DCCC, DSCC Finish Filling Top Staff Positions

Posted February 25, 2003 at 6:11pm

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) has filled out his senior staff by bringing on Peter Cari as political director and Kori Bernards as communications director.

“I am a firm believer that you have got to have people [on staff] who are smarter than you are,” Matsui said of his new charges.

The hiring of Cari and Bernards brings the DCCC up to speed several months earlier than in the last cycle, when the committee failed to settle on a political director until May 2001 after a contentious process that drew criticism from some in Democratic circles.

“We wanted to begin the process of protecting our incumbents and targeting Republican districts early on in this process,” Matsui explained. “We can’t wait until 12 months before the election to do this.”

House Republicans have had their team in place for several months as new National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) chose to largely retain the successful group from the 2002 cycle.

Political Director Mike McElwain and Communications Director Steve Schmidt are holdovers from the last campaign, which netted Republicans six House seats. Former Reynolds Chief of Staff Sally Vastola is the NRCC executive director; Jonathan Poe is the field director and Joe Rachinski is the finance director.

On the Senate side, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also firmed up its press shop, naming Mike Siegel as communications director and Brad Woodhouse as press secretary.

The DCCC now has 25 full-time staffers, eight of whom are associated with the finance division, according to Matsui. Brian Wolff, who previously served as the chief fundraiser for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is the finance director at the DCCC.

Liz Jalali will be marketing and membership director for the committee and will be charged with the rapidly expanding direct mail and telemarketing programs.

Due to strictures placed on the campaign committees as a result of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Matsui said the 2004 DCCC will have only about half the staff it did in the last cycle.

Last November, the committee had 92 people on its payroll; Matsui estimated the overall staff total will never go above 45 this cycle.

Cari oversaw the DCCC issue campaign in the 2002 cycle as a consultant, directing the $40 million spent by the committee on advocacy ads.

“Peter knows the committee operations from top to bottom,” said Howard Wolfson, DCCC executive director in the last campaign. “He brings a wealth of experience and a lot of fresh ideas.”

Bob Doyle, a Democratic consultant, was effusive in his praise of Cari’s hiring.

“If that is the kind of talent that Matsui and [DCCC Executive Director Jim] Bonham are going to bring in, [Democrats] are going to be extremely well-served,” Doyle said.

The hiring of Cari likely puts to rest concerns among some in the Democratic community that Matsui, a noted policy expert, might not have the political chops to lead the DCCC.

Cari boasts close connections to two men widely seen as the pre-eminent political minds in the party — Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) and National Committee for an Effective Congress demographic guru Mark Gersh — and his new role is seen as a nod to both men.

Cari was the chief political strategist for the Frost-led IMPAC 2000, which handled national redistricting strategy for the Democratic Party following the decennial census.

He also worked under Frost in 1996 and 1998 when the Texas Democrat chaired the DCCC; in 1996 Cari served as research director and in 1998 was director of research and strategic planning.

Matsui’s decision to hire Cari despite the staffer’s connection to Pelosi’s one-time rival Frost also reveals that the Minority Leader acknowledges that Matsui must have an independent hand at the committee, said one senior Democratic aide.

“Pelosi appears to understand that Matsui needs the authority to lead the DCCC himself, and that’s critical to our success in 2004,” the aide said.

Frost and Pelosi had long been on a collision course for the top spot in the party, but the assumed battle ended more with a whimper than a bang when Frost dropped out of the Minority Leader’s race just days after he entered.

Another Democratic strategist familiar with the DCCC said the hire “shows a maturity and a political pragmatism on [Matsui’s] part.”

Cari also has strong ties to Gersh, who Matsui referred to as “our in-house genius.”

Gersh will again work for the committee as a consultant, Matsui said Tuesday, and is likely to have significant influence over targeting decisions.

Already, Gersh’s brainchild of trying to expand the House playing field beyond the 45 to 50 competitive seats in recent cycles is in the works, according to several Democratic sources.

Bringing Bernards on board is something of a coup for the committee, since the longtime spokeswoman for Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) was expected to play a role in the presidential campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

“[Kori] had a number of opportunities in the presidential field,” said Matsui, “and we wanted to get her on.”

Bernards said conversations with both Matsui and Bonham convinced her to take the job.

“I liked the approach they were taking to winning back House seats,” she said. Republicans hold a 12-seat edge at the start of the 2004 cycle.

Bernards had served as press secretary for Gephardt since May 2001. Prior to that she spent four years directing message for Obey and the Appropriations Committee, where Obey is the ranking member.

On the Senate side, the hires of Siegel and Woodhouse complete a roster that includes Andy Grossman as executive director, Paul Tewes as political director and Diana Rogalle as finance director.

Siegel currently serves as spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee. He also has worked at the State Department, the National Security Council and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Woodhouse has deep North Carolina roots, having served as communications director for 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D) in his unsuccessful challenge to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), as well as Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.).