Harold Ickes has always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. That was his style during his years as Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, where his unofficial title was political fixer, the man in charge of jobs no one else wanted—like controlling the fallout from Whitewater, coordinating Hillary Clinton’s health-care crusade, and orchestrating the president’s voracious fund-raising.
In each of those sensitive missions, discretion was a must.
The same held when Ickes helped to mastermind Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. It was Ickes, more than anyone else, who helped convince Hillary she could undertake such a daring adventure. And yet Ickes was never officially on the campaign payroll, rarely spoke to reporters, and didn’t lunge for political celebrity on the TV talk shows like so many of his ilk.
And so when a digital audio recorder is placed on a table in front of him, Ickes eyes it quizzically. “That’s a pretty nifty little deal there. Boy,” Ickes says. His manner is disarmingly folksy. This is a man fabled for his volcanic temper, who once bit a colleague’s leg in a brawl (“a good, solid bite,” he later boasted). Bill Clinton reportedly fretted that Ickes would be undone by his own rage.
An aide explains that everything’s digital now. Ickes gives his wiry frame a shrug and looks up with penetrating dark eyes.
“I’m usually off the record,” he explains, a harder edge to his voice now. “So there’s no sense in turning the fucking thing on.”
But it’s harder for Ickes to lurk behind the scenes. Three years ago, Ickes thought he was finished with electoral politics, but he’s back for one last campaign—this time in as close to a leading role as he’s ever had.
“We are not in the business of electing or defeating candidates,” Harold Ickes says with a poker face.
No, he’s not working for John Kerry—not officially, anyway. Ickes is a field general behind two newly formed Democratic groups that aim to raise and spend up to $150 million in a drive to bring down the president and help Democrats nationwide this fall. Think of it as a parallel campaign, a second front in the Democratic war against Bush. Working from offices just blocks from the White House, Ickes and his colleagues have swamped swing states with millions of dollars in Bush-bashing advertising and are planning a massive voter-turnout operation to bring hundreds of thousands of Democrats to the polls.
There is something absurd about the way these groups—known as 527s for the section of the tax code that regulates them—pretend that they’re not trying to defeat George Bush. “The goal of the Media Fund is to create, test, and then air ads that raise issues that we think are important in this election,” Ickes says with a poker face. “We are not in the business of electing or defeating candidates.”
Still, with John Kerry facing a Bush campaign machine that could outspend him by tens of millions, the success or failure of Ickes’s project might well decide the November election. And yet Kerry, by law, can’t have anything to do with it.
Howard Wolfson, another party operative who worked with Ickes on the Hillary campaign, says that outside Kerry’s campaign, “he is the most important person in the Democratic Party today.”
Ickes had intended to take a break from the harrowing madness of campaign politics. “This is much more of a younger person’s game. I’m 65 this year,” Ickes explains.
But over the past three years, Ickes watched with astonishment as the compassionate conservative became what he considers an extremist. He was also stirred by a new campaign-finance law, passed by Congress in 2002, that banned the parties from raising “soft money”—i.e., huge contributions of up to a million dollars or more at a time. Most Democrats supported the theory behind the law—namely, that such donations (say, a million dollars from Denise Rich) risked a corrupting influence on officeholders (say, a Bill Clinton pardon for Marc Rich).
Unfortunately, Democrats had come to rely far more than Republicans on soft money, and the law left them at a sudden and huge disadvantage. Ickes knew that if Democrats couldn’t replace all that soft money, they’d be spent into oblivion by the GOP. Their only hope was to rebuild the party in a new form, one that could again be fueled by six- and seven-figure donations. There was a way to do this: by exploiting a legal loophole that allows political groups to accept unlimited soft-money contributions so long as they don’t explicitly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate and don’t coordinate with any candidate or party. The 527s didn’t exactly have a chaste reputation; a typical 2000 New York Times editorial scorned them as “secret groups” and “slush funds.” Faced with the prospect of ruin, however, Democrats felt they couldn’t afford to sweat such niceties.
In early 2003, Ickes started up a 527 he called the Media Fund, whose mission would be to ensure that the eventual Democratic nominee had air cover early in 2004. Before long, Ickes hooked up with other leading Democratic operatives building their own 527s. Two of them were Steve Rosenthal and Ellen Malcolm. Rosenthal was an AFL-CIO political director famed for his organizing prowess. Malcolm had spent years as the head of Emily’s List, raising cash for pro-choice female Democratic candidates. Together they had formed a 527 they called America Coming Together (ACT). Its goal was to register and turn out millions of voters in the roughly twenty “battleground” states Democrats have identified as in play.