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For Martha McKenna, All Politics Is Personal

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

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.

Martha’s List

Even though McKenna’s work is D.C.-based, she stays connected to Baltimore. In college, she spent a summer volunteering on Mary Pat Clarke’s city council race and started connecting with the city’s politicos.  

After graduating from Bucknell University in 1995, she went home to work for state Sen. Delores Kelley in a Congressional special election. Kelley lost in the Democratic primary to now-Rep. Elijah Cummings, but McKenna just wasn’t satisfied.

At a subsequent research training at the Democratic National Committee, McKenna met Amanda Fuchs Miller and questioned why EMILY’s List didn’t get involved for Kelley. That was just the beginning of almost a decade of work with the group and its mission to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, holding titles from researcher to political tracker to campaign services director. Sometimes she just “went wherever they told me to go,” according to McKenna.

“She just loved our candidates,” EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm said. But that care sometimes led to disappointment. “She was so unhappy when she lost,” Malcom added. “Sometimes she shed a tear, but she came out the other side and was ready to get back to work.”

After Jordan’s loss in Kentucky, McKenna tried to get Democrat Louise Lucas elected in a Virginia Congressional special election, but she lost that 2001 race to Republican Randy Forbes. The next year McKenna worked for Michigan Rep. Lynn Rivers when she lost in the redistricting-forced Democratic primary against Rep. John Dingell.

McKenna returned to Maryland in 2002 to run the fall coordinated campaign for the state party, when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) lost the gubernatorial race in dramatic fashion. The cycle wasn’t a total loss because she had her first date with her now-husband at Castlebay Irish Pub in Annapolis the day after the election.

Back to Baltimore

In hindsight, McKenna smiles about her early streak because she views it all as part of a lifelong learning process. Along with her experience on the campaign trail, she’s earned graduate degrees from Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins along the way.

After McKenna finally experienced success during the 2006 midterm elections, assisting women in the Democratic takeover of the Senate, she got the call back to Baltimore.  

City Council President/interim Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) wanted to run for a full term and needed someone to manager her race.

“Martha didn’t have the best record,” Dixon said in a phone interview. “But we hit it off.”

McKenna’s love for the city showed, and she (and her mother) attended the Institute of Notre Dame, the all-girls Catholic high school where Dixon’s daughter attended. McKenna’s mom attended with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).  

“Martha pulled all the components together,” Dixon recalled. “She brought clarity and took it to a whole new level.” Dixon won the eight-candidate primary with 63 percent and the general election to become the first woman ever elected mayor of Baltimore.  

On election night, Dixon remembers sharing tears of joy with McKenna in the backroom of the Kasbah, in the same Canton neighborhood where McKenna still lives with her husband.  

It didn’t take long for D.C. to come calling again.

In the middle of the 2008 cycle, then-Political Director Guy Cecil left the DSCC to try to resuscitate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“He betrayed me, but I got the last laugh,” longtime DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch joked. Needing to “hire someone in a pinch,” McKenna was the first and only person Poersch talked to because he was confident she was the one.

“You do your job when you’re straight with people,” Poersch said. “Martha always told it straight.”

It might have been easier to be straight with people in 2008, when Democrats expanded their majority by eight seats, but Poersch and McKenna stayed at the DSCC for 2010, when the political environment shifted and the party lost six seats and the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts.

Her new role this cycle is a natural nexus for McKenna. Logistically, she’ll be managing teams of consultants in a dozen races across the country, but she has that personal connection as well.

McKenna is defending a class of Senators that includes Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), whom she helped get elected via her role at EMILY’s List, while also trying to help a new batch of women get elected for the first time.

“That’s what she’s always been about: electing women and electing Democrats every step of the way,” said veteran Democratic strategist Mary Beth Cahill, who was executive director at EMILY’s List during part of McKenna’s tenure.

With just eight months to go, the national landscape is still unclear, but Democrats are defending more seats and the threat of well-funded Republican outside groups is real. But anyone who’s worked with Martha doesn’t think that will be a problem.

“Martha taught me a lot about being fearless,” Jordan said. “I had a reputation for being fearless, but I wasn’t as fearless as Martha McKenna.”

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