Senate Democrats’ Super Lawyer Preps for Overtime
As the Senate chamber erupted in applause after the swearing-in of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, Majority Leader Harry Reid eventually looked up and directed his appreciation toward the newest senator’s attorneys.
On that day, more than five years ago, standing alongside his two Franken campaign co-counsels was Marc Elias, the Democrats’ go-to attorney. He’d spent the previous eight months in Minneapolis in a seemingly unending recount and trial that ultimately resulted in a 60th Senate seat for the party.
This cycle, as Franken is favored for re-election and Democrats fight to hold their majority, Elias sat down with CQ Roll Call to chat about Senate races, where exactly he’ll be watching election returns on Nov. 4, which states he’s keeping an eye on for potential recounts and his role in one of the longest recounts in Senate history.
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“It was a very emotional thing,” Elias said of standing in the chamber on July 7, 2009. “Not just because of the fact that Franken was getting sworn-in, but I remember Leader Reid looking up at us, Sen. [John] Kerry and all these other members that I’d been involved with in representing, and it was really a great moment.”
Elias was upbeat and energetic as he entered a conference room in the expansive Perkins Coie office downtown on Monday, jumping right into Senate campaign chatter. He suggested the interview take place there, as his new office a few doors down had yet to be set up.
He offered a brief tour anyway, picking up framed hallmarks of his noteworthy legal and political career that still leaned against the wall.
Among them was a March 2004 New York Times front page, with an above-the-fold photo of Elias alongside Kerry, taken the night the Massachusetts senator had secured the Democratic presidential nomination. Another was a Roll Call cartoon from April 2009 — Franken and Republican Norm Coleman were depicted as knights, with Franken holding a sword and Coleman down to one limb, standing on his “last leg.”
Over the past decade, since Kerry hired him as his campaign counsel, Elias has risen to become an indispensable figure in the party. He has a second office in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters, where he’ll spend most of Election Day “pacing around” Executive Director Guy Cecil’s office “and driving him nuts for most of the day.”
As chairman of the political law practice at Perkins Coie, Elias oversees 18 attorneys and represents nearly every Democratic senator. The firm’s client list also includes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association.
On Tuesday, there will be attorneys stationed at each committee, as well as lawyers in state-based boiler rooms.
“The truth is, Election Day is a lot more sitting around and waiting than people think,” Elias said. “If there’s a broken voting machine in Little Rock, Ark., I may get on the phone and be told there’s a broken machine . . . and I’ll give my 2 cents on it. But fundamentally, that machine is going to get fixed or not fixed by someone on the ground.”
That night he’ll be watching for close Senate races in states such as Alaska, Georgia and North Carolina, as well as plenty of gubernatorial and House contests. Until then, Elias and his team are busy preparing for potential recounts and working with campaigns and the committees on Election Day “voter protection.”
“Plus, we’re still dealing with the last of campaign season, so we’re still reviewing ads and dealing with get-out-the-vote issues and the full panoply of issues that we deal with every day,” Elias said.
The 45-year-old was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island and attended high school in Suffern, a small town in suburban Rockland County. He’s one of two sons to a stay-at-home-mom and a father who worked on Wall Street before becoming a small-business owner. They were “New Deal Democrats, Jews from New York,” Elias said, laughing.
He graduated from Hamilton College in 1990 with a degree in government before going to Duke, where he earned both a law degree and a master’s in political science in 1993. He joined Perkins Coie and quickly moved into the political law practice under Bob Bauer, who would go on to become campaign and White House counsel to Barack Obama, and Judy Corley, who became in-house counsel to Richard Gephardt after Republicans won the House majority in 1994.
“I sometimes say that I have Newt Gingrich to thank for my entry into political law,” Elias said.
Democrats wanted to go after the new speaker, so the young lawyer worked extensively with the DCCC drafting ethics and Federal Election Commission complaints.
It was the front end “of this huge explosion in the intersection of law and criminal law and ethics law and politics,” Elias said. “I was kind of situated in the right place at the right time, and the practice just expanded from there.”
In the 2008 cycle, Elias became Franken’s campaign attorney after Stephanie Schriock, now president of EMILY’s List, took over as campaign manager. On election night, The Associated Press briefly called the race for Coleman, but his lead continued to diminish before he finished ahead by several hundred votes.
Not sure if more votes would turn up for one side or the other, Elias began “a phased deployment of resources into Minnesota” but didn’t get there himself until the following Monday, when it was clear the race would go to a recount. He’d be there full time until the end of June, when the state Supreme Court ruled for Franken.
“Marc Elias is the guy you want leading you out of the wilderness,” said Jess McIntosh, communications director at EMILY’s List and a former Franken spokeswoman. “He’s a giant of a human being, which can be helpfully terrifying, but he’s incredibly funny and warm.”
This year, Elias was at the center of some of the biggest political court battles of the cycle. That includes redistricting cases in Virginia and Florida, helping Kansas Democrat Chad Taylor remove his name from the ballot, and an unsuccessful push for preliminary relief on new voting laws in North Carolina.
When grouped together, Elias said, those laws in the Tar Heel State — which include decreasing the number of weeks of early voting, ending same-day registration and eliminating out-of-precinct provisional voting — are clearly an effort by some Republicans “to simply make it harder for people to vote.”
“That is, right now, the big fight in politics,” he said, “and will be one of the defining fights I think for the next five to 10 years.”