Ed Gillespie, powerful Republican lobbyist and former RNC chair, announced yesterday that he's running for Senate in Virginia, challenging the popular Democrat Mark Warner. In July 2001, Ryan Lizza profiled Gillespie—who has worked in politics for decades but never run for office before—calling him "the most important operative you've never heard of in the Bush presidency."
Hanging on the wall in Ed Gillespie's downtown Washington office is the original, poster-sized advertisement for the Contract With America. "A CAMPAIGN PROMISE IS ONE THING," it reads, "A SIGNED CONTRACT IS QUITE ANOTHER." Gillespie took this very poster to the focus groups that helped him devise the Contract's marketing strategy; later, it was the model for the ad that ran in TV Guide the week before the 1994 election. If you look closely you can see the signatures of Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, and Bill Paxon—leaders of a bygone Republican age.
Next to the ad hangs a more recent political artifact: a large, round, translucent seal that served as the official insignia of George W. Bush's Presidential Inaugural Committee, for which Gillespie served as spokesman. Bush's communications staff presented the seal to Gillespie following the president's inauguration.
The distance between these two memorabilia is a political eternity—a burned-out Republican revolution, a Democratic resurgence, the resignation of a House speaker and speaker-designate, the impeachment of a president, and, finally, the contested election of a presidential son who promised a Republican Party utterly different from the one that collapsed after 1994. But the proximity of the two artifacts on Gillespie's wall serves as a reminder that, in fact, the GOP establishment of W.'s Washington is very much the GOP establishment of Newt's Washington. George W. Bush's great political success has been to convince Americans that his "compassionate conservatism" represents a break from the radicalism of the Gingrich era. Were that really true, however, Ed Gillespie could not possibly wield the power he wields today. Indeed, it was Gillespie—salesman for the Contract, protégé of Barbour, and the House staffer widely credited with Dick Armey's rise to power—who was responsible for nightly programming at last summer's GOP convention, that weeklong exercise in separating Bush from his Republican forebears. While Gillespie banished veteran revolutionaries such as Armey from the lineup of speakers, he literally tossed back beers with them after the show was over. Put another way: The most important operative you never heard of during the Gingrich revolution is also the most important operative you've never heard of in the Bush presidency.
Last September, when Gillespie appeared on CNN's "Crossfire," liberal pundit Bill Press greeted him with a wry question: "Ed, we see you here in the studio [in Washington], then we see you in Philadelphia, now we see you in Austin. Do you have a hard time holding down one job, Ed?" It was true: Early in the Bush campaign, Gillespie worked as an unpaid strategist from his perch as head of a small Washington lobbying firm. In June he took the number-two job (under Andy Card, now Bush's chief of staff) running Bush's Philadelphia convention. By his "Crossfire" appearance three months later, Gillespie had moved to Austin full-time to help Bush recover from a late-summer slump. And it didn't stop there. In November Gillespie was in Florida, coordinating the Republicans' strategy and message for the Miami-Dade recount. In January he was chief spokesman for the inaugural committee; in February he served as an adviser to new Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
In February he left the administration to return to the one-year-old, phenomenally successful lobbying firm he founded with Democrat Jack Quinn. But, if anything, his clout with the White House grew. The next month Gillespie assembled a coalition of corporations to back the president's education plan. In June he convinced the administration to abandon its free-market principles and to adopt a series of protectionist measures for the steel industry, one of his firm's clients. And, last week, he bought $100,000 worth of TV time for ads pushing the Bush energy plan. "He just pops up everywhere," observes Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project.
But if it's taken the Bush presidency for Gillespie to assume the title of Top Washington Fixer at the tender age of 39, his gradual ascent took place mostly on Capitol Hill, where he spent more than a decade as a top aide to Armey, beginning in 1985. "Armey had the really cool staff, not Gingrich," says a top conservative activist. "And Gillespie was part of that." Indeed, numerous sources credit Gillespie with a crucial role in Armey's transformation from obscure backbencher to majority leader. In 1987, as part of a campaign to cut government waste, Armey began pushing a controversial plan to close more than 100 underutilized military bases across the country. It was a task for which Armey was almost uniquely unsuited—he was an unknown two-term congressman, he hadn't served in the military, and he did not even sit on the relevant committee. But Gillespie changed all that with a dazzlingly successful public relations campaign that foreshadowed the kind that dominate policy debates today.
He started by writing an op-ed with Armey and sending it to Barry Goldwater, conservative icon and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who immediately agreed to add his name. (Asked by Gillespie if he had any edits, Goldwater barked back into the phone, "Don't change a damn word of it.") On May 7, 1987, the op-ed appeared in The Washington Post and then, through the Post's syndicate, in smaller papers around the country. Prompted by phone calls from Gillespie, editorial boards at the hometown newspapers of wavering Armed Services Committee members followed with their own editorials urging passage of the plan. Armey personally showed the editorials to nervous congressmen as proof that the base-closings were popular in their districts. Gillespie also succeeded in getting talk radio, the networks, and the major dailies interested in the subject. The media campaign was so successful in spurring Congress to act that, at one point, Representative Pat Schroeder, a leading member of the Armed Services Committee, complained on the House floor that Congress was letting the press stampede it into passing the legislation.
Armey's plan became law in 1988, and it vaulted the congressman from obscurity. "The thing that made Dick Armey's career was his successful selling of the original base-closing law," says a former Roll Call reporter who covered the bill. "Ed was the one who really put together a concerted marketing campaign to make that idea happen.... Before that, Armey was just a backbencher."
A few years later, in 1992, Armey used his reputation as an anti-big-government crusader to overthrow the more moderate Jerry Lewis as chairman of the House Republican Conference in a race that would prove a harbinger of the Gingrichian takeover of the congressional GOP. With Gillespie's help, Armey defeated Lewis by four votes; immediately, Gillespie and his fellow operatives set about turning the Conference from a backwater largely concerned with hosting weekly coffees and organizing committee assignments into a campaign-style communications nerve center for the Republican effort to retake Congress. "They changed it from the role it had traditionally played under [Jack] Kemp and Lewis and others into a very aggressive communications operation," says one former senior House Republican leadership aide. Heading into the 1994 elections, Gillespie became a principal architect of the Contract With America, even authoring the titles of the ten pieces of Contract legislation--"The American Dream Restoration Act," "The Family Reinforcement Act," "The Taking Back Our Streets Act," and so on. The result was the Republican Party's greatest congressional triumph in 48 years.
When the revolution began to collapse under the weight of Gingrichian ego and ideological overreach in 1996, Gillespie escaped to the Republican National Committee (RNC) and then "downtown"—Capitol Hill's euphemism for K Street—the following year. But, in a sense, he has never really left. Last year he headed up the K Street fund-raising effort for a GOP initiative dubbed romp (Retain Our Majority Program). And he is a member of the elite group of GOP lobbyists who meet regularly with the Senate Republicans' K Street liaisons, Senators Rick Santorum and Kay Bailey Hutchison. "Maybe his greatest value to the party is his ability to connect with the rank-and-file members, the guys that understand that there's this communications element, this political/strategic element to what we're doing as conservatives," says a White House staffer, referring to Gillespie's Hill connections. "Go look from 1994 to today, and if you step back and look at the big-picture direction of the country, the major political events, Eddie hasn't been on the fringes, he's been in the center."
Indeed, when Gillespie left Capitol Hill, he didn't simply become a lobbyist; he began moving seamlessly between the worlds of campaigning, governing, and lobbying. First, heading into the 1996 election, Gillespie joined Barbour at the RNC as communications director. There, he was among a tiny coterie of GOP officials who in early October designed a strategy to protect their majority by abandoning Bob Dole's sinking campaign and convincing voters that they should elect a Republican Congress to counterbalance the inevitable Clinton presidency.
After the election, Gillespie followed his boss to the lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, where he started a public relations subsidiary, Policy Impact Communications. By hitching his star to Barbour, he learned the art of Washington influence-peddling from the most important Republican lobbyist of the '90s (Barbour's firm is ranked number one on Fortune magazine's latest survey). On any given issue, "members need to know it's good policy and good politics," says Barbour. "Ed is a master of that."
By the summer of 1997, Gillespie, while employed as a lobbyist, was doing freelance spinning for both Barbour (who was caught up in a campaign finance scandal) and Armey (who had tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Gingrich). As the 1998 elections approached, Gillespie lobbied by day (Philip Morris, the American Trucking Associations, and many others) and plotted strategy with congressional Republicans by night. (One memo to party leaders: Being anti-affirmative action "does not resonate strongly with voters when unemployment is below 5 percent.") After the elections, when Clinton's impeachment shifted to the Senate, Gillespie became even more indispensable to his friends on the Hill. Trent Lott, then majority leader, tapped Gillespie as one of a handful of strategists to help him steer through the political thicket of a Senate trial. The operatives met in secret, funneling their advice through congressional staffers so Lott himself would never be tied directly to the group. Convening almost daily around the conference table in the majority leader's hideaway office, they helped Lott craft a plan to disentangle Republicans from the increasingly unpopular impeachment without incurring the wrath of the party's conservative base.
Through these campaigns, Gillespie developed a Washington lobbyist's most important asset: He became more indispensable to the politicians he lobbied then they were to him. Asked about Gillespie, Representative Rob Portman, a close White House adviser who is often mentioned as a future congressional leader, says, "If I ever got in trouble, I'd go to Eddie." This influence is now making Gillespie one of the richest lobbyists in Washington. Last year, he paired up with former Clinton counsel Jack Quinn (now famous for helping secure a presidential pardon for Marc Rich) to form Quinn Gillespie & Associates. After just one year, with income of $8.5 million, the tiny company ranked eleventh on Fortune's list of D.C.'s most powerful lobbying firms.
During the Clinton years, Gillespie had used his deep connections on Capitol Hill to turn himself into one of the GOP's most influential lobbyists and strategists. But, as the Clinton presidency drew to a close, Gillespie surely realized that Congress might be eclipsed as the center of Republican power. So he set out to attach himself to the campaign of the GOP presidential front-runner, Texas Governor George W. Bush. Judging from the Bush campaign's public image, one might have thought Gillespie would be less than welcome. After all, candidate Bush famously avoided being photographed with members of the congressional Republican leadership, and in September 1999 he even publicly repudiated them for trying "to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." But privately Gillespie was quickly embraced.
The courtship began in July 1999 when Gillespie orchestrated his friend John Kasich's endorsement of Bush. By April 2000 Karl Rove had invited him to be a member of the "Gang of Six," the band of Beltway operatives—Gillespie, Paxon, Mary Matalin, Charles Black, Vin Weber, and Barbour—who served as a formal strategy group for Bush's Texas brain trust. The gang, a who's who of Gingrich-era Washington insiders, represented the leading edge of the Beltway colonization of the Bush campaign--a transformation rarely remarked on amid all the coverage of Bush's Texas inner circle. Each member was given a specific area of strategy to manage. Matalin analyzed the structural weaknesses of the Gore campaign, Black plotted how to use the RNC, and Gillespie crafted the language of the attacks on Al Gore. Gillespie proved so valuable that he was soon asked by Bush communications director Karen Hughes and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh to serve as the program chairman of the Republican convention, the number-two position. Everything that appeared onstage (speakers, entertainment, scripts, and visuals) from 7:30 to 11:00 every night was under Gillespie's purview.
The theme, of course, was that George W. was "a different kind of Republican." In implementing it, Gillespie helped keep congressional party leaders—the very people he had helped bring to power—off the stage, replacing them with a multicultural lineup that started with The Rock and ended with Chaka Khan. In short, the image-maker who wrote and marketed the Contract With America also produced the stagecraft that erased the Contract's stain from the Republican Party. Not that Gillespie's buddies on the Hill seemed to mind. During the convention, Gillespie was fêted at a blowout thirty-ninth birthday party at a local Irish pub. Armey, Kasich, and other House Republicans banned from prime-time showed up to toast him.
After the convention, Gillespie's importance to the campaign only grew. September 2000 is remembered among Bushies as "Black September," the month of "rats, moles, and bad polls." In response, Hughes invited him to move down to Austin to help sharpen Bush's message and step up the attacks on Gore. Gillespie successfully flacked a story about how a group of pornographers had endorsed Gore, forcing the veep to disavow any association with the group. He also helpfully assisted reporters with stories about pollution on Gore's Tennessee farm. And he was at the center of the successful plan to transform Gore's misstatements during the debates into a national story about Gore's credibility.
On election night, Gillespie worked his contacts at the networks, scolding them for calling states too early for Gore. After the election he headed for Miami, where he became a familiar figure to anyone covering the recount: a tall, lanky man in a dark suit with a cell phone attached to his ear, constantly pacing the eighteenth floor of the Clark Center where officials were counting ballots. He participated in regular conference calls with Rove to develop message and strategy, and helped orchestrate--with Barry Jackson, a friend and Hill colleague who served as political director for the Contract With America and is now a top Rove aide--the campaign against Florida hand counts that culminated in the GOP mini-riot on November 22 at the Clark Center and in the canvassing board's decision to stop the recount. Gillespie was also instrumental in the public relations campaign to tag Gore as anti-military—leaking the Gore campaign's infamous legal memo on disqualifying military ballots to Robert Novak, who devoted a column to it and was soon on CNN asking Tom Daschle, "The figures I have, out of 2,200 absentee military votes that came in, 1,400 were rejected on technicalities. Is that any way to win a presidency?" Three weeks later, George W. Bush was the president-elect.
Back in Washington, the White House considered Gillespie for a number of jobs, including director of congressional affairs. But Gillespie declined, agreeing only to serve as spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee and then as a transition adviser to Bush buddy Don Evans at Commerce—a department that, in 1995, Gillespie had helped Armey try to eliminate. There he helped install Jim Dyke, a Quinn Gillespie lobbyist, as Evans's spokesman.
When Gillespie left Commerce to return to his lobbying firm in mid-February, he took with him a Rolodex full of administration contacts. Indeed, while many lobbyists advised the campaign or served on transition teams, no one on K Street has served side by side with as many Bushies as Gillespie has over the past year. "Eddie's battle-tested, battle-worn," says a senior White House aide. "The guy's been there in every single venue." Consider a quick rundown of his close friends and associates: Hughes hired him to work on the campaign, and he plotted campaign strategy with Rove in Austin. He reported to Card during the convention. One of his best friends is press secretary Ari Fleischer, with whom he bunked during the debates and who almost took a job at Quinn Gillespie before joining the Bush campaign in 1999. He's also close to fellow Contract revolutionary Jackson--now director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives--and to David Hobbs, Armey's former chief of staff who is now Bush's House liaison. As a lobbyist, Gillespie represented TechNet, the Silicon Valley trade group whose former co-head, Lezlee Westine, now runs Bush's public liaison shop. And, on the other side of the revolving door, Gillespie has three former Bush staffers at his firm: Marc Lampkin, Bush's deputy campaign manager; Kyle Simmons, Bush's deputy political director and a transition adviser to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao; and Ashley Aldridge Meece, who worked on Bush's first gubernatorial campaign.
Not surprisingly, Gillespie has spent the last six months interweaving the political interests of his clients with those of the administration. After the transition, he organized Americans for Better Education with help from ex-Bushie Lampkin. The faux-grassroots organization—made up partly of Gillespie clients like Microsoft and Instinet and run out of Quinn Gillespie's Washington office—raised over $1 million to push Bush's education plan, running ads in more than a dozen congressional districts and setting up a fancy website that re-posts White House press releases on education. The White House received valuable political support and advertising, and Gillespie's clients got to pose as public champions of education—along with a little priceless access: In February Gillespie organized a meeting between members of the coalition and White House officials.
Gillespie's influence was more clearly on display in May when, as a representative for the steel industry, he helped convince the administration to adopt protectionist measures that contradicted its usual free-trade stance. To the White House, Gillespie made the political case: There are thousands of current and former steelworkers in battleground states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. He then set about organizing meetings among business and union representatives of the steel industry and administration officials. A few days after a June 1 meeting that Gillespie helped arrange—attended by Evans, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill—the administration announced it would move to place restrictions on steel imports. "Factories are closing and people are losing their jobs," Commerce spokesman (and former Gillespie employee) Dyke told The Washington Post. It was lost on no one that the decision had helped a notoriously anti-union White House make political inroads with labor. "The Clinton administration never yielded anything but `We feel your pain,'" says an official with the United Steelworkers. Gillespie "helped us figure out how to do it."
In May, Gillespie launched the 21st Century Energy Project, financed by such pro-Bush conservative groups as Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens for a Sound Economy. Ostensibly, the group's aim is to advance Bush's energy plan. But its other mission is to kill any attempt by Democrats to institute price caps to alleviate the energy crisis in the West. Which also happens to be the main goal of one of Gillespie's newest clients, Enron—the energy behemoth with closer ties to the Bush administration than perhaps any other corporation. (The company's employees and executives have given more to Bush than has any other single company.) Last week the project ran its first round of ads, which will neatly complement the series of town meetings the White House is conducting on energy policy. With the energy project, which expects to spend $500,000, Gillespie not only helps Enron but also serves as the "bad cop" attacking the Democrats on energy policy while the White House remains above the partisan fray.
This, too, is a role Gillespie has grown accustomed to playing. Every administration has reliable surrogates who can not only parrot the White House line but stick the knife in a little deeper than the president's own staff. (Think of Lanny Davis or James Carville during the Clinton era.) For Bush, Gillespie has been an invaluable advocate, usually identified merely as a "Republican strategist" on television. Already this year Gillespie has taken to the airwaves to knock down stories about Vice President Dick Cheney's heart condition, to scold the media for running stories about Bush's daughters, and to defend the administration's sagging poll numbers. When Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party, Gillespie helped put out the line that the White House couldn't disseminate itself—that Jeffords was motivated more by a new committee post than by principle. "You have to wonder if this isn't more about Jim Jeffords retaining a committee chairmanship and less about differences with the president over policy," he told one reporter.
A telling example of Gillespie's complicated inside-outside game occurred in May, when the president was facing criticism for attending the RNC's presidential gala, a $24 million fund-raising dinner attended by a who's who of GOP lobbyists and corporate executives. Gillespie, the former RNC spokesman, popped up on CNN to defend the White House as a "GOP strategist." "The fact is, what we have here is the president, in this instance, also acting as the head of the party, raising money for the party, which is nothing out of the ordinary," he explained. "There is no quid pro quo." He left unmentioned that he had personally donated $50,000 to the dinner and that, after changing into his tuxedo, he would be attending it later that night.
Which is not to suggest that Gillespie needs to buy access to the Bush administration. Because, in some respect, he is the Bush administration. He has become one of the key figures of Washington's permanent Republican establishment—an establishment that blessed Bush's candidacy and now guides his administration far more than the White House publicly lets on. Indeed, if one of the central questions of Bush's first six months is why he has turned out to be so much more conservative than the media—and his own rhetoric—implied during the campaign, a good part of the answer is people like Ed Gillespie. In foreign affairs, Poppy's advisers may reign supreme. But on domestic policy, old hands such as Barbour and Paxon and Gillespie—and dozens of less prominent conservative insiders—shape the policies of George W. Bush just as they shaped the policies of Gingrich and Armey before him. When I ask one top Bush aide how often Gillespie advises the White House, he seems almost puzzled by the question. "I guess the best way to describe it," he says, "is that there is a merry band of warriors that have been together for years. And all of us are tied together by politics and our involvement in the process. It's tough to separate official White House strategy conversations and us just sitting around the table." No wonder Ed Gillespie hasn't taken the Contract With America down from his wall.