks. That “decisive action,” however, unfairly cost Sherrod her job. The administration later apologized and offered her the post back. It was one of a string of embarrassments for Obama’s political team.
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Messina has spent his early days as campaign manager meeting with wealthy Obama megadonors on a “listening tour.” He has assiduously cultivated these relationships in his career, previously serving as Baucus’s top liaison to Wall Street and organizing lavish fundraising junkets in Montana. Baucus kicked off his 2008 re-election campaign by bluntly asking fifty lobbyists to raise $100,000 each. The Obama campaign hopes Messina’s connections will come in handy as it tries to amass a $1 billion war chest for 2012; Messina has already asked Obama’s finance committee to raise $350 million by the end of this year. But early indicators signal that Messina’s task won’t be so easy this time around. Corporate America no longer regards Obama as an ally, while many donors from 2008 are disillusioned with the administration’s legislative compromises and political timidity.
After the 2010 election, Messina spoke at the winter meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy progressive funders. He gave two PowerPoint presentations, including one on the administration’s accomplishments—the stimulus, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, healthcare and financial reform. The other was on what was still to come—immigration reform, the START treaty, repealing DADT. “Jim, you’re missing a word,” one donor told him during the Q&A.
“What word?” Messina responded.
“The word ‘jobs,’” the donor said.
“Messina got a lot of tough questions from people who used to love him,” says one person who was in the audience. “It was like a room of scorned lovers.”
Even as Messina jet-sets around the country, huddling with big donors, will the campaign cultivate the small donors and grassroots activists who powered and shaped the ‘08 Obama campaign? On February 1 Politico’s Mike Allen reported that “Obama’s political operation is quietly using the afterglow of his State of the Union address to begin activating grassroots supporters as the start of a continuous wave of engagement that will culminate when he stands for reelection on Nov. 6, 2012.” As part of the effort, OFA offered T-shirts to activists featuring a tag line from Obama’s speech: “We do big things.” The article provided a revealing glimpse into the campaign’s early strategy for 2012—woo wealthy donors and sell T-shirts to the masses.
The re-election campaign, at least at this stage, resembles an Obama administration reunion. Messina’s deputies will be Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the DNC’s former executive director, and Julianna Smoot, the ex–White House social secretary. Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, the heads of OFA, will oversee field operations. The new-media team, such a big part of the ‘08 campaign’s success, has yet to come together. So far the campaign seems content to rely on old hands rather than bring in new blood, which some Democrats see as a mistake. “There’s been some grumbling that, frankly, given how inept the White House was politically in the first half of the Obama presidency, why on earth would you want to move those people over to the campaign?” says a former top Obama campaign official.
In certain ways, it’s easier to start a campaign as a blank slate. In 2007 Plouffe was not a particularly unconventional thinker, but because he was facing the Clintons, the Obama campaign wisely decided to experiment with innovation and cede some control to grassroots supporters, integrating bottom-up politics into the strategy of the campaign’s upper brass. Obama’s advisers knew that if they simply ran a second-rate version of the Clinton campaign, they would lose. But now that Obama is the establishment candidate, it’s unlikely he’ll follow the same playbook that worked so well in ‘08—or will even be able to. Regardless, that’s not how Messina operates. “Clearly they want to recapture the magic, which is going to be very hard for them,” says Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future. “It’s hard to get excited about a guy who’s constantly compromising, especially if unemployment stays above 8 percent.” One could say the same thing about Messina.