The steady hand

Roger Lau has become the go-to operative for Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic pols in Massachusetts -- and beyond

AS SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN made her way down the rope-line on election night, a familiar figure was close by her side. Roger Lau had managed Warren’s lopsided victory over a Republican state rep and now he was managing her exit from a clutch of reporters. It was Lau in his element, staffing the candidate, keeping the Fairmont Copley Plaza victory party on track, while trying to stay out of the frame.

A stranger to the television-viewing audience that may have caught a glimpse of him, the Somerville resident is a constant presence with Warren and has won renown among untold numbers of candidates and operatives across Massachusetts. Even Bill and Hillary Clinton lean on his expertise during political visits to Massachusetts and for their travels around the world.

“There aren’t that many people in Democratic politics that are as savvy and shrewd and principled and also humble and wise at the same time as Roger is,” says Jon Davidson, the former president’s current deputy chief of staff, who estimates there are just a handful of people operating at Lau’s level around the country. “Whenever I need anything related to Massachusetts specifically, Roger’s definitely one of our go-tos. And the president knows that. The secretary knows that,” he says, referring to Hillary Clinton.

With her New Year’s Eve announcement of an exploratory committee to run for president, Warren is likely to look again to Lau to provide ballast during the inevitable tumult of a national campaign. Warren’s office did not make her available for comment on Lau.

His role is hard to pigeonhole. Lau is known for his meticulous advance work, scouting out event locations and ensuring that all goes smoothly. But he’s also taken more strategic roles running campaigns and advising candidates on issues.

“He’s good on policy and he’s very good on politics,” says Congressman Richard Neal, who hired Lau to run his 2010 reelection campaign. “Sometimes you find people along the way that are only good at one.”

If Warren’s recent Senate victory over Geoff Diehl was a sure thing, Lau’s ascension in politics was anything but.

He never finished high school and struggled through his first semesters at UMass Amherst before a fluke classified ad landed him an opportunity in the Springfield office of Sen. John Kerry in 1998. In the two decades since, Lau, 41, has built a reputation unlike any other in Massachusetts politics today.

“One of the best compliments of a great staffer is that there are no surprises. With Roger, there was never a surprise,” Kerry said in a statement. “Roger has an army of people he’s recruited and hired and who would follow him anywhere. He’s just good at politics. He knows how to fix problems in his very calm, self-contained quiet way. He’s like Winston Wolfe in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ If there’s a problem, you call Roger.”

Many pols have done just that.

Over the past six years, Lau has become indispensable to Warren, playing a major role in her 2012 victory, serving as state director in her Senate office, and then taking the reins of her re-election campaign last year.

Elizabeth Warren campaign video announcing her exploratory committee to run for president in 2020. What role will Lau play? “Whatever is most helpful,” he says cryptically.

The consummate under-the-radar staffer, Lau won’t talk about Warren’s decisions during the Senate campaign, including the most controversial one: The well-publicized release of a DNA test to address her claims of Native American ancestry.

Now as she prepares for a possible White House run, the inevitable question for Lau is what role he would play in such a venture.

“Whatever is most helpful,” he says in the cryptic fashion of a practiced operative.

FROM DROPOUT TO SENATE STAFFER

Little about Lau’s background seemed to point toward a future in the world of topflight political operatives. His parents grew up in Guangzhou, China, where their educations were cut short, and his mother was sent to work on a farm as part of the disastrous “Great Leap Forward.” Both fled the communist dictatorship and they met in Hong Kong, traveling together to New York City and a new life in the United States. A year later, in 1977, their eldest child, Roger, was born.

The Lau family made their home in Woodside, Queens, an immigrant neighborhood sandwiched between Astoria and Jackson Heights. Lau’s parents held multiple jobs and were co-owners of a takeout restaurant for a time and both worked as driving instructors. His father also worked as a waiter and souvenir shop salesman, and his mother was a garment worker.

“My parents always taught us to work a lot. They worked a lot. And I think all of that comes second-nature to us,” says Alex Lau, the younger of Roger’s two brothers, who works as a food magazine photographer.

Lau had the smarts to land a seat at the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York’s selective-admission public high schools, but he didn’t have much direction or drive. He found plenty of distractions along the long subway ride from home and started skipping school. He eventually dropped out, frittering away his teenage years on the streets of New York. Lau described himself to his youngest brother as “a lot more brash” in his teenage years, according to Alex.

Roger Lau and Elizabeth Warren

Lau with Warren outside a Boston TV studio before a Senate campaign debate in October. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Lau eventually received his GED, and then went to UMass Amherst, where he buckled down to work, delivering newspapers, landscaping, and working at a corrugated cardboard factory in addition to handling a packed course-load majoring in political science with a minor in Chinese.

One day while at UMass, Lau happened upon an obscurely worded classified ad for an internship, which led to an interview in Kerry’s office. Lau needed to dress the part, but had only $40 to spend, just enough to buy a dusty suit that had been sitting on a store mannequin in the Hampshire Mall in nearby Hadley. He wore the suit and got the internship.

Later Lau learned the classified ad was an aberration. The office didn’t usually advertise internships, which typically get handed out through political connections. But a previous intern in the office had placed the ad after the newspaper had called offering a free trial run of a classified.

Lau graduated in 2000 and he planned to return home to pursue political work in New York. As he was packed up to leave, Kerry’s state director, Jeff Bean, called to hire him. Lau turned down offers to be Kerry’s driver or assistant to the state director, and said he would rather handle constituent services. He got the job.

GO-TO GUY

That marked the beginning of Lau’s professional career in politics. He held various positions in Kerry’s office and worked on his 2004 presidential run. It was on Kerry’s campaign in Florida, where Lau was coordinating surrogates’ schedules, that he first connected with Bill Clinton, which led to his later work on the Clintons’ behalf.

Tom Keady, a veteran Massachusetts operative who was a “super volunteer” on Kerry’s 2004 campaign and now leads government relations for Boston College, became a mentor to Lau, teaching him the nuts and bolts of politicking and advance work — making arrangements to ensure political events are executed flawlessly.

“We spent a lot of time together on the presidential, particularly in Iowa,” Keady says. “He really loves what he does.”

Lau also met his longtime partner Amanda Coulombe through Kerry’s office, and he became a leader among the young campaign workers and volunteers there. “I’ve always talked about it as ‘the Roger Lau effect,’” Coulombe says. “Here’s a guy who is looking out for everyone else around him. He’s not interested in succeeding or making an impact on his own. He’s always focused on bringing other people along with him.”

Coulombe says the key to Lau’s views on politics and why he works so hard can be found in his early career in constituent services, which is akin to social work. “People aren’t going to turn for help to their senator because everything’s going right. It’s because they literally don’t know where else to go,” Coulombe says. “I think that’s something that he has never lost track of.”

As his political career progressed, Lau racked up a series of electoral wins, and one major loss. Lau became state director for Marty Meehan’s congressional office in 2006, and then he ran the campaign of Meehan’s successor, Niki Tsongas, in 2007.

In 2008, Lau worked on Kerry’s re-election to the Senate, even making a positive impression on Republican Dan Winslow, who was a consultant to Kerry’s challenger.

“Roger has one major flaw and that is that he will not work for Republicans, because he is the guy I would hire tomorrow if I could ever get back into elected politics,” says Winslow, a one-time district court judge and state rep. “That flaw notwithstanding, he is a political agriculturalist. He grows goodwill on both sides of the aisle and he regularly reaps the harvest from his efforts.”

After President Barack Obama took office, Lau and Coulombe moved to the capital where Lau briefly served as director of protocol for the Commerce Department. Then, in 2009, one of the most earth-shaking events in recent Massachusetts politics sent Lau and, eventually, Warren onto new trajectories where their paths would converge. In August of that year, Sen. Ted Kennedy died, opening the Senate seat he held since 1962. Congressman Michael Capuano asked Lau to return to Massachusetts to run his Senate campaign and Lau agreed.

Martha Coakley defeated Capuano in the Democratic primary and then lost a stunning upset to Scott Brown, a Republican state senator. That set the stage for Warren to take on Brown more than a year later. Lau signed on as her political director.

Lau’s job on Warren’s campaign to unseat Brown was to ensure different parts of the campaign worked in sync and that tasks were accomplished. It was a job he was perfectly suited for, according to Jess Torres, who was Lau’s deputy.

“When things are at their most chaotic — the decibel level is highest, other people may be feeling the pressure in a way that people find really challenging — I think he thrives,” Torres says. “Roger’s just made of different stuff in some ways. He remembers the time somebody nine years ago went way out of their way to do a late-night sign delivery even though they’d already spent all day knocking on doors or something like that.”

Steve Tompkins, who is now the Suffolk County sheriff, recalled a tougher side of Lau when he joined Warren’s campaign. “I wanted to see what he was made of, and so I gave him all kinds of hell,” says Tompkins. “The Roger that we all know and love went somewhere else and this hulk-like creature appeared. Roger was like, basically, ‘I don’t know who you think I am. I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I will kick your ass.'”

After Warren’s 2012 victory, Lau went to work for her Senate office as state director, and soon his phone started buzzing with new job opportunities.

When John Walsh decided to give up the reins as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in 2013, his first call was to then-Gov. Deval Patrick. His second was to Lau, whom he asked to run for party chair. “I don’t begin to know all the directions he would lead in, but I’d be very, very comfortable trusting him,” Walsh says. Lau turned Walsh down.

Marty Walsh (no relation to John) tried to recruit Lau to his 2013 campaign for mayor of Boston, but Lau turned him down, too. Lau has also resisted the allure of private industry where his connections would be highly lucrative.

But he has maintained a relationship with the Clintons, whose organization has dispatched him to Africa and Asia to do advance work ahead of big trips there. He has also lent his political acumen to two fellow staffers who have gone on to run for office, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who worked on the 2012 Warren campaign, and newly-elected Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a one-time Kerry staffer who defeated Capuano in this fall’s Democratic primary. (Lau stayed out of the congressional showdown between two old friends, but helped Pressley on her earlier Boston city council campaigns.)

“I think the world of him. He’s been my brother,” says Pressley, who was the first black woman elected to Boston’s City Council in 2009. “He’s been there for all the joy and pain in my life the last 20 years, an incredible friend and support when my mother was battling cancer and then after her subsequent passing, and was there for me for every council race.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Lau believes the greatest achievement of his career has been diversifying the ranks in Massachusetts Democratic politics in Warren’s office and beyond.

“Of all the things that I’m proud of it’s not the jobs I’ve had,” he says. “It’s not traveling around the world. It’s not being able to represent these incredible people and play a small part in making them better at what they do. The most amazing part is being able to open doors for people who have never been involved to be involved.”

Ana Morales, who was Warren’s deputy political director in 2018, is a good example of that. Morales, who met Lau when she was a high school volunteer on Capuano’s 2010 Senate race, credits him with the opportunities she has enjoyed.

“I get to be Senator Warren’s deputy political director for her re-election campaign because of somebody like Roger Lau,” Morales says. “I’m a little girl from the Dominican Republic who didn’t speak a word of English when I got here. And I know this for a fact: I wouldn’t be where I am right now if somebody like him didn’t give me a shot.”

What’s more, she says, as a leader, Lau has been as willing as anyone else to do the grunt work that might be reserved for lower-rung staff and volunteers. “If we need to set up a room or clean up a room and he’s there, he’s going to help clean up the room,” says Morales. “He never has us do something that he isn’t willing to do himself and he’s probably the most hardworking person out of our whole entire team, which makes us work even harder.”

Massachusetts state politics is still largely dominated by white men, but the profession was even more monochromatic when Lau got his start.

Leverett Wing, an old friend of Lau’s whose forebears came from China, experienced first-hand what it was like to be an Asian American in a Bay State institution in 1992, shortly after he started working for Sen. Tom Birmingham. Wing was walking down a State House hallway when a staffer in another office asked him to vacuum the carpets over the weekend. “That’s sort of how Asian Americans, and people of color in general, were perceived,” says Wing. “The majority of the time when people of color were seen in the State House it was because they were a member of the cleaning crew.”

While he lacks the traditional CV of the political aide, Lau excels at the fundamental political skill of making those around him and his candidate feel singled out in positive ways.

After Warren took office, Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who advised her in 2012, attended a town hall, slipping into the back where he planned to go unnoticed. “I wasn’t there for 15 minutes — I got a text from Roger: ‘I see you in the back. Why don’t you come back and say hi to the senator when we’re done,'” Rubin says. “It’s that attention to detail that made me feel, that’s great. I know he’s doing that with everybody.”

Winslow, the Republican who backed Warren’s opponents in 2012 and 2018, remembers receiving a birthday phone call from Warren several years ago.

“I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth Warren didn’t wake up that morning with a calendar reminder to call freshman Republican state representative Dan Winslow. I’m pretty sure that Roger Lau had something to do with that,” says Winslow.

Lau is one of the more outgoing people in a field populated by extroverts, but he is not much of a self-promoter.

“I’ve said this to him a million times — I wish he sought out recognition more, because he is so accomplished, and he does so many things well,” says Wing. “He’s reached the highest levels [in politics] and for an Asian-American that is so rare.”

Perhaps his humility is just another way Lau excels at his job. Political aides are taught not to overshadow their boss. But Lau is also haunted by the idea that people will determine “this guy doesn’t belong here.”

“I suffer from imposter’s syndrome,” he says. “I’m constantly freaked out that one of these people is going to figure out, ‘Holy shit, this guy doesn’t belong here.'”

Even as expectations ramp up in Warren’s world about a White House run, Lau seems to take the long view, and one that carries more than a whiff of the social worker’s approach that drives him.

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“The ride ends for everybody at some point,” he says. “What did you do during that time when you had the opportunity? Did you make it all about yourself for some fleeting moment when you were in a special room somewhere or did you make it more meaningful for someone else?”