One of the most respected experts in campaign finance retired Friday, ending a 30-year career with the Federal Election Commission, where he led the agency from the era of dot matrix printers to online databases.
Bob Biersack left his position as special assistant to the staff director last week, but he is better known as the agency’s unofficial data guru. He also ran the FEC’s press shop for six years, during which he became a trusted resource for government watchdogs.
“He is mostly unknown to even those inside the Beltway, but he’s quietly been a great influence in campaign finance,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
As Biersack looks forward to more time on his Shenandoah Valley farm and the chance to freely pursue his own campaign finance interests, his colleagues say they will miss his sharp analysis and willingness to help.
“He’s become part of the institution there. He’s pretty hard to be replaced,” said Center for Governmental Studies President Bob Stern, who worked with Biersack through the Council on Government Ethics Laws.
During his tenure, Biersack negotiated what he described as a “roller coaster” of rules changes. The agency became politicized at times with its typical structure of three commissioners from each major party. And in recent years, court rulings have opened up election spending and complicated the FEC’s ability to track the money.
But friends and colleagues say Biersack embraced the challenges, often with humor, and made it his job to make the public aware of the FEC’s limitations. Georgetown professor Clyde Wilcox, who worked with Biersack in the 1980s, said his former boss “made it possible for [researchers] to continue to function by telling people where the data was incomplete.”
“I don’t think there is probably anyone outside of the academy that has done more for political science than Bob Biersack,” Wilcox said.
Biersack joined the FEC as a statistician in 1981, six years after the commission’s inception. He abandoned his Ph.D. to take the job, but the choice was obvious for someone who first experienced politics at age 6. Raised in a Catholic family, Biersack recalled President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign as a big deal in his house.
“I guess I’ve had politics in my blood the whole time,” Biersack said in an interview with Roll Call last week.
At the FEC, Biersack’s attention to detail and nonpartisan approach made him a popular resource for academics, students and the media long before he joined the agency’s press office.
“He was able to shift gears and speak their language, whoever he was speaking with,” said John Surina, who was staff director from 1983 to 1998. He said Biersack was among the agency’s “superstars.”
In the late 1980s, Biersack and the FEC struggled to keep up as a huge wave of unregulated contributions to political parties, dubbed soft money, began to influence campaigns.
“There was a sense that the rules on the books applied only to the naive and that the real ‘players’ worked with a different system,” Biersack said.
Congress responded by requiring political parties to disclose those donations. Then advocacy groups got involved with issue ads and Congress acted once again to control spending.
At the FEC, the changes kept Biersack and his colleagues on their toes. In the 1990s, he worked closely with Patricia Young, the current director of the FEC’s Public Disclosure Division, to develop a way to track soft money.
“He’s certainly a team player in more than one way,” said Young, who noted that Biersack has had positive effects on everything from the agency’s information technology division to its softball team, where his left-handed pitching became an asset.
Biersack also helped develop the agency’s electronic filing system and disclosure databases. His favorite day on the job was during the 2000 presidential race, when candidates filed electronically for the first time.
“You had a sense that everybody was watching their Web browsers,” Biersack said, adding that newspapers were able to provide overnight analysis that previously took weeks.
Biersack said his accomplishment remains tainted by Congress’ refusal to require Senate campaign committees to file electronically. Biersack said the Senate’s insistence on paper filings has cost the agency millions in duplicative efforts.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “There is no rational reason for them to do it.”
In 2002, as court challenges loosened election disclosure, Biersack became the FEC’s deputy press officer. Two years later, he took over the office, a position he described as the most difficult and fun.
“If I was good at anything, it was being able to translate complicated things into more straightforward language,” he said.
George Smaragdis worked with Biersack in the press office and said Biersack knew the data so well that he had a surprising number of committee ID numbers memorized.
“Not only could he dig into the numbers, he also understood how it is that the law worked,” Smaragdis said.
In 2009, Biersack returned to the technical side to work on the next generation of disclosure databases — a more user-friendly system based on his knowledge of how academics and journalists use FEC data.
He still mentors curious minds and will probably do so in retirement. Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said Biersack’s impulse is always to help.
“If everyone in the state government or federal government had his orientation,” Herrnson said, “our government would function much, much better.”