Partisan thrives on K Street

Greg Nash

In more than two decades on Capitol Hill, Jim Manley worked for some of the Democrats that Republicans have most loved to hate – Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Ted Kennedy (Mass.)

Manley has, in some ways, only sharpened his reputation as a partisan warrior since leaving his position as the top spokesman to Reid, the Senate majority leader, more than three years ago.

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He has perhaps become an even more oft-quoted source in Washington, castigating Republicans for the gridlock that’s enveloped Congress.

Manley complements the quotes with a Twitter feed full of acerbic barbs directed squarely at GOP lawmakers.

“I am firmly of the belief that what we have seen of these Republicans in recent years defies anything we’ve seen in the Senate’s history,” Manley told The Hill in a wide-ranging interview.

So it might be something of a surprise that Manley now earns his paycheck from QGA Public Affairs, which bills itself as Washington’s “first truly bipartisan public affairs firm” and where he works closely with John Feehery, a former top GOP aide on Capitol Hill and a columnist for The Hill.

He also sounds wistful about how Washington has changed since he arrived a quarter-century ago, before today’s hyper-partisan environment.

Manley acknowledges that complaints about years gone by can make him sound like “an old fart.” 

But, he says, he really did prefer the era when lawmakers — and their staffs — worked through problems to find legislative solutions.

“I came from a time where you could battle each other day in, day out, and then still have a beer with a reporter at night — or a Republican at night,” Manley said in an interview at his office at QGA, which is filled with photographs of him and Reid and other prominent lawmakers, like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Some might question those statements, given Manley’s punchy style and his apparent joy in lobbing partisan bombs.

But Manley says he comes by his approach honestly. His grandfather, Gerald Mullin, was a longtime state lawmaker in Minnesota and helped found the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Manley himself grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, forming an interest in politics and newspapers before heading to Washington and eventually finding a gig with the then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).

“It’s kind of in my blood, if you will,” he said. “At some point, I realized I could get paid reading newspapers and following the news. And for me, that’s one hell of a deal.”

It’s a deal he gets to continue to this day.

At QGA, Manley works alongside Feehery and helps a wide range of clients navigate the various pitfalls on Capitol Hill – including the National Association of Letter Carriers, U.S. Steel and the Campaign for an Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration Overhaul, or Cambio.

Manley says he does his best to separate that work from his more partisan commentaries on Washington, though he admits that his Twitter outbursts have, at times, frayed the nerves of his boss, Jack Quinn, QGA’s co-founder.

In the past week, Manley slammed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for fanning the flames of a “phony gun issue” and called the co-founder of Home Depot, Ken Langone, an unprintable word for comments that compared populist campaign pitches with Nazi Germany.

In years past, Manley’s tweets have delved into subjects like Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) prostitution controversy.

“John [Feehery] has only gotten one angry phone call from a Senate Republican office in my three years here. So, I think I consider that pretty much a success,” said Manley, who acknowledges he uses Twitter to “get my aggression out.”

“I think I make Jack nervous every once and a while,” he added.

For his part, Feehery said Republicans, many of whom consistently fear primary challenges from the right, generally don’t mind getting criticized by high-profile Democrats like Manley.

“Manley’s had his reputation for speaking out, and I think Republicans probably don’t love it. But they should expect it,” Feehery told The Hill. “Being criticized by Jim Manley for a Republican is like a badge of honor.”

Feehery also brushed aside Manley’s comments blaming the GOP for Washington gridlock, even as he said that his colleague’s approach illustrated why their firm was successful.

“There’s two models. One model is to try to hide your partisan feelings and try not to be honest,” said Feehery, another frequently quoted commentator about Washington. “And then there’s our model, where we say, ‘here’s where we stand.’ ”

After three years on the outside, Manley acknowledges there are still times when he misses the Senate.

He recalled being on the Senate floor when Reid shepherded the Affordable Care Act toward passage, and Manley saw his former boss’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, in the gallery.

But there were also smaller moments, like watching Kennedy, who was often loath to talk about his family, discuss his brother Robert Kennedy in a book interview.

He also remembered, with a laugh, when one of Kennedy’s sisters compared Manley to another shorter-than-normal operative — the Michael J. Fox character on the 1990’s TV series “Spin City.”

“At risk of dating myself,” he said, “I’ll never forget that story.”

Manley has no shortage of fond memories of his time with Reid as well, whom he acknowledges reluctantly has earned his reputation as a Machiavellian operator.

“There’s something to be said for playing smash mouth politics,” Manley said.

Still, he also admits that standing next to Reid, who has been known to veer off message, at a stakeout could be “terrifying.”

“See these gray hairs? He gave me a few of them; Sen. Kennedy gave me a few,” Manley said.

He admits missing the pace and excitement of working on Capitol Hill, including periodic meetings “with presidents and prime ministers and rock stars and supermodels.”

But he also made sure to push back on any idea that he traded the trenches of the Senate for a cushy K Street gig. He noted that his current job still allows him to parry back and forth with reporters, one of his favorite parts of working in the Senate, along with presenting him a slew of other new challenges.

Yet there are perks on K Street.

“I’m becoming comfortable leaving the office before the sun goes down these days,” he said. 

“I loved working for Sen. Reid. I owe him a whole heck of a lot,” Manley said. “Like I said, the hours are a heck of a lot better.”