To her friends, Martha McKenna is Baltimore’s ambassador, but Democrats have chosen her to be a critical part of holding their Senate majority.
The 37-year-old Democratic operative was born in Chicago, but there is no question that Charm City is home. It’s where McKenna grew up, got her start in politics and notched her most significant win. But her broader campaign experience on races at all levels, at EMILY’s List and at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, made her the first woman to head a Senate committee’s independent expenditure arm.
It’s not the first time she didn’t fit the mold.
“They were looking for a white, preppy guy to run my campaign,” former Kentucky state Rep. Eleanor Jordan remembered. Instead, they found a young woman in jeans and taking meticulous notes steering the ship of the Democrat’s Congressional campaign a dozen years ago.
But, at first, even Jordan wasn’t sure what to make of McKenna.
“Has she won anything?” Jordan asked her longtime adviser during a national search for someone to manage her challenge to a very formidable incumbent. Up to that point, McKenna’s résumé consisted of two failed Congressional campaigns in Maryland and an unsuccessful race in Missouri.
“She had a lot of confidence for someone with such little experience, but I picked up that she wasn’t overconfident,” Jordan told Roll Call recently. McKenna hit the ground running and led a team that combined the legislator’s longtime advisers and new consultants through a competitive primary and general election.
“There were days I doubted myself, but I never doubted Martha,” Jordan recalled fondly, even though she didn’t always like McKenna’s prodding. “I hated raising money ... but she wouldn’t let me get away with saying ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’”
As Jordan’s manager, McKenna was a small part of one of the most famous television ads in a Congressional race.
“I have a fundraiser at 6 o’clock and I want to get out of here,” Jordan said on the floor of the Legislature. Republican Rep. Anne Northup put the footage in an ad and won the race. McKenna didn’t take it well.
“I was devastated,” she recalled.
It wasn’t McKenna’s first loss and wouldn’t be her last, but the personal connection with and commitment to her candidates keeps her going.
“For people to put their name on the ballot is a brave and courageous thing to do. I can show respect for that willingness by working my heart out,” McKenna explained in an interview at Busboys and Poets on Fifth Street Northwest, just south of the townhouse that functions as office space for her consulting firm with former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee operative Jen Pihlaja.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.