By Kris Kitto - 06/03/08 05:12 PM EDT
Jeremy Steffens, Rep. Ander Crenshaw’s (R-Fla.) new press secretary, just might be the person to take the mudslinging out of politics.
The 34-year-old learned a hard lesson about negative campaigning while working on a race for the Indiana state legislature early in his political career, and has since shied away from the tactic.
As he tells the story, Steffens’s candidate was ahead in the polls by 14 or 15 percentage points when the state Republican Party decided to run negative campaign ads on the candidate’s behalf. But the ads proved to be the campaign’s undoing, and his boss lost by about 500 votes.
“That was kind of one of those things where you put a year of 12- to 14-hour days in,” he says in a gravelly, baritone voice, “and you knew you should’ve won it.”
He now looks at negative campaigning differently.
“Contrast ads are one thing,” Steffens says. “But just attacking people’s character, taking things that most people wouldn’t know or care about and trying to exploit them into some major scandal thing probably isn’t — you know, people see through that kind of crap, I think.”
Steffens has had other growing experiences in his career, which, up to this point, has been mostly off the Hill. He graduated from Southeastern University of Florida in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in counseling and shortly thereafter moved to Indiana to start a youth-mentoring foundation. The work at the foundation grew into public-affairs side jobs, leading Steffens to open his own public relations firm. He then began doing political messaging.
Steffens enjoyed being his own boss but was always aware that he had no safety net. “You get to set your own schedule,” he says. “There’s also a lot of pressure. If you don’t produce, you don’t eat.”
Steffens eventually transitioned to local and state politics, first in Indiana and then in his home state of Florida. Before moving to Washington, he worked as a communications aide for the Orange County, Fla., government. In Fall 2007, Steffens started in Rep. Dave Weldon’s (R-Fla.) office before switching to Crenshaw’s.
To someone who has deep professional experience but is new to national politics, Washington has provided Steffens with a few surprises.
“I think probably just the inability to get much done” is one of the more unpleasant surprises, he says.
But he is happy to see good will among lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, something he thinks the national news media misses.
Before long, he could be correcting that in pitches to the national press. Steffens says one day he’d like to work on a national campaign.
Meanwhile, he’s still settling into Washington, enduring a commute from Springfield, Va., while looking for housing on the Hill, hitting tennis balls when he can, and volunteering at National Community Church.