One of the Most Powerful People in America
BY JUSTIN CASE
Who is Jim Messina? For one, he’s “the most powerful person in Washington that you haven’t heard of,” according to White House Communications Director, Dan Pfeiffer, as quoted in the Nation’s, Jim Messina: Obama’s Enforcer (and no, he’s not the folk/rock musician of Loggins and Messina fame).
He’s also someone about whom Obama’s own left wing stands in judgment, the follow-ing assessment from the same Nation article (April 2011) being a case in point. “The hardball tactics used by Messina…” wrote Ari Berman, “exemplified how the Obama administration would operate going forward—insistent on demanding total control, hostile to any public pressure from progressives…committed to working the system inside Washington rather than changing it.”
Specifically, Jim Messina is Barack Obama’s former Deputy Chief of Staff and currently the president’s now controversial campaign manager. He’s also the driving force behind the campaign’s effort to re-elect the president using social networking and social media, having sought and received advice from top names in the tech world including Steve Jobs.
As a senior at the University of Montana studying Political Science in 1993, Messina ran Democratic Mayor Dan Kemmis’s successful re-election for Mayor of Missoula. In 1995, Max Baucus took him on as a political staffer, and after serving as Chief of Staff for U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), he returned to work for Baucus in 2002 to run the senator’s re-election campaign, just as Baucus was a facing a Republican challenge that was cause for concern. It was then that Messina began to reveal his propensity for staging what some would call political theater, what others would call dirty tricks.
Messina started by prohibiting Baucus from participating in any debate that didn’t include Libertarian candidate Stan Jones, whose skin had literally turned blue from drinking a colloidal silver concoction. Jones’ epidermal oddity would distract attention from the Republican challenger to Baucus’ senate seat—Mike Taylor. Messina has since been singled out as the creator of a television commercial depicting Taylor as a financially crooked gay hairdresser, a tactic designed to put off Montana voters on more than one count, one that worked, in that Taylor dropped out of the race under the firestorm created by the attack ad.
The commercial featured video of Taylor from the late 1970s wearing an open shirt and a medallion, as he promoted his line of men’s cosmetics, and with a male client sitting close by whose temples he carefully massaged. It also included accusations that Taylor embezzled student loans from a cosmetology school he had owned. The ad ends with what many interpret as Taylor reaching toward his client’s privates, just off camera, with a voice over that states: Mike Taylor: Not the way we do business in Montana. The voice over had a double meaning, of course—referring both to the student loan issue and suggesting that Taylor was a flaming homosexual.
In a June 2012 Salon article, David Sirota wrote, “When Taylor subsequently dropped out of the race, Baucus meekly defended some of the substance of the loan allegations in the ad. (Messina worked as Baucus’ chief of staff at the time.) However, he vigorously and repeatedly denied any involvement in the spot. It was a classic example of the tired old misdirect whereby a politician denies he has anything to do with a third-party attack on his opponent.”
In a June 2012 BusinessWeek interview with Baucus conducted by Joshua Green, Baucus is quoted as having indicated that Messina, now Barack Obama’s campaign manager, was behind the ad.
“Jim is tough,” Baucus said. “I’ll never forget when he showed me that ad. We were in Bozeman in a motel. The curtains were drawn. He said, ‘Max, what do you think?’ They were afraid I wasn’t going to like it. I loved it!”
The ad, seizing upon conservative voter demographics in Montana, has of late been described as an anti-gay attack ad. In Salon, Sirota called it “one of the most homophobic ads in American history.”
As the ad went viral, nationally, the Denver Post wrote that “only the most naive adult would miss the implication that Taylor is a homosexual…the supposedly inclusive Democrats deftly played on the right’s homophobia.”
The ad, the one Jim Messina presented to Max Baucus in a Bozeman hotel, prompted Taylor to leave the race, and Baucus retained his seat.
A more charitable but still revealing account of Messina’s abilities recently appeared in the Huffington Post. “At 42, he is tall and slightly stooped,” Huff Post wrote, “with an innocent face, a flop of blonde hair, and a sheepdog friendliness made somewhat surreal by the arsenal of profanity he deploys when not speaking for the record.”
The Huffington Post though goes on to describe Messina as somewhat of a boy wonder in the technological age, having sought out the advice of Steve Jobs, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Steven Spielberg. After President Obama asked Messina to head up his re-election campaign (in the surf, at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, 2010), Messina went to work, devising a strategy, inspired by Jobs and Schmidt, that would seize upon new technology in a way that was not possible during Obama’s 2008 campaign (when the iPhone had barely taken hold, and mobile and social media was not what it is today). Messina’s strategy, what’s more, employs grass roots people power in a way that resembles network marketing, where paid staffers earning about $32,000 a year, the price for dinner at one of Obama’s many fundraisers, target a coterie of helpers, who in turn target their own helpers, the efficacy of which remains to be seen given the campaign’s challenges resulting from a bad economy and the disillusionment of many Obama voters since he took the White House.
The following quote turned up in the Globe and Mail regarding Messina by Montana teachers union (MEA) president Eric Feaver, painting both sides of the man. “He’s darned smart and has plenty of experience. He’s also charming and engaging. Funny and witty as hell. He likes to drop the F-word at every opportunity,” said Feaver.
Recalling Messina’s time with the Baucus campaign, former Montana state senator, Ken Toole, a Democrat, said that Messina attributed his party’s platform on gay rights as having lost them seats in a state where most people hold traditional values—Montana.
“Messina is of that mold where he triangulates various interest to win votes. I think it treads on the edges of ethics,” said Ken Toole, a prominent Montana Democrat who has also served on the Public Service Commission.
“He’s very much a product of the Washington culture he grew up in and it’s a corrupt culture.…I think the Jim Messinas of the world are exactly what’s wrong with the Democratic Party….”
Toole went on to say though that he believed Messina had prompted President Obama to come out in favor of same-sex marriage recently, “because it was the politically savvy thing to do.
“With Jim, it’s all a political calculation.”