Legend has it that when a famously frugal Mitch Daniels worked as an aide on Capitol Hill 30 years ago, he once fished quarters out of the Tune Inn toilet to save money for his beer.
Even though Daniels has lived most of the past two decades in Indiana, the Republican governor spent many of his formative political years in the 1970s and ’80s in Congressional politics on Capitol Hill. He ran Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) campaigns, was a top aide to the Senator on Capitol Hill, served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and was tapped to be President Ronald Reagan’s chief political adviser before eventually being appointed as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Daniels’ almost 15 years in Washington, D.C., totals more time inside the Beltway than many of the other potential presidential candidates, except for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas.). And according to Daniels’ former colleagues, his early experiences as a Senate aide were apparent in the way he ran his gubernatorial campaigns, and give clues to what kind of presidential campaign he could run — if he decides to jump into the race.
First and foremost, former aides describe Daniels, who writes his own campaign ads and speeches, as a true cheapskate.
“Parsimonious, he was legendary for that. Those were the days in which Sen. Lugar, as a matter of policy, turned back money to the federal government,” recalled Jeffrey Bergner, who served under Daniels as Lugar’s legislative director before succeeding him as chief of staff in 1983.
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Daniels kicked off his political career right out of college, working as vice president of the advertisement firm Campaign Communicators, which also served as the hub for Lugar’s successful re-election campaigns for Indianapolis mayor. It was at Campaign Communicators that Daniels lost his only race ever as a manager: Lugar’s failed bid against then-Sen. Birch Bayh (D) in 1974.
But two years later, with Daniels as his campaign manager, Lugar defeated three-term Sen. Vance Hartke (D) by nearly 20 points. Soon after, Daniels moved to Washington, D.C., to work as Lugar’s top aide for the next five years.
It was a different era on the Hill: Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was Senate Majority Leader, Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) was Speaker, the Hart Building was under construction, and there were still spittoons in the offices.
Daniels’ former staff recall a frugal, intense boss who filled legal pads with notes at daily staff meetings and always split the lunch bill. When staffers traveled between Indiana and D.C., they were forced to stay with each other instead of in hotels.
“The annual discussion with Mitch about salaries was not the high point of the year,” Bergner recalled. “We always joked that no matter how difficult it was for us, it must be more difficult for his wife, Cheri, on a full-time basis.”
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