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.
Once Ickes, Malcolm, and Rosenthal had a plan, they needed money. Lots of it. That’s when George Soros called. Since the Iraq war, Soros has acquired a missionary zeal about ousting Bush that he calls “the central focus of my life” and nothing less than “a matter of life and death.” Last July, Soros held a confab of liberal activists at his summer home in Southampton, at which he pledged $10 million to act. (Soros has also given millions to MoveOn.) “Getting Soros onboard early was huge,” says one Democratic strategist. He also personally reeled in other donors, including his friend Peter Lewis, who owns the Progressive Corporation and who has given over $3 million. Along with the torrent of money flooding in from wealthy Democrats, so came a host of tricky ethical questions. After all, it was Democrats who had fought for campaign-finance reform and who most often decry the role of big money in politics. But goo-goo reformers in Washington said that Democrats were perverting the spirit of the law and encouraging deeper public cynicism about the political system. The law’s biggest champion, Senator John McCain, flatly stated that what Democrats were doing was “not legal.” Longtime reform activist Fred Wertheimer says groups like ACT and the Media Fund should have to abide by the same restrictions as political-action committees, which can’t accept contributions larger than $5,000. “They make very clear that their essential purpose is to defeat President Bush,” Wertheimer says.
But Democrats stress one essential point: McCain’s campaign-finance law never aspired to banish big money from politics. Rather, its signature achievement was to break the link between elected officials and money, so that officeholders would no longer be—or at least seem to be—prostitutes for their richest donors. For a time, no one banged the ethical drum louder than Republicans. Earlier this year, the GOP began calling the Democratic effort nothing short of “an unprecedented criminal enterprise” and an “illegal conspiracy of donors and shadowy groups.” In March, the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign asked the Federal Election Commission to effectively shut down the Democratic 527 machine. This was a miscalculation. Last month, the FEC announced it wouldn’t take any action against 527s this year, forcing the GOP to hastily—and rather hypocritically—kick-start its own 527 network.
While John Kerry has raised money at a blazing clip in the city, he still hasn’t lit a fire under many Democrats, including some who supported Howard Dean in the primaries. And some of them are turning to the 527s instead. “There’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily want to support Kerry directly. They’re not sure where he is on things. But they want to contribute to the effort to beat Bush,” says one veteran New York Democratic fund-raiser.
Unlike the gala dinners typically thrown by presidential campaigns, the 527s have raised much of their money through small, private meetings with big-dollar donors. “Most of this is about personal connection,” Ickes explains. Soros has helped make some of those connections. Last fall, for instance, he invited the Manhattan chemical magnate Agnes Varis—a self-described “Democratic fairy godmother”—to a small dinner at his Fifth Avenue apartment to hear a pitch from Ickes, Malcolm, and Rosenthal. The 74-year-old Varis seems to have swooned over the blunt-talking Ickes. “He’s better than chocolate ice cream!” she exclaims. “You can’t make him blink too often. He’s pretty straightforward. Whatever he believes, he says what it is.” Varis wound up giving more than $1 million.
In New York, the 527s are in some ways more glamorous than the Kerry campaign has been so far. In February, the groups held an event at the Society for Ethical Culture that drew 500 people, including such stalwarts as Al Franken, Michael Moore, Meryl Streep, Karenna Gore Schiff, Diane Von Furstenberg, Harvey Weinstein, Graydon Carter, Tina Brown, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Russell Simmons.
A small number of major givers has led the charge. At the front of the pack is labor leader Dennis Rivera’s Service Employees International Union, Local 1199, which has donated $1.5 million. (The union has already sent 150 workers into swing states, where they’re working full-time for ACT.) There are some usual big Democratic donors, like the philanthropist Lewis Cullman, who has given ACT half a million dollars, and Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger, who’s given $250,000. Loral Space & Communications chairman Bernard Schwartz has pitched in $200,000.
Others who have given five-figure donations to ACT, the Media Fund, or both include Kevin Bacon, construction mogul John Tishman, investor Debra Efroymson, MTV CEO Tom Freston, Jann Wenner, TriBeCa Productions partner Jane Rosenthal, and retired media mogul William Sarnoff. Smaller amounts have come in from media figures like Oxygen Media CEO Geraldine Laybourne, Jonathan Demme, and Nora Ephron.
But it’s not just the rich and famous who are getting into the act. Even as Ickes and company hit up big donors, sui generis efforts—like a recent wave of Brooklyn house parties for act—are spreading, Dean-campaign style, among ordinary Bush-loathing New Yorkers wanting to get involved. “It’s hard to live in New York—we’re not where the action’s happening,” says Marcia Ely, an at-home mom in Park Slope who co-hosted a fund-raiser for act. “We live in a very liberal neighborhood. There’s no point in doing a lot of pounding the pavement around here—it’s just preaching to the converted. The question on everyone else’s mind is, how can you do something where it’s going to count?”
Thanks to efforts like these, Harold Ickes has already forestalled one Democratic nightmare. “The assumption was that the Democratic nominee would be broke and absolutely silent and Bush would have TV to himself” in the early months of the campaign, says Jim Jordan, Kerry’s former campaign manager. But that didn’t happen. Thanks to deep Democratic pockets, the Media Fund has aired more than $20 million in swing-state advertising. “If these groups didn’t exist, you can assume Kerry would be five points down in the polls from wherever he is now,” says Wolfson.
“I bet [Bush] has spent close to $70 million” in advertising, Ickes says, “and he hasn’t moved one percentage point.”
The Media Fund’s ads bear a Madison Avenue stamp. Ickes was asked by donors not to use the same cookie-cutter spots typical of political campaigns. So he signed up a group of admen led by C. J. Waldman, best known for his work for Heineken. Also on the team, which called itself the Campaign Farm, were Waldman’s partner Paul Olkowski; David Kessler, a former managing director of Hill, Holliday; and music producer Lyle Greenfield. “We try to do work that breaks through the clutter to get our clients’ message out,” says Waldman.
Whereas the Kerry campaign has so far taken a glossy, uplifting approach in its advertising, the Media Fund has played bad cop, bashing Bush’s policies with brass knuckles. One way of doing this was through a series of ads based on a tactic Waldman’s team calls “reveal”—hooking viewers by opening an ad with one concept and then twisting it in a surprise direction. For instance, one Media Fund ad opens with footage of belching factory smokestacks. “During the past four years, it’s true, George W. Bush has created more jobs,” a narrator explains. Then the camera zooms back, revealing factory walls covered in Chinese characters, as the narrator adds: “Unfortunately, they were in places like China.”
Slick as the ads are, they are most striking for how openly they root for Kerry. One ad, for instance, declares that “George Bush’s priorities are eroding the American Dream … It’s about hope, not fear … President Bush, remember the American Dream?” Another is essentially a multimedia Kerry press release: “Kerry’s economic plan? Roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent, helping pay for a middle-class tax cut! … George Bush? He supported exporting jobs. And he raided Social Security to pay for a tax cut for millionaires!”
By now, the Campaign Farm’s work is mostly done. With Kerry’s own ad campaign cranked up, Ickes and his colleagues have begun to focus more on act’s ground efforts. “The goal was to provide some air cover” early in the campaign, Kessler says. “It reminded me of the scene in Saving Private Ryan, when they hit the beachhead and the shit’s flying. That’s what our job was—take the fucking beachhead, and [Kerry] will come in when he’s ready.”
Which may be for the best—these Madison Avenue hands sound a little shell-shocked by their brush with Washington. “The pace at which it moved amazed us—conference calls at 11:30 on a Sunday night, shit like that,” Kessler says. “I think the guys who do political advertising live for that; it’s addictive, it’s like a drug. And Madison Avenue, while it’s intense—it ain’t like that.”
“It’s honestly not awkward, even though it’s strange,” says Jordan.
Indeed it is strange: A year ago, he was running John Kerry’s campaign. But then came Howard Dean, and Kerry’s amazing collapse in the polls. And then Jordan began clashing with Kerry’s territorial media adviser, Bob Shrum. By November, Jordan was out, in a blaze of anger and recriminations. Now Jordan is in the strange position of working for Kerry again—but not quite. “The day after I got fired, Harold left me a very nice message telling me to keep my head up,” Jordan says in his rapid-fire patter tinged with a slight North Carolina accent.
About a month after what Jordan calls “the sacking,” Ickes called again and invited Jordan to meet with him, Rosenthal, and Malcolm. Soon after, Jordan signed on to help ACT and the Media Fund with press strategy and rapid response—firing off tactical shots to win day-to-day news battles. I met Jordan in his office, just a couple of blocks from the White House, that was once occupied by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman. The only reminder of Jordan’s affiliation with Kerry is a framed Tom Toles cartoon hanging on his wall. It depicts Kerry firing one staffer after another who speaks candidly to him, until just a single staffer remains in terrified silence.
Jordan doesn’t look the part of a Democratic super-insider. He’s inclined toward faded plaid shirts, blue jeans, and worn moccasins (with no socks). If he’s ever worn a tie, no reporter has seen it.
Jordan leads an early-morning staff meeting every day to discuss the day’s news and the president’s campaign schedule, and to plan troublemaking responses accordingly. When Bush made a recent trip to West Virginia, for instance, Jordan’s team provided grim statistics about the economy and health care for some instant Media Fund radio and newspaper ads in the region Bush visited. ACT, meanwhile, dispatched foot soldiers to disrupt Bush’s campaign events. “We can effectively serve as somebody screaming into the echo chamber for Kerry,” Jordan explains.
What Jordan and his colleagues can’t do is coordinate in any way with the Kerry campaign. The law demands that these dual campaigns must work completely independently of each other. That can make for an almost comic level of caution. After I had lunch with Jordan at a Washington restaurant, for instance, we bumped into Kerry’s communications director, Michael Meehan, on the sidewalk. “Fellow co-conspirator!” Meehan cracked sardonically to Jordan. The talk turned immediately to the safe and legal harbor of baseball.
Some Kerry aides eye this juggernaut operating alongside them with anxiety. Campaigns like a sense of total control—which is impossible when groups you can’t even communicate with are spending hundreds of millions on your behalf. In an election already driven by unpredictable world events, “the 527s are just another wild card,” says a senior Kerry adviser—“uncontrollable, unguided attack machines.” Just ask Dick Gephardt, whose aides feel their primary campaign was submarined last winter by an outside group that ran Iowa TV ads attacking Howard Dean. Gephardt’s campaign watched as voters grew angry and blamed their man for the negative tactics, but the ads kept coming; they were powerless to stop them. “Not in my wildest imagination is that a message I wanted to be on the air,” says Bill Carrick, Gephardt’s media consultant. “These groups, by virtue of their independence, could do something to [Kerry’s] strategic interest.”
One Democratic strategist suggests the Kerry campaign is especially concerned about MoveOn, which has been airing some brutal ads attacking Bush’s credibility and sketchy National Guard record. “The MoveOn ads must make those [Kerry] guys wince—they’re so hot.” But another Democrat close to Kerry downplays all the concern. “To have absolutely no contact with the people who do that advertising is unsettling,” he says. “The other half of that is, would you give it up to have control? The answer is probably no.”
The firewall between the 527s and the Kerry campaign probably means that Jim Jordan won’t speak again to Kerry—whom he has not seen since walking out of Kerry’s Boston townhouse on November 9—until after the election, at least. “I still personally am very fond of him and admiring of him. Maybe one of these days we’ll be friends again,” Jordan says. “I would like that.”