Top Pelosi Aide Brings Old School-Touch

Posted February 24, 2004 at 6:01pm

George Crawford has come a long way from his first Capitol Hill job as a part-time typist for Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), but the lessons learned in those early days still guide him now in his powerful role as chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Crawford has invested more than two decades working for some of the institution’s most colorful characters, including the late Reps. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) and Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), who instilled an old-school demeanor in the staffer.

Cutting his teeth in the 1980s as a legislative assistant to Pepper, Crawford followed a “shirt and tie” policy when traveling with his boss and was always taught that staffers should address Members with formal titles.

“You called every Member ‘Mister’ or ‘Missus’ — you never referred to a Member by their first name,” the 49-year-old Crawford recalled.

Back then such formality even stretched to the softball field, where staffers on the “Hot Peppers” squad had trouble breaking the rules even when then-Rep. Alan Wheat (D-Mo.) asked if he could play on the team.

“So he’s out there and he’s up at bat and we’re saying, ‘Come on Mister Wheat,’” Crawford said with a laugh. “And he said, ‘Can you call me Alan? We’re playing softball here!’”

Those lessons on the softball diamond helped prepare Crawford for the hardball of Congressional politics, as he climbed from Pepper’s personal office all the way up to staff director for Moakley on the powerful Rules Committee. And he was not about to change that style two years ago when he ascended to his current position, even though this institutionalist is now working for a trend-breaker who is the first female elected leader in Congressional history.

“That’s the sort of a training” I got, Crawford said of the early days. “I don’t know if that’s sort of a bygone era if you will, but with Ms. Pelosi, it’s Ms. Pelosi or Madame Leader.”

This job is a major challenge for Crawford, who is helping Pelosi try to hold together a Democratic minority desperate to win back the chamber they lost nearly a decade ago.

“We’ve made good progress,” Crawford said. “There’s been a change in psychology in a lot of ways. Instead of trying to get everyone in the boat, the psychology is everyone is in the boat and how do you keep people in the boat.”

Democrats and Republicans alike have little doubt Crawford was the right choice to help set the strategy and agenda for House Democrats, who face a daunting 12-seat climb to the majority.

“There’s nobody better,” said Vince Randazzo, Crawford’s one-time counterpart as the former GOP staff director for the Rules panel. “I thought the leader made a phenomenal choice. He’s quiet, not the ‘toot your own horn’ kind of guy, but a guy who gets things done.”

Randazzo, who now works for Wachovia Corp., said his former colleague was an obvious pick to serve in such a crucial role for the Minority Leader.

“Where do you find a guy like that?” Randazzo asked. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

Crawford had always been a creature of the Rules Committee, which he first joined in 1983, when Pepper was chairman — followed by a long tenure with Moakley on the panel. That may be why he first hesitated at the chance to join Pelosi’s leadership team.

“I was on the committee for 20 years,” Crawford said of Rules. “I knew the people I worked with, I knew the job, I was comfortable in the job. But the challenge that was laid out there by Ms. Pelosi doesn’t come along but once and she made a compelling case why I should sign on with her.”

Besides, Crawford conceded, “policy, procedure and politics get mixed together” on the Rules Committee and you get a “bird’s eye view of what goes on in the House.”

Knowing that, former Pelosi Chief of Staff Judy Lemons, who hand-picked Crawford, knew the veteran Hill staffer would be an ideal fit to replace her. She said Crawford had the experience, knowledge and relationships to run one of the most powerful House offices, and could keep pace with an aspiring Democratic leader who rarely rests.

“I was determined to bring him into the Pelosi family,” Lemons said. “Finally, he had no choice.”

After two years on the job, Crawford said his responsibilities to Pelosi can be boiled down in simple terms: “Make her life run as smoothly as possible.

“There are certain things that only she can do, and certain things that we can do that only we should do,” he continued. “I’m trying to maximize the time for her to do the things that only she can do.”

Pelosi herself referred to Crawford as an “invaluable strategist” for both her office and the Caucus.

“He has unparalleled knowledge of the politics, the people, and the policy issues in the Congress,” she said. “He brings a wealth of talent and management experience to my office, and his judgment and intellect are respected on both sides of the aisle.”

Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Crawford presents a stark contrast to his boss, the aggressive, outspoken, high-profile leader of the Democratic Caucus. Yet, outsiders and insiders alike say the Crawford-Pelosi team works — sometimes thanks to their differences more than their similarities.

“He pretty much feels he should be in the background,” said a senior Pelosi aide.

“It’s very much complementary,” Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s communications director, added of their different styles.

He said that “they both think very strategically. They are always thinking ahead a couple of steps like a chess game in where we want to go.”

Beyond serving as one of Pelosi’s closest confidantes, Crawford is credited with assembling a large leadership staff in short order after Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) departure from the leadership. He also points to success in working with Pelosi to engender unity within the Caucus and better communications internally and with Democratic constituencies.

As for what to expect in year two of the Pelosi leadership, Crawford said the operation will work on new ways to combat GOP attempts to muzzle Democrats on the floor and in committee.

In an interview in his Capitol office, Crawford said Democrats will focus more attention on “trying to play out beyond these four walls” so that people across the country will hear the party’s message.

“If this year we were construction workers building an infrastructure, next year we’ll be working more aggressively the communications infrastructure,” he said.

Like Pelosi, Crawford puts in long days, with friends saying he’s all but abandoned his golf game. He acknowledges that he rarely walks into his house before 8 p.m.

“My 10-year-old would say ‘too many,’” he said of his hours.

When asked how to describe his approach to the job, Crawford says with a laugh: “I’m one of the greatest delegators of all time.”

Crawford revealed that his tenure with the Minority Leader will likely be the final chapter in a long Hill career, noting that he and his wife plan ultimately to return to California, where he grew up.

“It’s a wonderful place to have a career,” Crawford said. “You work with the best and the brightest people who are here because they believe in something and want to achieve something. There’s a level of dedication that I’m sure is matched elsewhere, but I don’t think is surpassed elsewhere.”