Kerry Reaches Out For Support on Hill

Posted May 11, 2004 at 6:50pm

A week before Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) officially unveiled his $25 million ad campaign in 19 states, former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and top campaign official Tad Devine met separately with the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses to brief them about the commercials’ overall theme.

The following weekend, Kerry operatives made a slew of phone calls to Members of Congress who represent battleground states, bringing them up to speed on the look and content of the ads.

Filtering through the feedback they received, the Kerry campaign took the advice of one Member — that it expand its planned ad buy away from just broadcast and into the cable market as well. For weeks, President Bush’s campaign has been bashing the Massachusetts Senator in cable ads.

This chain of events suggests the type of symbiotic relationship that the Massachusetts Senator hopes to cultivate with Democratic Members of Congress — one that was not always evident in the 2000 presidential campaign of Al Gore, Democrats say.

David Castagnetti, the man Kerry has tapped to be his chief Congressional liaison, and Broderick Johnson, a senior adviser to the campaign for Congressional affairs, comprise the core of Kerry’s effort to link up with Congress.

Both men are overseen by deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, who heads up the entire political wing of the campaign.

“Senator Kerry is committed to working with the Hill and understands the Hill’s importance to any presidential campaign,” Johnson said. “He has made a commitment to two people who have spent the last 15 years of their lives working on the Hill or very closely to the Hill.”

Castagnetti served as chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) and former Rep. Norm Mineta (Calif.) before becoming a lobbyist with the firm Bergner, Bockorny, Castagnetti, Hawkins & Brain.

He is married to Ann Castagnetti, who is also on the Kerry payroll and is the sister of campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.

Johnson previously served as chief counsel to the House Education and the Workforce Committee and as staff director for the House Committee on the District of Columbia. He was also House liaison for the Clinton White House.

The ramping-up of Kerry’s Congressional liaison effort comes as the Bush camp refines its strategy of using Republican Members of Congress as surrogates to attack the Massachusetts Senator’s 18-year voting record in Washington.

At nearly every Kerry stop, the Bush campaign deploys several Republican Members to air a message critical of Kerry — a process known as bracketing.

Kerry’s effort to harness Democratic Members as spokespersons has yet to become as sophisticated as the Bush campaign’s, several senior Democratic leadership staffers said.

“There is always room for improvement,” said one. “Especially when it comes to the operation for responding to the president’s attack team.”

Even so, observers say, progress by the Kerry camp is generally evident.

While Castagnetti and Johnson said they do almost no lobbying of Members on specific bills and amendments, they do acknowledge coordination between the liaison office and Democratic leaders on the delivery of one-minute speeches on the House floor favorable to Kerry’s message.

Hoping to make Democratic Members comfortable with him on “politics, policy and problems,” Castagnetti said he spends 70 percent of his time on the Hill, burning out “a couple of cell [phone] batteries in the course of day.”

Johnson said one of the lessons he learned during in the Clinton White House was that “there is a certain level of visibility you have to maintain.”

“You have to be up there to hear what Members have to say when they reach out to you,” added Johnson.

During the 2000 campaign, House Members and Senators routinely griped that then-Vice President Al Gore’s campaign paid little attention to the advice and counsel of Congress.

“I don’t even remember the Gore effort,” said one well-connected Hill staffer. “I don’t remember them coming until we were all pissed off at them.”

One House leadership aide said that while Kerry’s initial outreach effort went well beyond anything that Gore did, the aide warned that some of the missteps of the past campaign are being made again.

“There was a feeling that this candidate would not repeat the same mistakes from four years ago,” said the source. “That feeling came from a proactive outreach on their end and a close coordination, but even that is waning.”

To this point, the most prominent sore spot has been a shortage of blacks and Hispanics within the Kerry campaign’s senior leadership, a reality that has led some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus to call on the Massachusetts Senator to broaden his recruitment and hiring practices.

Castagnetti and Johnson say such criticism is par for the course in a legislative body that’s filled with hundreds of Democrats, each of whom has a distinct opinion on how best to run the campaign.

Johnson said that he and Castagnetti take similar approaches when faced with the inevitable questioning from Capitol Hill.

They try “to be honest and clear” with Members, Johnson said. “That goes a long way, whether it is a good question or a bad question.”

Both men hope that the straightforward approach will allow them, over the next six months, to fully tap into the electoral knowledge that Members can bring to the campaign.

“Members know how to win elections in our states,” said Castagnetti. “We need them to help us be able to win.”