Loyal Aboussie Aids Gephardt

Posted March 25, 2003 at 6:52pm

Joyce Aboussie has dedicated her entire professional life to promoting the political career of Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

And now, as Gephardt assembles the pieces for his second presidential bid in the past 15 years, Aboussie is seen as a critical factor in the most important race of her boss’s life.

Aboussie’s official title on Gephardt’s campaign staff is vice chairwoman. But she is alternately referred to as the “head of [Gephardt’s] political family” by political consultant Donna Brazile and “the charter member of Dick Gephardt’s inner circle” by another Democratic strategist with ties to the Gephardt operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a rare interview, Aboussie described her role on the campaign as “helping raise a little money, doing a little strategy and doing a little bit of everything.”

In numerous discussions with both admirers and detractors of Aboussie, all parties pointed to her unflagging loyalty and willingness to put Gephardt’s interest above her own as the key to her — and his — success.

“You can go out and hire the best strategists and consultants, but you can’t hire loyalty,” said Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and is herself a longtime Gephardt ally. “[Joyce] knows Dick better than anyone else outside of [Gephardt’s wife] Jane.”

One Democratic consultant without a particularly close relationship with Aboussie agreed: “In a business where it is easy to be a mercenary, the one thing I have always been impressed with is that she is totally loyal to Dick Gephardt.”

Nevertheless, Aboussie is far from a household name in Washington, D.C., where people like Steve Elmendorf — a senior adviser to the campaign — and Gephardt strategist David Plouffe carry much higher profiles.

Aboussie, 46, revels in her relative anonymity, saying that “never, no, not once” did she contemplate coming to Washington in the 27 years she has spent at Gephardt’s side.

“My home is St. Louis and it is important to keep up with your base,” Aboussie said. She proudly noted that she has never been a federal government employee, having always received her salary from Gephardt’s campaign account.

Aboussie began working for Gephardt as a volunteer in his 1976 campaign for Congress and an intern in 1977. After working on Gephardt’s 1978 re-election, she has managed every successive race. During Gephardt’s 1988 presidential run, Aboussie served as Missouri campaign manager and also helped raise money from the Show Me State.

Her single-minded focus on Gephardt’s local politics has at times created tension with other politicians, as well as some people in the Congressman’s D.C. office.

Elmendorf, who served as chief of staff to Gephardt in the House minority leader’s office from 1997 to 2003, admitted that he has clashed in the past with Aboussie. But he dismissed it as the typical back and forth between staffers in D.C. and aides back home in any Congressional district.

“I don’t know of any Congressional operation where the Washington end of the operation and the district end of the operation did not come into conflict,” Elmendorf said.

Aboussie stepped into the limelight briefly during a Missouri redistricting battle in 2001 when she clashed with former Rep. Bill Clay (D) and his son, current Rep. William Lacy Clay (D). The staffer argued with her fellow Democrats about reconfiguring the boundaries of Clay’s 1st district and Gephardt’s 3rd district.

Aboussie pushed hard to include more black voters in Gephardt’s politically marginal district, while Clay wanted to retain the majority-minority district that his father had held for 32 years.

In the end, a deal was brokered that saw Clay pick up voters from Rep. Todd Akin’s (R) 2nd district, while Gephardt ceded some population to Akin. The compromise plan became law in May 2001.

“We have had our ups and down,” a smiling William Lacy Clay said when asked about his relationship with Aboussie. “We are usually on the same side of issues. When we are not it is always a spirited battle and we all like to win.”

Gephardt’s campaign points out that Clay is one of two national co-chairmen of the presidential along with Gregg Hymowitz, a principal in EnTrust Capital and trustee at the Democratic Leadership Council. Gephardt is expected to announce several other co-chairs over the next few weeks.

Aboussie explains her past clashes as part and parcel of the political game, in which there are “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

“I might be with somebody one day and against them the next,” she said. “I look to the future. You can’t dwell on the past.”

“She is a formidable foe if you are on the other side,” added St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who was elected in April 2001 with the imprimatur of both Gephardt and Aboussie. “She always does things in a professional manner.”

One Democratic consultant favorably inclined to Gephardt called Aboussie a “take-no-prisoners kind of person,” but quickly added “there is nothing malicious about her.”

Aboussie’s hard-charging personality also provides a needed counterweight to the genial Gephardt.

“Every politician has a hammer,” said one House Democratic aide. “Joyce provides that for Gephardt.”

One Democratic consultant who has worked sporadically with Aboussie in the past portrayed her as a less benevolent force.

“You want to know about Joyce Aboussie? Just ask Tom O’Donnell,” said the consultant, referring to an alleged power struggle at the top of Gephardt’s presidential campaign operation earlier this year.

O’Donnell, a former chief of staff and close adviser to Gephardt, decided to take on a reduced role in the campaign. He cited “personal and business considerations.”

Although O’Donnell insisted that he was never officially installed as campaign manager, rumors swirled that he and Aboussie clashed and that O’Donnell came out on the losing end. Others suggest that O’Donnell envisioned months of clashes with Aboussie and chose to scale back his involvement.

“[Aboussie] is sitting in St. Louis, but she has a long reach and an awful lot of power,” the Democratic consultant noted.

Aboussie’s emphasis on keeping Gephardt in close touch with his Congressional district, while it rankles some, is seen as a crucial component of his efforts during the presidential primary process.

“The fact that she is in St. Louis keeps her close to the ground,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “She is sensitive to what real people are thinking and doing.”

With neighboring Iowa likely to preserve its first in the nation status on Jan. 19 and Missouri’s primary set for Feb. 3, Aboussie’s organizational know-how and Midwestern fundraising base seem perfectly suited to Gephardt’s needs.

Julie Gibson, chief of staff to Missouri Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell (D), said that Aboussie is “one of the few people that knows field, knows targeting and knows how to organize people.”

Brazile credited Aboussie with spearheading Gephardt’s 1988 caucus victory in Iowa, a feat that many observers believe the candidate will have to repeat to have any shot at the nomination in 2004.

“She was busing campaign volunteers up every weekend to all parts of Iowa to spread the Gephardt message all across the state,” Brazile said of the ’88 campaign.

Aboussie’s ability to wring every dollar out of Gephardt’s Missouri base is also crucial in the early stages of his presidential campaign.

“I do know how to raise money,” Aboussie said in her characteristically understated manner.

Slay, who with Aboussie’s help raised better than $1.8 million for his mayoral race, was more effusive. “She is the best fundraiser I have ever seen,” he said.

A Democratic consultant agreed that Aboussie has a “phenomenal fundraising network that is national.”

Much of Aboussie’s national fundraising connections, according to the consultant, come from her close ties to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which her father — himself a longtime Democratic activist — was also heavily involved in.

One Democratic strategist suggested that Aboussie’s tight control over the money side of the operation has led to some of the animosity among Gephardt loyalists directed toward her over the years.

“The person in control of the purse strings is always a target for other people in the campaign,” the strategist noted.

With the success of Gephardt’s run largely hinged on the ability of the St. Louis and Washington’s operations to coexist, Elmendorf sounded a conciliatory note on past squabbles.

“Despite disagreements we have with each other we are all motivated by a desire to see Dick Gephardt succeed,” he said.