Obama’s Western ace in the hole

Jim Messina is the presidential campaign’s chief of staff


Jim Messina took a Western path to becoming one of the nation's top Democratic operatives. Born in Denver 38 years ago, Messina went through Boise public schools and earned a University of Montana degree in political science. He began working in Montana campaigns, then branched out to campaigns in many other places. Often, his candidates have won, and he's worked his way up to be chief of staff for no less than three Democratic members of Congress. In June, he took leave from the headquarters of Montana Sen. Max Baucus, and moved to a borrowed apartment in Chicago to become chief of staff for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Messina broke from his demanding, seven-days-a-week schedule to chat by phone with Ray Ring, High Country News senior editor, on a recent Saturday morning.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS  How did your Saturday start?

JIM MESSINA   Every morning, we have the 7 a.m. press call ... with the whole press team, about 20 people. We talk about what was in the morning papers, and go over the schedule. ... I usually get up at 6 a.m. and try to run before the call. But this morning I didn't run before the call, so I got up at 6:30 and did the call and ran after the call.

HCN  You run every morning, too?

MESSINA   There is a nice trail along Lake Michigan. I try to run 45 minutes. It's more mental for me than physical. If I don't run, it just drives me crazy.

HCN  And the Obama headquarters -- what's that like?

MESSINA   We have the single nicest campaign office I have ever seen, on Michigan Avenue, right downtown, where all the skyscrapers are. I'm used to working in basements or hovels, but we have a beautiful office on the 11th floor. ... We have 375 staff on one floor, so most of it is cubicle city.

HCN  What else does the chief of staff do?

MESSINA   At 9 a.m., I run a senior staff meeting with all the department heads in the campaign. ... We have another press call at 6:15 every night. ... And then at the end of the night, senior staff have a short call with Sen. Obama where he goes over his day and asks me questions he needs to ask, to make sure he's ready for the next day. ... I spend a lot of time making sure the trains run on time -- making sure that Barack and the staff get to where they need to go and the message is right and basically making the departments talk to each other. ... We have a mammoth budget that I administer and make sure we spend wisely. ... We've grown from a small business to a Fortune 500 company, and coordinating all that is probably the biggest piece of what I do.

HCN  How much face time do you get with Obama?

MESSINA   He's mostly on the road. When he's in town, we have two sessions a week (that) I started, where we spend one night talking about domestic policy and one night talking about foreign policy with a few select staffers.

HCN  What gets to you about politics, that you like so much?

MESSINA   Two things. One is the ability to make change. I spent the last year working on that land deal (Sen.) Baucus just announced, where we (the government partnering with private-land conservation groups) bought 300,000-plus acres from Plum Creek Timber Company. I helped conceive that and really pushed it. Assuming I ever have kids, my children's grandkids will play on that land, and we preserved it forever. The ability to make change is just unbelievable. ... And (the second good thing) about politics, I love the fact that there is an answer. Every other November (when the voters weigh in), you get a "yes" or "no" to all the work that you're doing. So much of life doesn't have answers. I love the finality and the clarity of politics.

HCN  I think of politics as the murky art of compromise.

MESSINA   That's the legislation. In the actual campaign, there is a clear answer. I spent a year and a half trying to beat (Montana Sen.) Conrad Burns, and in November of '06 we found out that we had done a good job (a slim majority of voters went for the Democratic challenger, Jon Tester). There is the answer, and I love the answer.

HCN  What happens when the results are not what you were hoping for?

MESSINA   The last five months of the '04 election ... I got sent to Alaska to help Tony Knowles, the former governor, run for the Senate, and he lost a very tight race. I still have nightmares about that loss. I have replayed it several hundred times in my head.

HCN  At what point did you realize you have this love for politics?

MESSINA   I always cared about it. In 1980, when I was in the fourth grade, they asked for volunteers to speak to the class about the presidential candidates, and I asked to be the Jimmy Carter person. There was a Ronald Reagan person and the students voted and Reagan won handily.

HCN  You didn't go to an Ivy League college as a path into the political elite, you took a different path -- and got to where you are by hard work?

MESSINA   I believe that politics is truly a merit-based world. If you work hard and you're honest -- and you keep winning -- you'll get to rise. (In my early political jobs) I was the kid who was the first in the office and the last to leave. And it's still kind of true. ... I've been chief of staff to three famous members of Congress and I work for a fourth, and when (each) hired me, I don't think any of them even asked me where I went to school -- they just asked me what I had done, and I love that.

HCN  Are your fellow staffers from the other track -- the Ivy League track? Are you an exception in that sense?

MESSINA  In the Senate, I am an exception. In the Obama campaign, I am definitely not an exception. I've been stunned by the sheer talent of the young staffers. We've got people really making revolutionary groundbreaking changes in the way you do campaigns, especially in the blogging world and the Internet world and the way the campaign reaches out. They have built a meritocracy where, if there are good ideas, they just take them. There are 23- and 24-year-old staffers who have a ton of power in this campaign.

HCN  Do you help your candidate be appealing to Westerners?

MESSINA   I think Barack has an appeal to the Western independent ethic that he has on his own, that we (staff) have nothing to do with. He appeals to the can-do attitude of the West. In the primaries, he did very well in Western states. ... He speaks in a language (Western voters) can hear, speaks in a way that gets through the politics and speaks to people in a third way, not red and not blue, just change and progress. I think that's what (much of the West) is -- Westerners are not partisan. ... People ask me all the time, "Why are Democrats doing so well in Montana?" It's because we are able to speak to all Montanans about issues that are important to all, like public access to lands -- that's not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, but the fact is, Democrats are better at it than Republicans are, and it speaks to a whole bunch of people who are unaffiliated and who care deeply about it. 

HCN  Has Obama formed specific positions on the oil and gas rush and the role of renewable energy?

MESSINA   It's interesting. So much of the national debate right now focuses on drilling on the continental shelf, that his proposals on the other stuff have not gotten as much play. Every single day he says, "We can't drill ourselves out of this problem, we have to take a long-term approach to energy that focuses on developing alternative fuels, and what we have is a lot of sun and wind and other alternatives."

HCN  The Boise rally in February was important to him, according to accounts I've read. Was he surprised that there are many thousands of Democrats in Idaho who are eager to see him?

MESSINA   What Democrats have done wrong for a long time is not contest what we traditionally called red states, though the Obama campaign hates those terms. It's part of why we lost the presidency, because the Democrats have unwisely focused on the same eight or 10 (blue) states. Barack contested every state in the primary. And now in the general election we're doing that too -- we have huge field operations and are on TV in states where Democrats haven't won in many years, states like North Dakota and Alaska and Virginia and Montana. I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to win in those states.

HCN  Why are the Dems having their convention in Denver?

MESSINA   One way the Dems began to get out of the hole they were in, and began to rise in the new century, was that we started winning races in Colorado and Montana and New Mexico and Arizona. Sending a message that we're going to be in those states (from now on) is a wise decision. That's part of the reason why we decided to do the (nomination) acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium (which has more seats than Denver's convention center). This isn't about party insiders, it's about anyone who wants to be part of change.

HCN  Do you have to caution Obama not to wear a cowboy hat or carry a shotgun around the way John Kerry did in his campaign in '04, looking phony?

MESSINA   Barack gets all that. He is a very intuitive politician.

HCN  Do you want to work in the White House, or do you prefer campaigns?

MESSINA   Let's be very clear, Sen. Baucus believes I will return home upon completion of my assignment. ... I think it's bad luck to talk about it. There are 107 days and 14 hours until the polls close in Alaska (the latest time zone tallying votes for national elections), so I am doing nothing but focusing on that.

HCN  Do you have a watch counting down to the November election?

MESSINA   I just know (how much time is left). ... Every morning in our senior staff meeting, we have an agenda that I hand out, and at the very top it has a countdown, how many days. It helps focus people. Every campaign I've worked on, people are tired, they can get grumpy, and I think one of the ways to stay focused is to be very clear about how long you have left. You can make many things in campaigns -- you can make more money, and you can make more volunteers, and new ideas. But the one thing you can't change is the clock.

HCN  It seems you don't have a social life, other than through your work?

MESSINA   Well, I'm 38 and single. It's hard to keep a relationship together in these things. But I do have a girlfriend. We've been together three months. She's wonderful. She's in D.C., and I call her on my walk home every night. She's chief of staff for a member of Congress as well, so hopefully she gets it. ... I gotta get better at that part.

HCN  Do people kid you about being from Montana, like you should be out wrestling grizzly bears instead?

MESSINA   A little bit, yeah. Not too bad, but a little bit.

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