The guiding hand

Though largely unknown outside the world of politics, Mindy Myers has helped three current New England senators win office.

mindy myers has never called New England home, but she’s nevertheless left her political mark on the region. The 37-year-old Washington insider has run the successful election campaigns of three sitting New England senators—Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island (2006), Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut (2010), and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (2012).

Myers is just as comfortable on Capitol Hill as she is out on the campaign trail. She used to work in the Washington office of former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, serving as an aide to Daschle’s powerful chief of staff, Pete Rouse. When Whitehouse was elected, Myers became his Senate chief of staff. It’s a job she now holds down for Warren, helping the first-term senator navigate the corridors of Capitol Hill.

For all her success, very few know Myers outside the world of politics. She’s more comfortable in the background, leaving the spotlight to the politicians for whom she works. But back in September the spotlight fell briefly on her. After she sent out a fundraising appeal on behalf of Warren’s colleague, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Republicans filed an ethics complaint with the Senate alleging Myers violated rules barring Senate staff from campaigning while performing their official duties.

Warren’s office says no government resources were used to make the appeal, but the incident was the first time that Myers—and not her candidate or her senator—had become the focus of the news. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint. Myers has kept a lower profile since.

She agreed to talk with CommonWealth, but only on the phone and only for 25 minutes. Her answers to questions tended to be short and to the point. She grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a bus driver and a receptionist. She went on to American University in Washington and from there to Capitol Hill, the Clinton White House, and then back and forth between campaigns and Congress. She is a Democrat but mentions no issue or cause that particularly motivates her.

“I think my mom instilled in me a sense of fairness, that everyone deserves a fair shot,” she says, by way of explaining her political persuasion. Democrats “help people like my parents who always worked hard, but didn’t always have a lot.”

Asked if there’s any campaign philosophy that ties together her campaign victories, Myers says voters are looking for candidates who “stand up for the middle class.”

Mandy Grunwald, a political ad maker known for her work for Bill Clinton, says Myers’s reluctance to talk about herself is not surprising. “I don’t think Mindy is someone who has a personal agenda and gets her candidate to run on it,” she says. “She helps them fashion campaigns that win.”

Myers has a reputation as a soft spoken and collaborative leader. “The most important thing as a manager is to assemble a strong team of people who will work together and empower them to do their jobs,” she says.

Despite the reputation of campaign managers as brutal taskmasters, colleagues say Myers is the opposite. “You can be tough without being nasty. You can make tough decisions without being a jerk,” says Anita Dunn, a campaign consultant who knows Myers. “You cannot do what she has done and not be a very tough person.”

In her first job as a campaign manager, Myers’s candidate, Whitehouse, was running in heavily Democratic Rhode Island. Still, he was taking on the incumbent Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate and the bearer of one of Rhode Island’s most famous political names. Lincoln Chafee’s father, John, was a Rhode Island senator for nearly 23 years and a governor before that. Two other ancestors had served as the state’s governor and another as a senator.

Despite Chafee’s moderate bona fides and his willingness to cross party lines, Whitehouse hammered him as a tool of President George W. Bush. Bush’s declining popularity and the scandal-tarred Republicans in Congress were no help to Chafee and Whitehouse beat him by 7 percentage points.

The win put Myers on the map as a skilled political strategist and when Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal decided to run in 2010 to replace the retiring Christopher Dodd, the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee in Washington recruited her to run the show. Again, winning as a Democrat in blue Connecticut wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Blumenthal wasn’t the enthusiastic campaigner Whitehouse was and he was caught, by the New York Times, for lying about having served in Vietnam. It was also a very bad year for Democrats, when Tea Party support helped Republicans win back control of the House. Blumenthal’s Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, was also willing to tap her vast fortune to win. Blumenthal was outspent 6-1.

Myers helped Blumenthal win by focusing on his service as attorney general, where he’d developed a loyal constituency for his work protecting consumers. “When we did meetings, it seemed like the rooms were full of people he’d personally helped,” she says. Blumenthal helped the Democrats retain their Senate majority by crushing McMahon by 12 percentage points.

Myers’s reputation grew. “I have seen her in really difficult situations and she stays on course,” says Marla Romash, a political consultant Myers hired to work on Blumenthal’s campaign. “She stays cool no matter how hot it gets. Equally important, in a business ruled by strong egos, she doesn’t seem to have one, and because of that, she is able to get people to do things and work together and make things happen that very few other people could.”

Warren, who left Harvard to advise President Obama on financial regulation, began her Senate campaign in 2011. Myers was impressed with Warren’s story and her work for Obama and reached out to her. Warren welcomed Myers aboard, saying her reputation as someone “who works tirelessly out of the spotlight while successfully navigating high-stakes campaigns to victory is well-deserved.”

Again, the race wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Warren had to unseat the popular Republican Scott Brown and overcome a kerfuffle about Warren’s American Indian heritage, or lack thereof. Brown said Warren was dishonest for listing herself as a minority in a professional directory of law professors. Massachusetts had also proven unfriendly in the past to women seeking statewide office.

But Warren remained focused on her core message that Washington needs to do more to help and protect the middle class. And she used the same tactic Whitehouse had against Chafee, linking Brown to the more conservative Republicans who dominate the GOP in Washington. Warren pulled away at the end.

Her campaign colleagues say Myers, as a manager, focuses on all facets of a campaign. Some in the business believe advertising alone can carry the day, but Myers says winning candidates have to outwork their opponents in advertising as well as getting out the vote, polling, fundraising, and, increasingly, using social media. “At the end of the day, there’s still nothing more important than getting a neighbor talking to a neighbor,” Myers says.

In politics, there’s usually a demarcation between the campaign world and the policy world. But Myers says she enjoys exercising the campaign skills she’s honed on the trail in the policy world which, increasingly, is becoming an extension of the campaign. The Senate was once a more collaborative body, but as moderates have been pushed out, it’s grown more partisan. Filibuster rules make it difficult for the majority to move legislation. The result, at least for the last several years, is that senators spend a good bit of their time hammering their opponents, in preparation for their next campaign.

As a senator, Whitehouse is known for his focus on the hot button issues that inspire the Democratic base—climate change legislation, campaign finance reform, or taxes on the wealthy—but have little chance of enactment so long as Republicans have heft in Washington. He has yet to claim any significant legislative victories as his own. Still, with Myers as his policy guide, Whitehouse went on to win a second term in 2012 in a landslide.

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Shawn Zeller

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Warren is following much the same path so far, carving out a reputation as a liberal fighter popular among Democrats. Her approach, like Whitehouse’s, is unlikely to make headway with her GOP colleagues on the issues she cares about. A Democratic groundswell in November could help her cause, but more likely the gridlock will continue.

Asked what Warren wants to do as a senator, Myers lists priorities that sound more like campaign themes than realistic possibilities, such as an increase in the minimum wage and expansion of Social Security, as well as some smaller initiatives that might stand a chance: more funding for scientific research and some tweaks to federal student loan rules to make them more affordable. Warren, Myers says, is likely to do better than the typical first-term senator: “I think the Senate has changed a lot. She’s very well-liked and she’s been received very well. Her colleagues appreciate the voice she brings.”