Beltway Boy Brings Bare-Knuckle Tactics to Nice Nebraska

Posted June 20, 2005 at 6:36pm

Late in the summer of 2002, then-Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s (D) campaign for governor was sputtering. [IMGCAP(1)]

At the beginning of the year, Townsend had been the clear frontrunner with a 15-point lead in the polls. By July, her lead had sunk to just 3 percentage points and then-Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R) was gaining ground by the day.

On Townsend’s campaign bus, her staffers and volunteers did their best to remain upbeat, singing to pass the time as they crisscrossed the state yet again.

But not Barry Rubin, her 31-year-old campaign manager. He spent the bus rides jabbering on his cell phone at his usual mile-a-minute pace.

It was not until Townsend herself demanded that Rubin take the microphone that he stood up and blew the doors off the bus with a flawless rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” He then promptly got back on the phone.

“I’ve been known to sing a little here and there,” Rubin said with a chuckle.

It may have done wonders for morale, but it was not enough to save Townsend’s flagging campaign.

“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t blow the doors off the election there. I would have rather done that than the bus,” Rubin said. “That was the only losing campaign I’ve worked on, and it was by far the most educational for me. I learned way more on that then I did on any of the winning campaigns I was part of.”

And when it was over, Rubin went west, to a job as the executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. For someone who was born and raised

inside the Beltway, Rubin’s move to one of the most conservative areas of the country surprised his former colleagues, to say the least.

But they also saw it as a chance for Rubin to start over. Rubin and Nebraska Democratic officials described the move as an opportunity for Democrats to kick-start a state operation that had all but been declared dead and buried.

David DiMartino, spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska’s only Democratic statewide officeholder, said Rubin’s move was a positive development for the party.

“They needed help with organization and staffing, and he was sort of the perfect candidate to do that,” DiMartino said.

Whatever the reason, though, Rubin’s arrival in Nebraska has raised as many eyebrows as his departure did. By bringing a lifetime of East Coast political expertise — and style — to a place where branding yourself a Democrat can be political suicide, Rubin has stirred the pot, which, he said, is exactly what the state needed.

“There are a lot of Democrats in hiding here,” Rubin said. “Back in 1990, we had the governor, two U.S. Senators, one Congressman out of the three, and half the Legislature. We used to own this place, and there are a lot of people who are sort of dormant and in hiding. They need to see that the party’s revived and that the blood is flowing and that people are fighting for them.”

In less than two years, Rubin has more than tripled the party’s operating budget, added diversity to the caucus structure, revamped — and in some instances built — county party organizations, and recruited young candidates for local and statewide races.

(This stands in contrast to neighboring Oklahoma, another Republican stronghold, where the state Democratic Party recently had to lay off all its staffers due to a lack of funds.)

“When I got here I was flabbergasted,” Rubin recalled. “I moved in on a Friday and that following Saturday I went to a state central committee meeting. I went and observed, and met some folks, and it was the oldest, whitest group of people I’d met in my entire life. And their excuse was, ‘Well, it’s Nebraska.’ And I just thought that was bull, basically. And I said, ‘The reason you don’t see anything different is because you haven’t been trying.’”

So Rubin went to work fixing a candidate-recruitment operation that he described as “horrible.”

“When we lost Bob Kerrey and J.J. Exon and Frank Morrison, the Band-Aid was ripped off and we bled to death, basically, because nobody was out there recruiting anyone,” he said. “The challenge for us is to try to find new blood to invigorate the party in rural Nebraska. And that’s really what we’re focused on right now.”

Rubin’s presence has been felt outside party circles, as well. Omaha World Herald readers, for one, have been privy to Rubin’s many passionate and sometimes colorful comments.

“I think the Bush White House recognizes that young lap dogs don’t come cheaply,” he told the World Herald in June 2004 about a fundraiser Vice President Cheney attended for now-Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).

In response to potential union picket lines at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Rubin told the World Herald, “You’d have to throw my dead limp body over a picket line before you’d see me cross one.”

Asked to comment on ticket distribution for a White House Social Security event held in Omaha in January, Rubin said, “Drink the Kool-Aid and sign a blood oath to support the president and you may have a chance to get invited.”

And earlier this month, Rubin drew his fiercest criticism yet for a posting on the party Web site that referred to Republican Carlos Castillo, the Douglas County election commissioner, as “Tio Tomas.” Rubin apologized, although in his typical style. “I apologize for stooping to their level,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see Barry moonlighting as a hostage negotiator,” said Len Foxwell, a lobbyist with the Greater Washington Board of Trade who has worked with Rubin on numerous Maryland campaigns. “He’s a pit bull and a bare-knuckle fighter, no doubt about it.”

“What we’re seeing from Barry is a very tough direction for the party, and really a holding of the feet to the fire for the Republican leadership in Nebraska,” DiMartino said.

Steve Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Rubin’s positives outweigh the controversy he generates.

“He gets criticized by the Republicans out here for what they call ‘East Coast politics,’ but he brings political operative skills to Nebraska that are pretty much unheard of out here,” Achelpohl said.

Rubin said he recognizes that he must walk a fine line between energizing cowering Democrats and respecting the traditional values of Nebraskans, even Democratic Nebraskans.

“Democrats are very unique here in Nebraska and it’s a very populist independent-minded state, and that’s why you see people like Ben Nelson, Chuck Hagel, Bob Kerrey and J.J. Exon finding success here,” he said.

Far from chastising Republicans, Nelson often votes with them, and he does not refer to himself as a Democrat when he travels around the state.

“We’re trying very hard to really create that identity here,” Rubin said.

In a way, that challenge mirrors the one faced by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who has vowed to charge into conservative areas of the country with a liberal message in tow, but who has also drawn criticism for comments he has made about Republicans while touting that message.

Ultimately, Rubin believes that the interjection of his — and Dean’s — rattle-the-cage style of politics will serve red state Democrats well. At the same time, though, he believes that coastal liberals should expand their horizons before making political assumptions about Middle America.

“Until you live here and experience the good life here in Nebraska and other states, you can’t have a realistic impression of politics in heartland and how things work out here,” he said.

Rubin might be changing Nebraska Democratic politics, but Nebraska is changing Rubin as well.

“Barry has been very good for us and has been a catalyst for change,” said Nebraska state Sen. Matt Connealy, the Democratic nominee for Congress against Fortenberry last year. “But I would assume that he can’t be the same political operative he was when he was in the dominant party.”