Supplicant Comes to D.C.

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:26pm

It’s a little after 10 a.m. on a Thursday in mid-August, and Ohio Congressional candidate Jane Mitakides (D) sits in the heavily secured lobby of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee office on First Street Northwest and thinks about an earlier trip in search of endorsements.

“The first question I was asked was, ‘Tell me your position exactly on Ariel Sharon and the fence,’” she recalls.

But after a near-sleepless night, all she could think about then was getting that first cup of coffee.

This time around, Mitakides, who is trying to unseat freshman Rep. Mike Turner (R) in the Dayton-based 3rd Congressional district, says she’s as prepared as she’ll ever be. She got a good night’s sleep — almost five hours — and even ate breakfast with an aide at the nearby Hyatt Regency.

AIPAC is the first stop on a day in which she will perform the mandatory rituals of the first-time candidate in Washington — namely convincing the pertinent interest groups, PACs, newspaper reporters and other opinion makers that her bid is both viable and worthy of their attention.

“You always hope you are set,” the 55-year-old mother of two says calmly, minutes before a perky, ponytailed assistant leads Mitakides through the metal detector and into the inner sanctum of the powerful, pro-Israel lobby.

The Right Stuff

Like any neophyte candidate, Mitakides is eager to please.

It’s only her third trip to Washington since formally kicking off her campaign in February, and it’s the first to focus primarily on PAC fundraising. To date, Turner has far outpaced Mitakides in the money chase. If she’s going to raise the kind of cash she needs to catapult from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “watch list” to its “target list,” she’ll need to make an awful lot of good first impressions in the next 36 hours.

“The magic number [she needs to raise to get on the preferred list] is somewhere over $300,000,” she says.

As any candidate knows, these visits are a little like fishing. Sometimes you can come up totally empty. Sometimes a nibble can sustain you for hours. Other times the big ones can get away.

Mitakides, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed dentist’s wife, arrives at the AIPAC meeting in a patterned pale blue jacquard suit, more Tipper Gore than Hillary Clinton. Only her accessories — a gold eagle and pearl pin given to her by the Democratic National Committee in appreciation of her support for the Clintons and a large blue “Jane Mitakides for Congress” button — invoke the political. She sits attentively, like the star pupil on the first day of school, hands folded, eyes alert. She speaks in soothing, well-modulated tones.

“I’ve always been deeply interested and concerned about Israel and its issues,” Mitakides tells AIPAC’s deputy political director, Jeffrey Shulman. Ever since her daughter Katie, a master’s student at Wright State University, began a research project on Palestinian female suicide bombers, she says, the Middle East conflict has taken on added personal significance.

“I live with your issue,” she says soberly.

And this time, Mitakides, part owner of a dental waste management company and a dedicated Democratic activist, has obviously done her homework.

“Isn’t Israel the only one of our friends to have ever asked for a reduction in foreign aid?” she pipes up, as Shulman clicks through a PowerPoint presentation for candidates. She printed out all 64 pages of issues information available on AIPAC’s Web site and says she read “a lot of it” before coming. She even told her daughter to read it, too.

Mitakides doesn’t have long to make her pitch, so she dives right in. Her district may lean Republican, but the dynamics have changed. Since the beginning of the year, voter registration rolls have swelled by 40,000 in Montgomery County alone — an increase that she believes is largely attributed to the activities of the anti-Bush 527 group America Coming Together. And with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) declaring Dayton “a key within a key” to his presidential campaign, and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Million Dollar Club channeling funds to Turner (a sign of at least some vulnerability), there’s no telling what might happen.

“All you need to know about Mike Turner is that he votes with Tom DeLay 98 percent of the time,” she says, delivering the first iteration of what will become the quote of the day.

Shulman is pleasant but noncommittal. AIPAC, which doesn’t endorse Congressional candidates but provides its members with information about the races, has no gripe with the incumbent. Turner’s been “good on votes in the short time he’s been there,” he says. Still, Shulman offers Mitakides a sliver of hope.

“It’s not a particularly active relationship,” he confides, and promises to “connect her with folks” in the Jewish community. “There are 33, 34 pro-Israel PACs in the country — they are going to be receptive if the DCCC elevates this race a little more,” he says.

Shulman does not ask Mitakides her position on the fence.

In the elevator going down, Mitakides’ old friend and self-described “aide-de-camp,” Victor Crawford Jr., a one-time staffer to ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), peers at the candidate’s high heels in concern.

“You don’t need to change shoes?” he asks, thinking of the day of street hiking ahead. She assures him she’s just fine, and the two head out into the muggy heat for a “get-to-know-you” session with the Washington-based Dayton Daily News reporter who is covering her race.

Personal Politics

For Mitakides, it soon becomes apparent that the personal is very much the political.

That’s why when she meets with labor officials, she rarely fails to invoke “the three generations” of her family who worked on the B&O Railroad. Her paternal grandfather was killed while working on a stalled locomotive.

“When I talk about the importance of organized labor … it’s not political theory, it’s my life,” she says.

It’s no surprise, then, when she stops en route to an appointment at the Transport Workers Union and asks Crawford: “Did they put my father’s, my grandfather’s picture in there?”

Her query sends him rifling through an armful of briefing books and papers. Alas, the photographs appear to have been overlooked.

Later in the day, while discussing abortion, she’ll highlight the fact that the doctor providing abortions who was killed in Pensacola, Fla., David Gunn, was a relative of her mother’s.

Though the organization has yet to endorse her, “I should be the poster child” for EMILY’s List, Mitakides says.

The Numbers Game

Mitakides’ nose is red, and she’s still sniffling thanks to a nasty ragweed allergy when she sits down with Roll Call reporters and political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, a Roll Call contributing writer, later that afternoon.

Rothenberg flips through her candidate packet. He isn’t satisfied with what he finds.

“I would like to see a polling memo that is a real polling memo, not Celinda’s ability to write an eight-paragraph memo on how bad the economy is,” he chides, referring to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who works for Mitakides.

“What jumps out at me is what’s not in here,” he says. “So what’s not in here I have to conclude doesn’t benefit you.”

Mitakides doesn’t flinch. But she doesn’t argue with him either. She steers the conversation back to fundraising. Former President Bill Clinton may host an event for her, and Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke have offered to lend a hand.

When Rothenberg is done, Mitakides is a good 45 minutes behind schedule, and her 3 p.m., Michael Lehman, a candidate for a finance position with the campaign, is already waiting at the sandwich bar downstairs.

“Oh my God,” she cries, when she realizes the time.

She gets straight to the point. How can he help her boost her cash flow?

“The first thing I would do is start raising money by whatever means and by all means,” Lehman says. He ticks off a list of potential target groups: women, EMILY’s List, trial lawyers, the business community.

She will check his references and get back to him. She jumps up and shakes his hand. She simply doesn’t have another minute to spare.

Roller Coaster

Outside the offices of NARAL Pro-Choice America on 15th Street Northwest, most of the city is headed home. Workers stream out into the street. The lone attendant at a nearby hot dog stand takes a break from his duties, places a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk and, facing Mecca, prostrates himself in prayer. The lobby guard turns off his security monitor and departs. Still no Mitakides.

When the candidate eventually appears from upstairs, neither she nor Crawford is smiling. Despite her status as the only contender in the race who supports abortion rights, the NARAL nod is hardly a sure thing. The group’s leaders will get back to her sometime in September when they’ve had a chance to discuss her candidacy with their board — a standard procedure, Mitakides says.

“They didn’t accept on faith that I understood each of their issues … and how to put a campaign together,” she laments. So many organizations, she finds, “want to back winners as opposed to make winners.”

“Again it goes back to this circle,” she asserts. “I can’t do a lot until I have endorsements and money.”

Of course, if she’s going to improve her position, she’ll need a solid ground operation. And that’s where her next stop — the political consulting firm FieldWorks — comes in.

The only drawback: money. While the firm provides a variety of services the campaign desires, “sometimes we need to work within the realm of the possible,” she concedes.

A candidate for the position of campaign press secretary — who does not want to be named in this article to avoid angering his present employer — has arrived at FieldWorks’ Woodley Park headquarters ahead of Mitakides. Mitakides is sorry she’s late, but she was with Rothenberg earlier, she explains.

The young man understands. He smiles widely.

“You don’t say no to Stu Rothenberg,” he says knowingly.

Mitakides retreats to a back room, where under the comic gaze of an oversized “Beat Bush” punching bag, she talks strategy with FieldWorks reps. To illustrate her case, she sketches out on a sheet of paper just how she plans to win — neighborhood by neighborhood.

As Mitakides talks, FieldWorks’ Deborah Wilhite scribbles furiously into a dayplanner, interrupting the candidate periodically for a follow-up question. They’ll help her write a field plan and find a field director, Wilhite says. And maybe, once her “resources grow,” they’ll be able to do even more.

Back in Crawford’s Jeep Cherokee, Crawford, Mitakides and the potential future flak head south on Connecticut Avenue. Along the way, they pick up Mitakides’ “fire-breathing” Republican friend, Gene Tibbs, an attorney at Arent Fox, who has been kind enough to put her up while she’s in town and has even hosted a house party for her. Tibbs isn’t the only GOPer in her camp. A senior legislative assistant for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is hosting a “Republicans for Jane” reception in September.

Mitakides’ spirits are high.

“This is probably the strangest interview you’ve ever been on,” she laughs as the job applicant looks on. She jokes about being compared in one Hill newspaper to Kim Cattrall of “Sex and the City.” She reminds the young man of the fringe benefits of joining her campaign. Not only is there the attraction of living in “Dayton, the Paris of the Midwest,” but did she mention the “exquisite dental care?”

Over a scotch with the press prospect at the bar at Bistro Bis, Mitakides decides she likes what she sees and offers the potential press secretary a job. But suddenly he seems unsure.

“I’m sleeping on it,” he says.

Going for the Kill

By noon the following day, time is running out. In about eight hours, Mitakides is due on an Independence Air flight back to Dayton, and she has yet to nail down any financial commitments. She still needs a media consultant (though the DCCC helped her narrow the choice down earlier that morning), and as she will soon find out, a press secretary — because the previous day’s contender will turn her down. At the Democratic Club, she huddles with Rick De La Fuente of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a group whose endorsement she has already received.

At first, the hour-long lunch over Cobb salad and clam chowder appears merely an extended exercise in staying on message: She lets De La Fuente know in no uncertain terms just what Turner means to the future of labor.

Not only has Turner worked for an outsourcer, she says; while in office he has helped channel government contracts to his former employer.

What’s more, the National Restaurant Association “won’t even give me an appointment,” she laments, a snub she attributes to Turner’s desire to lower the minimum wage.

De La Fuente, a middle-aged man with a shock of dark hair and a cool mien, sits back in his chair and mostly just nods empathetically.

The tête-à-tête is nearing its end, when Mitakides takes off her glasses and leans in conspiratorially: “Did [my campaign manager] tell me you’re sending help my way?” she asks.

“I know we already cut a check for you, and I think what we do is give it to the locals,” De La Fuente replies phlegmatically.

She thanks him politely, reminds him of her family’s roots in labor, then presses for more.

“I’ll ask you to think hard about maxing out,” she says, noting the Machinists’ contribution of $2,500, just half what a PAC is allowed to give per election to a federal candidate. Besides, if she’s ever going to convince DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) to elevate the status of her race, she’s got to “have the biggest number to put on his desk” in September.

“Normally, we go in all at once,” De La Fuente hems, as if he’s uncertain how much the union has already given. Is she positive that wasn’t already the case?

Mitakides is.

“I’m sure we’ll match the amount,” he finally concedes.

Score one for Mitakides. The conversation moves on to gun rights, gay marriage, and her recent endorsement by the International Longshoremen’s Association. “And I don’t even have a shore,” she quips.

Time is marching on, and the National Rifle Association waits for no one, least of all a Democratic contender hoping to dethrone a Republican who supports gun rights.

Despite her “hunting and fishing family” background, “it’s not a meeting I’m going into with high expectations,” she says. At the very least she hopes to convince them she’s solid enough on the NRA’s issues that the group doesn’t “come after” her.

Before climbing into Crawford’s waiting Jeep Cherokee, Mitakides stops to reflect on the accomplishments of the trip.

“One supporter on the spot doubled his contribution,” she notes. “I’ve gained commitments from people who will help as soon as they see my numbers … and I have faith in those numbers.”

(As she’ll discover later that night when she returns home and checks her voice messages, the trip also secured her the nod from the United Steelworkers of America. The following week, the United Food and Commercial Workers gives its blessing.)

Overall, a productive two days, she thinks, though a bit rushed for her taste. Next time, she’ll be sure to insist that her scheduler add an additional 15 minutes between appointments.

Then she’s off, zooming down E Street Southeast to make her afternoon meeting with the NRA, and others, if she can squeeze them in.

And after that, just maybe, a rendezvous with Congress.