Kerry Taps Old Senate Hands

Posted June 7, 2004 at 8:32am

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign has chosen two Senate chiefs of staff to run the all-important states of Florida and Ohio in the fall election, further emphasizing the key role individuals with close ties to Capitol Hill will play in the Democrat’s bid for the White House.

Tom Shea, chief of staff to New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine (D), will run Florida for Kerry, while J.B. Poersch, chief of staff to Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, heads to Ohio.

“Both are experienced and talented operatives who have been involved in numerous campaigns at the presidential level and other statewide races,” said a Kerry adviser who requested anonymity.

Shea and Poersch represent two of 18 state director appointments that will be formalized this week. The list of 18 state directors covers nearly all of the states the campaign considers battlegrounds this fall.

Kerry’s selections represent a broad palette of the Democratic Party — among them, former aides to the leading contenders for the vice presidential nomination.

Sky Gallegos, the national political director for the presidential bid of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), will be the California political director. Moses Mercado, a former deputy chief of staff to Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and currently a lobbyist at the American Insurance Association, will be leading the effort in New Mexico.

Edwards and Gephardt are seen as the two frontrunners to be chosen as Kerry’s second-in-command, though retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack are also under serious consideration.

In a seemingly direct response to concerns voiced by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the diversity of Kerry’s campaign team, he appointed a total of seven minorities to state director posts.

The list includes four blacks, each of whom worked for either President Bill Clinton or Vice President Al Gore: Avis Lavelle for Illinois, Tony Wilson in Missouri, Rodney Capel in New York and Rodney Shelton in Arkansas. It also includes three Hispanics: Gallegos, Mercado and Sam Rodriguez in Oregon.

The most high-profile appointment — at least to Washington insiders — is lobbyist Tony Podesta, who will be Kerry’s Pennsylvania director.

Podesta played a similar role for the 1996 re-election campaign of then-President Bill Clinton. He currently heads PodestaMattoon, a lobbying firm whose other name partner is former National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Dan Mattoon. Podesta has close ties to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D).

Donnie Fowler, who briefly served as campaign manager for Clark’s presidential bid, will oversee the Kerry campaign in Michigan. Fowler was national field director of Gore’s 2000 presidential effort.

The assignments of Shea and Poersch to direct the campaign in perhaps the two most important states this year are the most intriguing, since it adds a further Congressional flavor to the Kerry high command.

Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill was formerly chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), while deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf was the long-time chief of staff to Gephardt.

This stands in somewhat stark contrast to the upper echelon of the Bush campaign, which features just one Congressional chief of staff running a state. Mark Graul, chief of staff to Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.), has been charged with overseeing the operation in the Badger State.

The selection of Shea and Poersch also suggests that the Kerry campaign is putting campaign experience ahead of longtime ties to a particular states.

Shea’s political roots are in New Jersey, where he helped elect Corzine in 2000 and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) in 2002. Previously, Shea served as special assistant to Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. Ickes now heads up the Media Fund — a “527” soft-money organization that is funding ads favorable to Kerry in battleground states.

Poersch is one of the most sought-after political operatives in the party, having repeatedly been courted for the top staff job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Prior to his stint as Reed’s chief of staff, Poersch led Gore’s coordinated effort in Ohio and served as campaign manager for the unsuccessful 1998 Senate campaign of former Kentucky Rep. Scotty Baesler (D).

Shea declined to comment for this story. Poersch did not return a call.

A Kerry operative defended the selections of Shea and Poersch despite their nonnative status in the states they will run, noting that many of the state directors are not longtime politicos in the area.

“Sometimes it is better to have a fresh person who is not tied to any of the players and who does not have any local baggage,” the source explained. “Sometimes it is better to have a local operative.”

Florida was the deciding state in the 2000 presidential race, with George W. Bush winning a controversial 537-vote margin. National Democrats alleged widespread voter disenfranchisement and have spent the last four years preparing their revenge.

Kerry has visited the Sunshine State 23 times in his presidential campaign; Bush has been to Florida 19 times since 2001, according to calculations provided by The Hotline, a daily political tipsheet.

Ohio is also in the small group of “must win” states for both parties. Bush carried Ohio in 2000 by 4 points — a smaller-than-expected margin given that Gore pulled his advertising in the state in mid-October.

The sagging industrial economy has hit the Buckeye State particularly hard, however, and recent polling has shown Bush and Kerry running neck and neck.