Paul Teller: Cruz’s agitator in chief

Like his boss, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocratic strategist warns Beto should be ‘careful’ with social media presence Hillary advisers battle over whether she’ll run in 2020 O'Rourke writes blog post describing a literal run from near the capitol to near the White House MORE’s (R-Texas) new chief of staff, Paul Teller, has a reputation for being a troublemaker.  

And for many conservatives who want to challenge the GOP establishment and Washington’s status quo, that’s a good thing.

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Cruz elevated Teller to chief of staff last month, a swift ascent for an aide who has worked in the Senate for less than a year, but the transition makes perfect sense. 

Even before Cruz was giving Senate leaders headaches, Teller had rustled feathers on the House side for years as a senior aide on the Republican Study Committee (RSC).  

Both have a seemingly genetic compulsion to question authority, especially if it means standing up against a Republican leader who wants to raise taxes, swell the deficit or let a Democratic president do those things. 

“I was always a classroom agitator,” Teller said during a recent interview. “I wasn’t necessarily the person who would organize a rally or a club to do this or that, but in the classroom, I was the guy with the hand up being like, ‘Uh, teacher, I don’t see it that way, or I disagree with that student over there.’ ” 

One of Teller’s most important jobs is to keep Cruz tied in with House conservatives who helped him oppose the implementation of ObamaCare last year in a standoff that shuttered the government for 16 days.

Conservatives in both chambers have to band together, he argued, because they often “see themselves in the minority even when in the majority.”

“House and Senate conservatives need to join forces to increase the likelihood of success or to amplify what we’re saying,” he said.  

Former Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), then the chairman of the RSC, hired Teller, a newly minted political science Ph.D. in February 2001. Over the next 13 years, the group swelled to more than 170 members, becoming one of the largest and most influential caucuses in the House, and Teller rose to become executive director.

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), a former RSC chairman, estimated that about 80 new members joined after the GOP wave election of 2010.

“Paul was instrumental in helping get the message out about the destructive nature of the activities of the president and the Democrats during that period of time,” he said.

Along the way, Teller participated in several high-profile clashes with the GOP leadership. While it earned him committed allies and admirers, it also created some enemies. 

One of his biggest early battles was in 2003 over then-President George W. Bush’s initiative to create a new prescription drug entitlement within Medicare financed by deficit spending.

Teller joined with conservatives, such as former Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in a battle against then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to defeat the legislation, which barely passed after a historic three-hour vote in the dead of night.

“I remember Paul Teller being a big name during that time. He was working from a conservative perspective against the prescription drug bill. That was a catalyzing moment for Republicans on the Hill,” said Tim Chapman, now the chief operating officer at Heritage Action, who knew Teller throughout his career as a conservative advocate.

Teller learned the hard-boiled realities of intraparty warfare while pursuing his doctorate at American University in the mid-1990s while also working for the College Republican National Committee (CRNC).

Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour cut off financial support and expelled the group from its offices after college Republican leaders questioned the party’s allegiance to conservative principles. 

After the national party cut its ties, many CRNC staffers quit the organization, but Teller stayed on to promote what he saw as a purer conservative vision.

“It was formative in a lot of ways. I don’t know that I realized in a lot of ways how much intraparty squabbles go on,” he recalled. “I kind of lived that firsthand.”

Teller took on the GOP leadership and the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in August 2007 over a vote on a Republican substitute to a Democratic energy bill.

He discovered it included “12 or 13 pages worth of tax increases” and sent an email alert to Republican lawmakers, warning them of the embedded provisions in the middle of the vote on the measure.

Lawmakers started huddling around their BlackBerrys on the House floor and then started change to their votes, first in a trickle, then in a deluge. Republicans swamped the well of the chamber attempting to turn in cards notifying their changed positions. Meanwhile, Rep. Charles Rangel (N.Y.), the Democratic chairman of Ways and Means panel, gleefully handed out cards to other Republican colleagues in case they wanted to switch, too.

“What the RSC really got to be known for is telling the truth, even if it’s bad news. We were the staff that would rip the Band-Aid off,” Teller said.

Another intra-conference battle came in the summer of 2011, six months after Republicans took control of the House, and both parties were locked in a standoff over raising the debt ceiling. 

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the chairman of the RSC, along with Teller, opposed moving any debt-ceiling deal that did not include the spending reform known as “Cut, Cap and Balance.”

Teller’s role in the power struggle came under scrutiny during a House Republican Conference meeting, after he sent an email to outside conservative groups describing the mood of the House GOP conference. Another RSC staffer sent an email urging conservative groups to lobby wavering lawmakers to oppose the leadership’s plan.

Some lawmakers yelled out, “Fire him! Fire him!” during a meeting of the conference, in possible reference to Teller or the other RSC staffer.

Teller said the shouts were not directed at him and are simply “a legend.” 

Jordan backed his executive director, telling The Hill, “I had a great relationship with Paul. He’s a sharp staffer and a very conservative guy.” 

Jordan said the “biggest thing we probably did” together was to push the House leadership to drive a hard bargain during the government funding fight in April 2011, which resulted in a $38 billion spending cut over the rest of that fiscal year.

Teller’s run with the RSC came to an abrupt end in December 2013, when Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who took over as the group’s chairman at the beginning of 2013, fired him because Teller allegedly lost the “trust” of some lawmakers.

Teller declined to talk about the circumstances of his departure, and a spokeswoman for Scalise also declined to comment.

Cruz, who wielded enormous influence during the government shutdown fight that year because of his relationship with House conservatives, immediately saw an opportunity. He hired Teller as his deputy chief of staff in January.

“I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something to the effect of, ‘Isn’t it great that you’re available now? You’re available at the exact moment I have this need. It’s something that’s meant to be,’ ” Teller said.

Since last year’s shutdown, Cruz has tried to mend fences with his Senate Republican colleagues who were angry because they felt he pushed them into taking on an unwinnable political fight. He gave $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee last month and recently campaigned in Kansas for embattled Sen. Pat Roberts (R).

Even so, don’t expect him or his new chief of staff to back off from challenging the leadership if Republicans capture the Senate majority next month.

“If you’re in the political arena, and you feel strongly about something, why not be an agitator? Why not push as hard as you can?” Teller asked.