In 2010, Scott Walker was the young, hyperambitious executive of Milwaukee County and one of three candidates angling for the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial nomination. Part of his official duties included overseeing Operation Freedom, a charity event that raised money for veterans and their families. When Walker's chief of staff caught wind that $11,000 of the nonprofit's money had gone missing, Walker had his office ask the local district attorney to investigate. Now that he's seeking the Republican presidential nomination, he probably wishes it hadn't.
The prosecutors caught the scent of more than just missing funds, coming to suspect that members of Walker's staff had blurred the lines between official business and politicking. When Walker balked at handing over more documents, the DA asked a judge to open a so-called John Doe investigation. Unique to Wisconsin, a John Doe is a wide-ranging secret inquiry similar to a federal grand jury probe. For nearly three years—during which time Walker was elected governor, won a showdown with public-sector unions, and survived a recall attempt—prosecutors collected thousands of documents, interviewed dozens of witnesses, and even raided homes and offices in search of evidence. Eventually, they filed criminal charges against six people connected to Walker.
The fallout from the probe isn't the only legal drama Walker must contend with as he inches toward a 2016 presidential run: A second investigation has been following the money behind his campaign to defeat the 2012 recall effort. Walker has called the whole ordeal a "political witch hunt," and his allies say he will emerge not only unscathed, but reenergized. Yet the ongoing controversy has cast a pall over the rising Republican star and has exposed the inner workings of a political machine that allegedly flouted election laws and wooed anonymous dark-money donors, teetering between campaigning and corruption.
The initial John Doe investigation centered on the discovery that members of Walker's county staff had routinely engaged in political activity on official time, working to bolster his political fortunes and those of the state GOP. Their transgressions ranged from minor oversights to flagrant violations of the fundamental premise that taxpayer money and government resources cannot be used for political ends. For example, Walker's constituent services coordinator, Darlene Wink, devoted hours of work time to posting pseudonymous pro-Walker comments on local news sites. She also worked on county time planning fundraisers for Walker. According to documents collected by the prosecutors, Wink knew her activities skirted the line. Once, after asking a colleague how to erase chat messages, she wrote, "I just am afraid of going to jail—ha! ha!"
Prosecutors also found that Walker's deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, spent much of her time at her county job actually working on behalf of Walker's campaign and that of his ally running for lieutenant governor. To keep her communications from becoming public, Rindfleisch used a private email account while exchanging more than 1,000 messages with Walker's campaign staff. These messages illustrate how Walker's office and his gubernatorial campaign were at times indistinguishable, with the county staff trying to cover their tracks. In an email discussing how to plant damaging stories about Walker's 2010 primary opponent, Rindfleisch wrote, "This needs to be done covertly so it's not tied to Scott or the campaign in any way."
Just how deeply had politics pervaded Walker's supposedly apolitical office? In court, prosecutors highlighted one particularly troubling example. In July 2010, a concrete slab fell from a county parking garage, killing a 15-year-old boy. Knowing that journalists would file public records requests about the accident, Walker's campaign sprang into action. Hours after the boy's death, Walker's campaign manager ordered Rindfleisch to "make sure there is not a paper anywhere that details a problem at all."
One of Walker's campaign consultants had an idea for raising cash for an outside group: "Take Koch's money."
The probe led to six convictions. Rindfleisch was sentenced to six months in jail. Wink pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. A Walker aide and an appointee both received two-year prison sentences after admitting to embezzling more than $70,000 from Operation Freedom. And a railroad executive who'd donated to Walker's campaigns admitted to an illegal scheme in which he pressed his employees to donate to Walker and reimbursed them for it; he received two years of probation.
Walker, though, insisted he had no knowledge of any of the abuses going on under his nose. (Rindfleisch's desk was 25 feet from his office.) As his former employees and associates were sentenced, he catapulted to national stardom as a conservative governor in a blue state who took on organized labor and survived. But he wasn't in the clear yet.
In October 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed the second John Doe investigation. This time, the targets were bigger, including Walker's anti-recall campaign, two top gubernatorial aides, and some of Wisconsin's most prominent conservative advocacy groups. What came to be known as John Doe II focused on whether Walker's campaign had illegally coordinated with big donors and conservative groups to defeat the recall. In other words, the investigation went to the core of the post-Citizens United era, in which deep-pocketed outside groups may not officially coordinate with candidates' campaigns even as they raise unlimited funds for them.
In the summer of 2014, a federal judge unsealed documents detailing the prosecutors' contention that Walker, his campaign, and aides had illegally funneled money to a network of 12 supposedly independent conservative groups and directed their spending to fight the recall. At the center of the probe was the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark-money group that was run by RJ Johnson, who was also an adviser to Walker. Court filings accidentally published online revealed that a mining company had donated $700,000 to the Club; soon after, Walker signed a mining bill that the company had lobbied for. In one email, one of Walker's campaign consultants suggested ideas for raising cash for the Club, including "Take Koch's money" and "Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now."
Discussing how to plant damaging stories about Walker's opponent, an aide wrote, "This needs to be done covertly so it's not tied to Scott or the campaign in any way."
The Doe II investigation is currently on hold after pingponging among judges—some of whom have allowed it to proceed while others ordered it shut down. Its fate now rests with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear three separate challenges to the investigation. Four of the court's seven members are conservatives whose most recent election bids were supported by $10 million from the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's main business lobby. Prosecutors have petitioned at least one of those justices to step aside, but to no avail. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to rule on Doe II as soon as this summer.
Walker, who is also expected to officially announce his candidacy this summer, has sought to turn the probe to his advantage, characterizing it as terrifying government overreach. In April, he told an Iowa radio station that "even if you're a liberal Democrat, you should look at [the investigation] and be frightened to think that if the government can do that against people of one political persuasion, they can do it against anybody, and more often than not we need protection against the government itself."
Soon, however, the public won't have a clue what Goodell or anyone else in the NFL league office earns. On Tuesday, Goodell announced that the NFL will give up its tax-exempt status, claiming that it has turned into a "distraction" that "has been mischaracterized repeatedly." Here's what that means: For the first time in more than 70 years, pro football's league headquarters will pony up its share of federal taxes. But it also means the NFL won't have to file the tax forms that require it to be transparent about salaries, revenue, spending, and more.
Congress granted the NFL tax-exempt status way back in 1942, long before it was the global juggernaut that it is today, with estimated revenues of $9.5 billion a year. (Goodell wants to grow that to $25 billion by 2027.) For years, budget hawks in Congress and good-government groups have called for stripping the league of its nonprofit status and forcing it to join Major League Baseball's front office in operating like a normal taxable business. Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who never saw a piece of pork he didn't want to trim, waged a lonely war to revoke the NFL's 501(c)(6) status with a piece of legislation called the Properly Reducing Overexemptions for Sports Act (PRO Sports Act). (The bill would have eliminated tax-exempt status for all pro sports leagues.*) And in December 2013, I wrote about an anti-corruption group's campaign to gin up public support for eliminating the NFL's tax break.
Goodell's announcement will no doubt be cheered as a victory by the league's critics. So what I'm about to say will make me few friends, but here goes: The commish has a point. And the NFL giving up its tax-exempt status is bad news.
There's a wealth of information in each of the NFL's annual tax forms. Goodell doesn't mention this, but it's hard to imagine the league not relishing the opportunity to pull some of that information out of the spotlight.
Goodell frames this decision not as a financial one but as a way to move past what he sees as the misguided controversy and anger over the league's tax status.As he's quick to point out, the league's 32 teams pay taxes on all that revenue. The Pats, the Colts, my beloved Detroit Lions: None is tax-exempt. It's the NFL front office—which reported $326,882,787 in 2012-13 revenue—that doesn't pay taxes. Sure, $327 million is a lot of money, but it's a pittance compared to $9.5 billion. How much do we lose in tax revenue from this? The Joint Committee on Taxation crunched the numbers and found that the 10-year cost for giving the NFL and NHL tax-exempt status is roughly $109 million—a relatively paltry sum.
Nonetheless, critics like Coburn and government watchdog groups argue that eliminating the NFL's subsidy is the right thing to do. Any waste, they say, is bad waste. Okay, sure. But at what cost?
There's a wealth of information in each of the NFL's annual tax forms—detailed breakdowns of where the league's money comes from, front-office compensation packages, which law firms the league retains, the amounts and recipients of league grants. Goodell doesn't mention this in his announcement, but it's hard to imagine the league not relishing the opportunity to pull some of that information out of the spotlight.
Perhaps the silver lining is this: By taking the tax-exempt issue off the table, activists can instead focus their work on more-meaningful reforms. Take, for example, the grand scam of taxpayer financing for stadiums. A 2012 Bloomberg analysis calculated that federal taxpayers lost $4 billion in the last nearly 30 years' worth of stadium construction deals.* It's one of the great boondoggles in sports today, an issue where the fleecing is very real.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article said the PRO Sports Act specifically targeted the NFL. It also misstated the duration of time covered in a Bloomberg analysis of stadium financing deals.
How do you go about redefining Hillary Clinton? As one of the most well-known political figures in modern history, just about everyone in America already has a opinion of her.
After months in the lab and out in the field polling voters and testing messages, Republicans believe they have the answer they need to help prevent another four years of a Democratic presidency. As Politico reports today, the GOP plans to depict Clinton as an out-of-touch one-percenter, who doesn't drive her own car or pump her own gas, who owns multiple large houses and commanded a six-figure fee for her pre-campaign speaking gigs, who can't grasp the daily life of a working-class family. As Politico's Eli Stokols puts it, the GOP plans to "Mitt Romnify" Clinton:
The out-of-touch plutocrat template is a familiar one: Democrats used it to devastating effect against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. While Hillary Clinton's residences in New York and Washington may not have car elevators, there's still a lengthy trail of paid speeches, tone-deaf statements about the family finances, and questions about Clinton family foundation fundraising practices that will serve as cornerstones of the anti-Clinton messaging effort.
"She's admitted she hasn't driven a car for decades; she probably doesn't ever go into a coffee shop and talk to regular people unless it's for a staged photo-op," said American Crossroads CEO Steven Law, alluding to Clinton's portrayal in her campaign's launch video on Sunday. "She really has lived the life of a 1-percenter these last several years, and it shows.
"We know her team is working to rebrand her as a relatable, regular person; the question is, can she actually perform in a way that convinces people she is that person? We think that's going to be hard for her."
The outlines of the effort to Mitt Romnify Hillary Clinton are still being sketched. Crossroads, the super PAC that spent $70 million in 2012 mostly on television ads attacking President Barack Obama, is in the middle of an extensive research project analyzing voters' existing perceptions of Clinton and their reactions to a number of potential critiques. But the Republican National Committee has done focus groups that suggest Clinton is more vulnerable to charges of being imperious and bending the rules than anything else tested against her.
"The most potent message against Clinton is that she doesn't live an average life, she's out of touch and doesn't play by the same set of rules," said the RNC's research director, Raj Shah. "[T]hat resonates more deeply than some of the policy hits, the ethical hits."
Soon after Stokols' story was published, Crossroads GPS, the GOP establishment's leading dark-money group, released its own polling data from 15 battleground states highlighting what it called Clinton's "major hurdles." Based on a poll of one thousand likely voters conducted in late March, Crossroads found that 95 percent of respondents had a fully formed opinion of Clinton; her popularity was evenly split, with 49 percent favoring her and 46 percent opposing. Crossroads also claims that some of the "most potent concerns" voiced by respondents were Clinton's "record of scandals" at the State Department, as well as doubts that the former first lady "is honest and trustworthy."
The data here aren't that surprising—after all, this was a poll commissioned by a Republican shop. But what caught my eye was Crossroads founder Steven Law's statement in the press release accompanying his group's findings: "A staged van tour," he said, "can't erase the legacy of scandals and luxury lifestyle that are ingrained in Americans' view of who Hillary really is." Right there Law shows his hand—luxury lifestyle. That's on top of his "one-percenter" jab to Politico.
In other words, get ready for 18 months of ominous, grimly narrated attack ads about out-of-touch plutocrats and the lifestyles of the rich and politically famous. Except this time the target isn't Mitt Romney; it's Clinton, the Democrat trying to run as the "champion" of "everyday Americans."
Robby Mook awoke on November 14, 2014, with a knife in his back.
At 6:01 that morning, ABC News published what it billed as a juicy scoop revealing the existence of a loyal, clubby group of Democratic staffers who called themselves the "Mook Mafia," so named for the star political operative, who was then a leading contender to run Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. In leaked emails, Mook, the group's self described "Deacon," urged his friends to "smite Republicans mafia-style." Mook's on-again, off-again colleague Marlon Marshall—a.k.a. "Most High Grown Ass Reverend Marlon D"—echoed his friend's bro-ish, mock-dramatic tone. "F U Republicans," he wrote to the list. "Mafia till I die."
ABC didn't name its source but described the person as a Mook Mafia list member who "does not support the idea of Mook or Marshall holding leadership roles" in a second Clinton presidential run. By leaking a cherry-picked series of emails, this source sought to knock Mook out of the running for the campaign manager job. Clinton's campaign was still in the earliest stages, and the infighting had already begun.
But the attempt to kneecap Mook backfired. Instead, the episode illustrated the dysfunctional, cutthroat atmosphere surrounding the Clintons and underscored the need for a campaign chief who could manage the competing factions within Hillary Clinton's universe. Embarrassing though the leak may have been, it bolstered the case for Mook, who's known for inspiring loyalty and handling outsize egos, to take the reins of Clinton 2016.
Within days, Clinton is expected to officially launch her next presidential bid—and Mook will be her campaign manager. He has the formidable task of repackaging perhaps the most widely known and picked-over public figure in modern politics and convincing a weary electorate that she should lead the country for the next four years. He will have to hold together the many tribes and fiefdoms within the Clinton community, while sidestepping—and surviving—the sort of backstabbing that felled his predecessors.
Clinton Inc. Planet Hillary. Hillaryland.
Whatever it's called, this is the vast network of advisers, fixers, donors, lackeys, celebrity pals, old campaign hands, State Department staff, friends of Bill, friends of Hillary, and friends of Chelsea that surrounds the Clintons. "They just keep building on all of the people who are well intentioned, well meaning, extremely loyal, but all have an opinion and want to be heard," says Patti Solis Doyle, a former aide and friend of Hillary dating back decades.
Solis Doyle was the first campaign manager of the former first lady's 2008 presidential run. But Hillaryland's warring factions and score-settling press leaks proved too much. In the thick of the 2008 nomination fight, Clinton relieved her of operational duties—via email and a surprise conference call—and so Solis Doyle quit.
Mook, for his part, got a sense of what it will be like to manage the Clintonworld cast of characters when he ran the campaign of Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of Bill and Hillary who was elected governor of Virginia in 2013. McAuliffe's first run for governor, in 2009, was a disaster. He lost the Democratic nomination by 23 points. Four years later, with Mook at the helm, McAuliffe's campaign was so focused and disciplined it caught some of the candidate's own friends by surprise. One senior McAuliffe aide says he couldn't recall a single leak from a campaign surrogate.
Hillary Clinton took note of Mook's work on the McAuliffe campaign. She wants desperately to avoid the mistakes of her last race and run a low-drama campaign. Knowing this, advisers and former aides say, it's not surprising she chose Mook. "He's cut from a very different cloth from the bold, brash campaign managers that we hear about so often," says pollster Geoff Garin, who worked with Mook on McAuliffe's 2013 run. "He does not seek out the spotlight and in fact does everything he can to avoid it."
Mook is widely known as Robby, not Robert, and at 35, he's still boyish—handsome and clean-shaven with close-cropped brown hair. His usual uniform consists of chinos and bland dress shirts rolled up to the elbows. He couldn't be more different from, say, James Carville, the loudmouth Ragin' Cajun who advised Bill Clinton's first presidential bid and now makes a living as a consultant and TV commentator. Mook rarely appears in news stories or on TV. He did not respond to repeated interview requests. He has no Facebook page. He has a Twitter account but never tweets and has forgotten the password.
Mook, who will be the first openly gay manager of a major presidential campaign, is largely unknown beyond the insular world of Democratic staffers but well liked within it. In addition to the email listserv, his loyal following—the Mook Mafia—plans yearly reunions, during which they return to a state where they once operated for a weekend of bar-hopping mixed with volunteering for a local campaign.
Mook's friends and colleagues struggle to identify any particular policy issue that drives him. Mark Penn-style theories about key demographic groups (remember Soccer Moms?) don't inspire him either. He's a political nerd who lives and dies by data and nuts-and-bolts organizing. At heart, according to those who know him, he's a mechanic. "What drives Robby is the opportunity to run a better campaign than he did the last time," says Tom Hughes, who hired Mook for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
Yet in the McAuliffe race, relying on data, organizing, and a test-everything standard wasn't enough. The secret sauce in Mook's stewardship of the McAuliffe operation was his ability to manage and harness all the friends and well-wishers in the candidate's orbit, from Bill and Hillary Clinton down to the lowliest county chairman. "This is where temperament comes in," says Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton who helped out on the campaign. "Robby corralled us, engaged us, channeled us, used us, but didn't let us hijack all his time or the campaign."
Think of Mook, then, as the Hillaryland Whisperer. But Mook can't focus on Clintonworld alone. He will also need to manage the influx of Obama alums expected to join Hillary's team and ensure that old grudges and bad habits from the 2008 campaign don't resurface. (John Podesta, Bill Clinton's chief of staff who went on to lead Obama's transition team and now chairs Hillary's presumptive campaign, might be able to help with that.)
Mook can't eliminate all of the internal chaos that sunk Solis Doyle. He can't reshuffle Hillary Clinton's inner circle to his liking. His charge will be handling the egos, absorbing the sharp elbows, and putting to good use the brains, money, and connections of the ever-expanding Clinton universe.
"Hillary's not going to dispense with Maggie Williams. She's not going to dispense with Cheryl Mills. She's not going to dispense with Huma Abedin just because the new boy's on the block," says one Democrat close to the Clintons, listing three of Hillary's closest longtime advisers. "The new boy on the block has to learn who those people are, how to accommodate them, and, importantly, how to harness them towards the common enterprise. They all want Hillary elected, but they also all have their own turf."
The political education of Robby Mook began at the local dump. "Everybody has to go to the dump on weekends," he told the Vermont weekly Seven Days in 2013, in one of the few interviews he's ever given. "My earliest memory campaigning was going to the dump to get petition signatures or handing out literature." The son of a Dartmouth physics professor and a hospital administrator, Mook organized phone banks for the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign as a 16-year-old. He parlayed a freshman-year bit part in Hanover High's production of Molière's comédie-ballet The Imaginary Invalid into a volunteer gig for the play's director, Matt Dunne, a 24-year-old then running for his second term in the Vermont state Legislature. (Dunne says Mook's Invalid audition was one of the funniest he's ever seen.) A few summers later, Dunne asked Mook to launch a political action committee to raise funds for Vermont's House Democrats. Mook was a rising college sophomore who could not yet legally drink a beer, but he won the trust of the state party's old guard. After graduating from Columbia in 2002 with a degree in classics, Mook spent a year as the Vermont Democratic Party's field director. Soon after the 2002 election, the state party's former executive director, Tom Hughes, recruited Mook to join the New Hampshire staff for Howard Dean's insurgent presidential run.
When Mook signed on in the spring of 2003, Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had just 425 official supporters—nationwide—and $150,000 in the bank. The New Hampshire team set up shop in a decrepit, asbestos-riddled mill warehouse in Manchester. "It looked like where Walter White might make meth," one Dean staffer recalls. Hughes, who shared a Manchester apartment with Mook, says Mook arrived with a futon, a few changes of clothes, and a pair of dumbbells. Steve Gerencser, the Dean campaign's deputy political director in New Hampshire, recalls Mook buying groceries and taking them straight to the office fridge.
"Mini-Mook": For Mook's 24th birthday, his colleagues at the Dean campaign bought a life-size, stand-up cardboard cutout of him. Meryl Levin / Originally published in Primarily New Hampshire
At 23, "Mookie" quickly became the heart of the New Hampshire operation, former colleagues say, the rare boss beloved and respected by his charges, a workaholic who would put on a wickedly funny Scottish accent, a raconteur quick to deploy a joke or funny story at staff parties. (For Mook's 24th birthday, his colleagues bought a life-size, stand-up cardboard cutout of him—"Mini-Mook"—looped a red-white-and-blue lei over its shoulders, and made sure it was waiting when he arrived at his party at a local sports bar.) John Hagner, who interned on the Dean campaign and worked with Mook for years afterward, recalls his old colleague's knack for motivating those around him. When Mook asked Hagner to stay on with Dean after his internship, Hagner didn't hesitate. "Of course I'll quit my job," he says, "sleep on a someone's floor, get paid $800 a month—and be grateful for it."
At some point, the Deaniacs in New Hampshire realized that their strategy—paying canvassers to knock on doors and make phone calls—was not going to reach enough voters to win the primary. So on a broiling hot day in July 2003, the campaign staff gathered at the University of New Hampshire for a retreat with organizing guru Marshall Ganz, a wise, crusty Harvard professor who had worked with Cesar Chavez and members of the civil rights movement. As if the yoga and team-building exercises weren't hippie-dippy enough, the campaign held Ganz's crash course on community organizing in a rustic yurt. Ganz told the staffers they should ditch paid canvassers promoting Dean with a cookie-cutter script and instead organize a network of volunteers who would speak to their neighbors and friends and share their personal reasons for supporting Dean. With these techniques, Ganz argued, the Deaniacs could assemble an army of local volunteers and organizers capable of turning out huge numbers of voters. The Dean campaign embraced it.
But as Mook would learn, a well-designed ground game can't compensate for a flawed candidate. Dean's infamous scream after the Iowa caucuses sapped the New Hampshire campaign's momentum. Still, with the help of 4,500 volunteers working on Election Day, Dean outperformed the polls and finished second in the primary behind then-Sen. John Kerry, who went on to win the Democratic nomination.
Despite the loss, the merry band of Deaniacs would use Ganz's teachings to reinvent Democratic campaigning. Jeremy Bird, a regional field director for Dean in New Hampshire, is one of the most sought-after consultants in Democratic politics, having masterminded Obama's Ganz-like organizing strategy during the '08 and '12 campaigns. Karen Hicks, the head of Dean's New Hampshire team, brought her grassroots chops to Clinton's 2008 campaign. Ben LaBolt, a Dean field organizer, went on to become the press secretary for Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. Buffy Wicks, who worked in Iowa and New Hampshire for Dean, played key roles overseeing Obama's get-out-the-vote efforts in '08 and '12; she now runs Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC aiming to raise upwards of $300 million to elect Hillary Clinton next year.
The Kerry campaign and party pooh-bahs in Washington were impressed enough to hire Hicks, Mook, and Bird for the general election. But in contrast to the scrappy Dean alums, Kerry's senior staff sneered at using volunteers to win elections. Fucking drum-circle weirdos—that's what some Kerry insiders called Mook and his colleagues. Mook, who hated being stuck in DC crunching numbers, would wander around headquarters slapping mailing stickers onto himself and colleagues in a not-so-subtle call for getting out of the office. He spent the campaign's final weeks in Wisconsin, where Kerry won by a scant 11,000 votes.
George W. Bush's reelection left Mook and Bird, now roommates in a tiny studio apartment in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood, searching for new gigs. Bird fondly remembers sitting around one night, the two roommates buried in books, Bird whipping through fiction while ribbing Mook for reading slowly. Mook's excuse: He was reading in Greek. His bookshelves are still stocked with books in the original Greek and histories of esoteric topics including numismatics, the study of currency.
Mook could have sought a cushy job at a political consulting firm or a senior slot on a high-profile race. Instead, he decided to run the campaign of Dave Marsden, a candidate for state delegate in northern Virginia. "You could look at it and say, 'Ew, that looked like a backwards move,' but in fact it was very deliberate," says Hicks, Mook's boss on the Dean and Kerry campaigns. "He wanted to learn to manage from the ground up and wanted experience not just from the field side but from the entire campaign."
Marsden was a first-time candidate, but Mook treated the campaign like a presidential run in miniature. He hired five full-time organizers to cover the tiny 13-precinct district and enlisted Bird to train them. Drawing on his Rolodex of friends, congressional staffers, and campaign operatives, he threw a packed keg party fundraiser for Marsden at a mansion on Capitol Hill, though few, if any, of the paying attendees could vote in the race. By Election Day, the campaign and its volunteers had so thoroughly blanketed the district that Mook's master list of likely Marsden supporters showed one voter unaccounted for. Forty-five minutes before polls closed, Mook drove to her home, waited outside until she returned, and confirmed that, yes, she'd voted. Marsden won by 20 points in a toss-up district. "I don't think Fairfax County had ever seen a campaign organized on this level before," Marsden says.
The following year, Mook managed the Maryland Democratic Party's coordinated campaign, a thankless job plotting strategy, keeping dozens of candidates on the same page, and fundraising for Dems up and down the ballot. "It's a small state, but they have a lot of very big players," says Josh White, who ran Martin O'Malley's successful gubernatorial campaign that year. "It was important to have somebody who could literally coordinate everybody and try to keep everybody happy." In Maryland, Mook met Marlon Marshall, who became a close friend and collaborator. He was as brash and effusive as Mook was unassuming. But the two shared a healthy helping of ambition, and in early 2007, they joined Mook's old boss Karen Hicks on Hillary Clinton's nascent presidential campaign. Mook and Marshall were dispatched to Nevada, where they set out to build a Dean-style, volunteer-powered, grassroots machine that could deliver Clinton an early caucus win.
Soon after her victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary, Hillary Clinton flew to Las Vegas. It was mid-January 2008, and there was a week to go before the Nevada caucuses. Huddled with her senior staff in a private room at a steakhouse, Clinton vented her frustrations.
She felt burned, having sunk huge amounts of time and money into the Iowa caucuses only to be routed by Obama, who was proving difficult to dispatch. Now, her campaign was broke. Why would Nevada—another caucus state, one where the most powerful labor unions had endorsed Obama—be any different from Iowa? Local elected officials bitched to Clinton about her Nevada operation's progress. "Everybody was sort of freaking out about where we were," Hicks recalls. Bill and Hillary said they'd just as soon skip Nevada and focus on Super Tuesday, the one-day primary bonanza in February.
The task of convincing Clinton not to retreat from Nevada fell, in large part, to Mook. Seated across from Clinton and her top aides, Mook pointed to strong levels of support in the state among women, Latinos, and low-income voters. Despite being starved for funds, Mook and his team had pulled out all the stops to win over key activists throughout the state. He had even attended, unbeknownst to his staff, a Celine Dion concert at Caesar's Palace at the request of a local LGBT rights group. (He made it back to the Nevada campaign office on Tropicana Avenue in time for the nightly check-in call.)
Hillary and Bill thought it over. In the end, they agreed: Stay and fight it out. President Clinton planted himself in Nevada for the final week, and Hillary went door-to-door.
By midafternoon of caucus day, it was clear that Mook was right; Clinton won with 51 percent of the popular vote. (Obama, however, wound up with more of Nevada's delegates.) The media, so eager to write off Clinton's candidacy after Iowa, described her roaring back. Rory Reid, the Clinton campaign's Nevada chairman, invited Mook to the Clintons' suite in the Bellagio to celebrate. Mook had spent the previous two days in a frantic final push; grimy and sweaty, he arrived last to the suite. "When everybody else was celebrating," says Reid, a son of Sen. Harry Reid, "he was trying to wash off the results of a 48-hour organizing effort."
Despite the Clinton campaign's top-down approach to winning the nomination, giving more weight to national polls and fundraising totals than state-level organizing, Mook did his part to bring the Dean style of campaigning to Clintonworld. His record wasn't lost on his foes in the Obama campaign. "He beat us three times; his footprint was on our back," David Plouffe, one of the architects of Obama's presidential campaigns, told Bloomberg News. "Our sense was he did the best job of anyone over there."
Clinton's Nevada campaign was the birthplace of the Mook Mafia, with the core group following Mook and picking up additional members as Mook bounced from one state to the next for Clinton, winning primary victories in Ohio, Indiana, and Puerto Rico. The group's name became official in Indiana, when the mafiosi surprised Mook with T-shirts emblazoned with a Marlon Marshall mantra: "Mook Mafia: Please Believe."
After Clinton lost the nomination to Obama, Mook spent the fall of 2008 managing Jeanne Shaheen's Senate race in New Hampshire. But he never strayed far from the Clinton camp. After Obama tapped Clinton to serve as his secretary of state, Mook had the option of taking a job in Foggy Bottom, but decided against it. Instead, he went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party organization focused on electing Democrats to the US House of Representatives. There, Mook would learn the mechanics of congressional races from Maine to Hawaii. For his first job as political director, he recruited new candidates to run for office for the 2010 midterms, and he accumulated an obsessive knowledge of the nation's 435 House districts. He was later promoted to a job presiding over the DCCC's $65 million war chest for independent ad spending in 2010. He witnessed up close and personal the rise of the tea party and the shellacking the Democrats endured that year. During the 2012 cycle, when House Democrats upended pundits' grim predictions by winning more than a dozen seats, he ran the entire organization.
Mook hadn't yet left the DCCC when he agreed to run Terry McAuliffe's second bid for governor. Going into Terry 2.0, Mook knew the job would require imposing discipline on the famously restive "Macker." ("Sleep when you're dead!" was McAuliffe's refrain to his sleep-deprived staffers.) Despite McAuliffe's prodigious fundraising abilities, Mook drew on the technological wizardry of the Obama '12 campaign and the DIY culture of Dean '04, borrowing furniture from local Democratic committees and putting staffers up at Super 8 motels; Mook's own standing desk, one staffer recalls, was a stack of copy-paper boxes.
Mook assembled a team that included Mook Mafia members and top talent from Obama's two campaigns. One of the first things he did was to call his old friend Jeremy Bird, fresh off Obama's reelection, and ask which field organizers he should hire from the president's campaign. Mook chose early on to invest in a statewide ground game—a decision that ultimately increased turnout across Virginia, especially among black voters. McAuliffe squeezed past Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and his 3-point win marked the first time in 40 years that a Virginia gubernatorial candidate won with a president from the same party in the White House.
There was a predictable flood of "How McAuliffe Won" stories after Election Day, but they did not spotlight the operatives behind the curtain, as campaign postmortems tend to do. That was no accident. According to Brennan Bilberry, McAuliffe's communications director, a few weeks out from the election, Mook told the McAuliffe campaign's press shop that there would be no glorifying of staff members or dramatic retellings of the moments when the contest hung in the balance. Even after victory, he insisted, the focus should remain on the candidate.
On March 10, Hillary Clinton stepped to the microphone at a hastily arranged press conference at the United Nations. A week earlier, the New York Times had reported that Clinton used a personal email when she was secretary of state, potentially in violation of federal recordkeeping rules. Her address—firstname.lastname@example.org—was hosted on a private server registered to the Clintons' Chappaqua, New York, home, raising concerns about the security of the sensitive emails sent and received by Clinton while at State. Of the 60,000 emails from her four years as secretary of state, she handed over roughly half to the department and deleted the remaining 30,000 or so messages, which she claimed were personal. "Looking back," she told reporters, "it would have been probably smarter" to have used a government email account.
Politico's write-up of the press conference, quoting "sources in the Clinton camp," revealed the internal divisions over how best respond to the email controversy. Several Clinton advisers had encouraged her to sit for one-on-one interviews with TV networks, rather than the harder-to-control atmosphere of a traditional press conference. Mook had pushed for a quicker, more aggressive pushback. The debate inside Clinton's political operation, Politico noted, took on a "generational cast." (A Clinton spokesman disputed this description of the campaign's internal debate.)
Clinton's campaign-in-waiting had yet to sign an office lease, and already internal deliberations were spilling out into public view. The mess indicated that Mook had a long way to go to get control of the lumbering ship he would soon be piloting.
Mook, though, is doing his best to recreate his past drama-free campaigns. He's brought on his old friend Marlon Marshall, McAuliffe senior staffers Michael Halle, Brynne Craig, and Josh Schwerin, and a mix of respected Obama alums.
At this early stage, it's unknown whether stocking the Clinton campaign with Mook mafiosi can bring order and discipline to Planet Hillary. No doubt, a series of contretemps, slipups, and scandals (real or trumped-up) will hit the Clinton campaign in the months to come. And in the past—with or without scandals—the competing elements of Clintonworld have always seemed to find a way to create conflict of their own.
Can Mook impose an inner calm and make sure Team Clinton focuses on one imperative: electing Hillary? "It's very difficult," Patti Solis Doyle says with a resigned laugh, "I will tell you that." But should Mook succeed, nothing could be more dramatic.
Photoillustration by Ivylise Simones. Mook: Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images; Hillary: Brian Cahn/ZUMA; Bill: Kristin Callahan/Ace Pictures/ZUMA; Carville: William Reagan/Globe Photos/ZUMA; McAuliffe: Pete Marovich/DPA/ZUMA.
Update, 8/5/15:The Justice Department has indicted Paul world operatives Dimitri Kesari, John Tate, and Jesse Benton on numerous charges including making false statements, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice in connection with the alleged scheme to payoff then-Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson for his endorsement of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid. Read the indictment here.
On December 26, 2011, a week before Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, an influential Republican state senator named Kent Sorenson and his wife, Shawnee, arrived at a steak house in Altoona, a suburb of Des Moines. A goateed Mr. Clean look-alike, Sorenson was a hot commodity. His deep ties to the state's evangelical leaders and home-schooling activists made his endorsement highly sought after by GOP presidential hopefuls, particularly the second-tier contenders who had staked their campaigns on a strong Iowa showing. Sorenson had picked his horse early, signing on as Michele Bachmann's Iowa chairman in June 2011—a coup for the Minnesota congresswoman's upstart campaign.
Joining the Sorensons was a bespectacled political operative named Dimitri Kesari, the deputy campaign manager of Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 presidential bid. As caucus day neared, Ron Paul's campaign was surging in the polls but needed a late boost if he wanted to meet his goal of finishing in the top three.
When the state senator left to use the restroom, Kesari produced a $25,000 check—drawn from the account of Designer Goldsmiths, a jewelry store run by his wife—and gave it to Shawnee Sorenson. Two days later, Kent Sorenson left a Bachmann campaign event, drove straight to a Ron Paul rally, and declared that he had defected.
"It's a strange universe. You've got the real Star Wars cantina identified…and let's be honest, a lot of these guys would not have work in the mainstream, even in the tea party."
As it turned out, Paul's inner circle had been secretly negotiating for months to lure Sorenson away from the Bachmann campaign. In an October memo to Paul campaign manager John Tate, a Sorenson ally outlined the state senator's demands, which included an $8,000-a-month payment for nearly a year, another $5,000-a-month check for a colleague of Sorenson's, and a $100,000 donation to Sorenson's political action committee. The memo explained that these payments would not only secure Sorenson's support in the near term but also help to "build a major state-based movement that will involve far more people into a future Rand Paul presidential run." Kesari's $25,000 check, in other words, amounted to more than a down payment on an endorsement for Ron Paul; it was an investment in Rand Paul 2016.
The Kentucky senator officially declared his candidacy on Tuesday. With the 2016 Iowa caucuses nine months away, this scheme could become a liability for the latest Paul presidential enterprise. The Sorenson deal exploded into public view in 2013, thanks to a pair of whistleblowers from the Ron Paul and Bachmann campaigns, and the episode now hangs over Rand Paul and his inner circle like a dark cloud.