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.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.