Pelosi Seeks Message Guru
Ex-W.H. Aides Assist Hunt for ‘Big Picture’ Expert
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has turned to two former Clinton White House spokesmen and an ex-press secretary to a Senate Majority Leader to help her find a senior communications strategist savvy enough to do battle with the GOP and to craft a message that will help restore the party to the majority.
In recent months, Pelosi has sought the counsel of both Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart in her quest for a new communications adviser, who would work in her office and help shape the House Democratic message for the 108th. Heading up her search is Diane Dewhirst, former press secretary to then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).
Democratic sources said Dewhirst was Pelosi’s original pick for the communications job, but that she turned down the offer to spend more time with her young children. Sources also said interviews will begin this week for the new top press aide, who will be responsible for leadership message and communications strategy.
“We’re looking for someone with political experience, strong communications experience and the know-how to put together a communications plan and make it work,” said Pelosi Communications Director Brendan Daly.
Daly, who will keep his current job, acknowledged Pelosi has turned to heavy hitters like McCurry, Lockhart and Dewhirst for counsel but has also cast a wide net in seeking out others for help in her critical search.
“It’s an important position and we want to talk to the best people around to give us some names and advice,” he said.
Under the plan, sources said, Daly and the new adviser would be equal in stature but have different roles. Daly would continue to field reporter inquiries and manage day-to-day press operations.
[IMGCAP(1)] The new adviser, on the other hand, would adopt a broader strategic role and “take a longer-term picture and see where things fit,” Daly said. That individual would also focus on a strategy to reach out to voters beyond the Beltway, according to one Democratic insider.
“It makes a lot of sense,” a Democratic House staffer said. “We need to not simply be reactive. We need to be thinking proactive.”
Another Democratic strategist said: “You’ve got to have an inside game and outside game. Just like in basketball, if you don’t have a lay-up, you go for a three-point shot.”
Pelosi’s office remains mum about the candidates for the job, saying only that they would like to get the person hired “soon.” One name being mentioned is Barry Toiv, former Clinton White House deputy press secretary who is currently working for freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
Democratic aides said Pelosi, as she shifts into her new role as leader, needs to find a person to oversee the larger party strategy and message. It’s too difficult, they said, for Daly to handle all of the leader’s communications work on his own.
One Democratic strategist said Pelosi “needs to have a big-picture person” to help complement Daly.
Added a senior Senate Democratic aide: “It’s not necessarily someone who is going to turn a phrase, but someone who gets the politics.”
Doug Hattaway, a Democratic consultant who has advised Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), said now is the time for Democrats to work on their message if they hope to make gains in the 2004 elections. In particular, he said Members must be aggressive, good on television and willing to drive the news cycle, not respond to it.
“It may be difficult in the minority, but it’s something that has to happen,” he said.
Democrats are already patting themselves on the back for taking the initiative with their economic stimulus package, which Pelosi rolled out a day before President Bush unveiled his plan. Pelosi needs to find a strategist who can deliver similar successes in the future, several Democratic insiders said.
Another factor, aides said, is that Pelosi
isn’t relying on her assistant leader to work on the broader Democratic message. Pelosi tapped Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) as her assistant, but Spratt is busy focusing on economic strategy and his role as ranking member on the Budget Committee.
That’s a change of course from former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who relied heavily on his assistant, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), to help with the communications plan. In particular, DeLauro helped book interviews for Members on radio and TV, established Member teams to mobilize quickly to organize press conferences on issues and distributed weekly communication and policy materials to colleagues.
“That work still needs to be done one way or the other,” said a House Democratic staffer.
Ed Henry contributed to this report.