Human punching bag

When Amanda Marcotte took a job as a blogger for former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) presidential campaign, she had no idea that she would resign a few weeks later because of past personal Web posts.

The same goes for Judy Rose, a former volunteer in Iowa for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential campaign. She found out through the national news media that she would have to resign for forwarding an e-mail considered disparaging to Clinton’s opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

“I turned on the TV and thought, ‘Gee, that’s me,’ ” she says.

Marcotte and Rose are just two of several staffers, aides, volunteers and advisers affiliated with this season’s presidential campaigns who had to leave their positions publicly, sometimes under harsh and less-than-ideal circumstances.

The latest to fall is Mark J. Penn, chief strategist for Clinton who resigned Sunday after running into conflicts of interest between campaign duties and another job as president of a public relations firm. Just a couple of weeks ago, Soren Dayton, an aide on Republican candidate Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) campaign, was suspended for circulating an anti-Obama video on the Internet. A campaign spokesman said Dayton’s “pursuing other opportunities."

More recent resignations came from two high-profile names: Harvard University foreign policy expert Samantha Power, who resigned from Obama’s campaign after calling Clinton a “monster”; and Democratic icon Geraldine Ferraro, a volunteer on Clinton’s finance committee, who cut ties with the campaign when her comments on Obama’s race drew widespread attention.

Seasoned campaigners know that the job is a tough one. But a public crucifixion can leave the strongest among them humbled.

Those who join political campaigns may be smart to recognize up front the volatility of the business and the dispensable nature of their positions. Campaign resignations, experts say, are frequent, common and necessary for one main reason: the almighty campaign message.

“Every campaign has to keep its focus,” says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year. If a staffer gets in the way of a campaign’s focus, the candidate has to do something, he says. “There are very few major, successful campaigns that conclude with the people they started with.”

Rarely does a campaign’s strategy include excessive news coverage of its staff.

“Campaigns don’t want the story to ever be about the staff,” says Gregory Lebel, a George Washington University professor who worked on the Democratic presidential campaigns of George McGovern, Gary Hart, Al Gore and Howard Dean. “It really comes back to, ‘How do we stay on message?’ or, ‘How do we get back on message?’ ”  

Consequently, when someone affiliated with the campaign missteps, “the campaign doesn’t have any choice,” he says. “They want it to be a one-day story.”

Those words are of little consolation to staffers who take the hit, since they have to find a way to move beyond the news story. Regardless of their status or the circumstances of their departure, those who resigned are left to figure out what just happened and how they’ll move on.

Ferraro says the days following her retmarks were a nightmare.

“You couldn’t believe what it was like,” she says. “People calling up my law firm complaining about me. People calling me up.”

Marcotte experienced a similar response.

“I got more hate mail in two days, oh my God,” she says. She was advised to read most of that mail, too, to look for death threats and forward them to the FBI. “There were a couple [messages] that were definitely in that territory.”

Rose, too, was disillusioned.

“I immediately sent [the Clinton campaign] an e-mail asking, ‘What happened to free speech?’ ” she says.
These women can attest that the initial flurry following a staffer’s public resignation is often unpleasant, but many of these sacrificial lambs eventually land on their feet.

Jason Roe, a lobbyist for Federal Strategy Group, left his three-month-old post as deputy campaign manager in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential campaign when his name surfaced over alleged dealings between his former boss, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), and convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

He says he had four job offers within four weeks of his resignation.

“It was nice to feel like I wasn’t in any kind of a desperate situation,” he says, though he adds: “It’s certainly not pleasant for anybody when you go through it.”

Marcotte and Rose fared well, too. Marcotte now works at RH Reality Check, an online magazine covering reproductive health. Rose, a retired Methodist church secretary, was recently elected chairman of the Jones County (Iowa) Democrats Committee.

Higher-profile resignees seem no worse for the wear, either. Ferraro is continuing her work as a principal in the Blank Rome law firm’s government relations division, though at the time of this interview two weeks ago she was heading for cover in Florida for an Easter vacation. Power, meanwhile, scored a prime spot on “The Daily Show” to offer a public apology (and, conveniently, to promote her new book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World).

Not all staffers forced out of campaigns bounce back as well, some experts say. The campaign world is small, and if a campaigner engages in a deceitful practice or otherwise appears untrustworthy, word travels fast.

“Campaigns are team sports,” GW’s Lebel says. “And if you break out of that, you’ll get a reputation.”
But some of these scenarios — especially those in which the person was offered up as the campaign’s sacrificial lamb — may work to a political professional’s favor, they say.

Eventually these fallen campaign affiliates might show off their experiences like battle scars.

“It’s a strength for somebody in politics … if they’ve taken a punch,” says Robert Creamer, president of the political consulting firm Strategic Consulting Group and the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). In campaigning, he says, “there are a lot of punches that have been thrown. And you don’t want someone who hasn’t been in the ring.”