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05.12.10

Meet Obama's Karl Rove

With anti-incumbent sentiment swirling and the GOP heavily favored this fall, White House political director Patrick Gaspard has his hands full. Dayo Olopade on how he does Rove’s job.

The anti-incumbent wave in American politics has made looking for votes this fall like looking for water in the Arizona desert. The word from voters in Utah—where Republican Senator Bob Bennett lost his bid for renomination, and West Virginia, where on Tuesday Democratic House member Alan Mollohan was bounced after 30 years of service—has bathed the capital in a mood of grim resignation about the electoral fights ahead. In Manhattan Thursday, President Barack Obama will hold a glitzy pep rally of sorts for Democrats trying to weather the storm. Those anxious about their chances this fall should keep their eyes backstage, where the publicity-shy Patrick Gaspard, the veteran New York organizer and political director for the White House, will be pondering which races are worth the fight.

In West Virginia, Mollohan got virtually no assistance from the executive branch or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for his bid (“The races will be won and lost campaign by campaign,” says the White House). Senator Arlen Specter, the Democratic convert in deep trouble in his Pennsylvania primary next week, merited a brief solidarity television ad with Obama, and no more.

“He’s a sounding board for the president whenever something is happening,” says the DNC organizer. “And he’s just never rattled.”

But Gaspard, a “smooth operator,” according to one DNC political organizer, is not shy about wading into a fight. In 2009, he famously leaned on New York Governor David Paterson to abandon plans to run for election this fall, imparting word in no uncertain terms that the White House had lost confidence in his ability to win. Paterson rebuffed him, only to be forced to drop his campaign amid a hail of negative publicity in February. (There are no hard feelings, a close friend of the governor told The Daily Beast.)

Just before Election Day 2009, Republican Dede Scozzafava, trailing in the polls in a three-way special election campaign in New York’s 23rd District, dropped out—frustrated over the national GOP support that flowed to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Democrat Bill Owens was adrift in the polls. Gaspard phoned Scozzafava—and within 24 hours, she endorsed the Democrat. Gaspard “was terrific,” says Dan Cantor, executive director of New York’s progressive Working Families Party, who has known Gaspard for many years. “And we won.”

Heading into November, Gaspard will oversee where and how the administration throws its weight around. Naturally, the Obama White House is not lacking in political opinions. David Axelrod, the lugubrious keeper of the Obama message, David Plouffe, the baby-faced campaign manager turned voice of Organizing for America, and Rahm Emanuel, who perfected his belligerence as 2006 chairman of the DCCC, all have outsize political footprints. The president himself told Gaspard during campaign season: “I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

Nevertheless, Gaspard, who holds the job occupied most recently by Karl Rove, is one of the most powerful men in American politics. His team, along with deputy chief of staff Jim Messina and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, handles most of the incoming pleas from the numerous candidates and constituencies in search of political TLC. “He builds relationships; he puts out fires; he identifies fires when they’re about to start; he’s a sounding board for the president whenever something is happening,” says the DNC organizer, who has worked with Gaspard on events and messaging. “And he’s just never rattled.”

For 10 years as executive vice president of the influential Service Employees International Union’s 1199 chapter, Gaspard taught a master class in influence within New York City. “There is no political office in New York that did not feel his impact, and many of them owe their careers to him,” says one organizer affiliated with a progressive labor party. His circle of allies range from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to key SEIU health-care broker Dennis Rivera, to Joe Bruno—the Republican former head of the New York State Senate recently convicted of fraud.

Since his early days working for candidates like Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins, and organizing protests in the wake of the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting, Gaspard has been deemed a “liberal creep” by conservative Michelle Malkin for his ties to the now-defunct ACORN operation. He’s also built a reputation as a “lethal,” “bulldoggish” organizer. “His forte was getting feet on the ground and working at the grassroots—for or against you,” says Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York. “You wanted Patrick on your side.”

So, too, did candidate Obama. After months of trying, he recruited Gaspard in August 2008, both as a link to the labor movement and to what had been Hillary Clinton’s home turf. Obama appreciated Gaspard’s loyalty to SEIU (he recently turned down a plum job there to remain in government), his commitment to organizing, and his comparatively exotic family history—Gaspard was born in then-Zaire to Haitian expatriates. And like Obama, he builds easy bridges to different demographics. “People can relate to him, old and young,” says Meeks. The 41-year-old organizer “understands civil rights and he understands hip-hop.”

The transition to Washington has had its hiccups—notably the special Senate election loss in Massachusetts that almost derailed the president’s plan for health-care reform. Two days before the vote, it was clear candidate Martha Coakley was doomed. Everyone around Gaspard, from the DNC aides dispatched in a last-ditch canvassing effort, to the Organizing for America volunteers flooding the state with phone calls, knew it. At the time, Gaspard was “totally overwhelmed,” says a former aide, by a professional and personal crisis: A 7.3-magnitude earthquake had leveled his parents’ place of birth. Still managing the dual disasters, Gaspard boarded Air Force One to Boston, and stood dutifully behind the scenes as his boss went through the motions of trying to recreate the booming, hopeful rallies they’d staged during the 2008 campaign.

The high-profile flameout was precisely the type of political failure that Obama brought Gaspard to Washington to prevent. All parties, from the White House to the Coakley campaign, have insisted that the lesson has been learned. Lynda Tran, who arrived at the DNC in the wake of the Massachusetts debacle, says that major loss “has informed the 2010 plan, and certainly we’re more aware that things move quickly and that we have to respond much earlier.”

But is Gaspard prepared for a dozen disasters at once? It’s only primary season, and the landscape heading into November is chaotic, to say the least: Democratic candidates on the ropes are leery of Obama’s embrace; and the White House has struggled to tamp down expensive infighting that could damage the party’s chances in November. In Hawaii, for example, two Democrats refused to back down from a special election primary. Some $314,000 later, the DCCC pulled out of the race in a huff—likely handing the congressional seat to a Republican. A similar dynamic exists between Specter and liberal congressman Joe Sestak, Senator Blanche Lincoln and Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, and Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner—leaving campaign committees, the DNC, and the White House in a bind as to who merits support.

Gaspard is responsible for gathering intelligence, making peace and doling out tough love. But he is also responsible for winning—which could be difficult if summer 2010 unfolds like the last one. Then, a hurricane of town halls protesting health-care reform shocked members of Congress, and turned the tables on the White House supposedly driven by community organizing. This summer, Organizing for America is trying to replicate the basic organizing structures that worked for the Obama campaign with a June 5 day of door-knocking action. Gaspard will remain heavily involved in the support of White House-sanctioned candidates in primaries and in the general election.

Gaspard may have inherited Rove’s brief (Jarrett has his office)—but he’s Rove’s stylistic opposite. “He’s not someone that’s going to put his name behind any given decision or choice of candidate or forcing out of candidate,” according to a White House staffer who worked extensively on health-care messaging in 2009. Then again, he has a few things in common with the man President Bush called “The Architect.” While campaigning for Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan Borough president who challenged Rudy Giuliani in 1997, Gaspard impressed her as having “a smart sense of not just looking at a poll,” says Messinger, “but thinking about a deeper and more thoughtful level about how might you change minds.”

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.