As Democrats continue to ponder the wreckage of Campaign 2004, Harold Ickes Jr., a confidant of Bill and Hillary Clinton, says he may run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee-a post that would make him the face of the party for the next four years.
During an interview with The Observer in his Washington, D.C., office on Nov. 12, Mr. Ickes said Democrats need “somebody who can really focus on building the state party apparatus.
“I have a lot of experience both with the party itself and managing campaigns,” he added, “and I think that especially when the Democrats don’t have the White House, [the D.N.C. chairmanship] is a particularly important job.”
Mr. Ickes, 65, would join Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, among others, as prospective candidates to succeed outgoing D.N.C. chairman Terry McAuliffe. Some 240 members of the national committee will meet in February to elect a new chairman.
Whoever emerges from that vote will assume the arduous task of preparing the party for the 2006 midterm Congressional races and, of course, the 2008 Presidential campaign. Equally as important, Mr. McAuliffe’s successor will inherit a party engaged in serious soul-searching, which could be a prelude to a bitterly contested Presidential primary campaign in three years. Some within the party are urging Democrats to move to the center on so-called “values issues,” while others are trying to move the party to the left on economic issues.
The new chairman will have a great deal to say about which direction the Democrats choose. Some insiders, like former New York state chairman Judith Hope, wonder whether Mr. Ickes-a sometimes-prickly veteran of the Upper West Side’s political culture-would be the right messenger for the party. “Harold Ickes is a brilliant political strategist, but I’m not sure he is the right person to head the national party at this time,” said Ms. Hope, who sits on the executive committee of the D.N.C. with Mr. Ickes. “Democrats need to reconnect with voters in the heartland of America, and I don’t think that an Upper West Side reform Democrat can really fill that bill.”
Mr. Ickes shrugged off those concerns, saying, “I don’t think region is a touchstone. I think the touchstone is to have leadership qualities and to hire good people who would help you achieve the goals you want to achieve.”
Mr. Ickes’ prospective entry into the race has stirred intense interest, in large part because he is so closely identified with the Clintons. Mr. Ickes who has known the Clintons for more thatn 30 years was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House and ran Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000. As D.N.C. chairman, he would be in a key position to lay the groundwork if Mrs. Clinton runs for President in 2008. He denied, however, that his possible candidacy for D.N.C. chairman is related to the Senator’s national ambitions. “I don’t even know whether Mrs. Clinton’s going to run or not,” he said. “I never talk to her about it.” He did, however, acknowledge that the Clintons have been encouraging him.
“They’ve certainly asked me to think about it,” he said in his measured Maryland drawl, adding that the former President had discussed the chairmanship in a recent conversation.
The veteran political operative, whose father and namesake served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary, is well aware of the challenges that face the next D.N.C. chairman. “Party-building is a huge challenge,” he said. “It’s a killing job, particularly when you don’t have the White House and when the party is out of power. It’s a grueling job, and so that would be the great hesitation.”
Still, even with these hesitations, Mr. Ickes sounded remarkably like a man who was preparing for the campaign trail. He said he expected to come to a decision “after Thanksgiving,” and took the opportunity to deliver a few subtle shots at the prospective competition. “Some very strong names have been mentioned, and Governor Vilsack is certainly one of those,” he said. “But I do think it is a full-time job. This is not, in my view, a job that can be done from a statehouse and then … coming to Washington once a week.”
Mr. Ickes’ own credentials give him some powerful muscle in the race for the D.N.C. chairmanship, should he pursue it. While he won’t have hordes of young people filing petitions on his behalf, the way Dr. Dean does, he does have the Clintons, who still hold considerable sway among the D.N.C.’s voting members. He can also probably count on some support from unions-an important D.N.C. constituency-since he spent years working as a labor lawyer representing, among others, a hotel- and restaurant-workers’ union with alleged ties to the Mafia (a connection that led to a federal investigation in 1993 that delayed Mr. Ickes’ appointment as Mr. Clinton’s deputy chief of staff). This year he helped raise more than $200 million for Democratic candidates through two advocacy groups, America Coming Together and the Media Fund.
Still, for all his fund-raising prowess, Mr. Ickes almost certainly will have to fight for the chairmanship. Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Ickes is a polarizing figure, a combustible politico who is equally beloved and despised. To his supporters, he’s a fierce partisan, a bleeding-heart idealist sealed in a pragmatist’s hard skin. They chuckle at his flair for profanity and smile fondly at his famously poor fashion sense (indeed, during his interview with The Observer, he wore a rumpled beige-and-black patterned suit over a clashing blue-and-white button-down shirt). As for his political skills, his allies argue that few Democrats are better suited to whip the party into fighting form.
“He’s incredibly loyal,” said Susan Thomases, who has been a close friend of Mr. Ickes since their days working on Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968. “And also, he’s the best Election Day organizer there is.”
“I have tremendous respect for him,” added Joe Trippi, who met Mr. Ickes as a staffer on Edward Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to Jimmy Carter and later went on to run Dr. Dean’s Presidential campaign. “I remember carrying his clipboard at the Democratic National Convention in 1980 and thinking I was walking in the shadow of an organizational god.” Mr. Trippi added, however, that he believed that candidates for D.N.C. chairman should “declare in blood that they will not be working for or running for President in 2008.” Dr. Dean and Mr. Vilsack are considered potential Presidential candidates in 2008-and, of course, Mr. Ickes is inextricably linked to Mrs. Clinton and her national ambitions.
The Ickes-Clinton connection has caused some concern in D.N.C. circles, which could pose a challenge for him should he make a sprint for the chairmanship. Moreover, some Democrats argue that what the party needs right now is not so much an “organizational god” as a spokesperson-something which has not historically been Mr. Ickes’ strength. After 40 years in politics, Mr. Ickes’ acid tongue and ruthless drive are almost legendary. “Listen, you, I’ll mash you into Broadway!” he once growled at onetime political ally Bella Abzug, and he famously bit a fellow staffer on the shin in a brawl during Herman Badillo’s 1973 Mayoral campaign.
Mr. Ickes has also had several near-scrapes with scandal, particularly during his years as Bill Clinton’s damage-control guy on Whitewater and other inquiries. Perhaps the most serious accusation was that he helped trade access to the President for campaign donations while directing the fund-raising operation for Mr. Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. By his own count, he was subpoenaed and testified under oath 34 times about Whitewater, Travelgate, and campaign-finance issues, but he was never charged with any crime.
How would Mr. Ickes shape the D.N.C. if he became chairman?
First of all, he said, there would be no hand-wringing and no soul-searching. “The Democratic Party is very much alive,” Mr. Ickes declared. “This campaign was not a structural realignment by any means. For George Bush to win only by 3 percent of the total vote is not a landslide. It’s not even a mandate.
“Each Presidential election is unique, and the uniqueness of this election was 9/11,” he continued, ticking off various statistics suggesting that the election hinged on security, not values. “So I think ’08 will be up for grabs. It will come down to candidates and issues. We just need to find good candidates and run strong campaigns.
“I think the emphasis really has to be now on developing state parties,” he said. “The Republican Party has invested serious resources in their state party apparatus, but ours have sort of languished, because we Democrats tend to grab the resources and bring them to Washington, and we haven’t given state parties much incentive.”
Such nuts-and-bolts strategy isn’t exactly sexy (it’s hard to imagine a crew of Dean supporters getting fired up over this idea), but most political professionals would agree that it’s work which must be done if the Democrats are going to halt their string of losses. It’s also worth noting that the people who preside over state parties-the state party chairs-make up a hefty percentage of the 240 D.N.C. members who will choose the next national chair. And while the Clintons’ backing would be helpful to Mr. Ickes, the race for the D.N.C. will ultimately hinge on old-fashioned retail politics.
The story of how Mr. Ickes became a master politico began even before he was born, in the figure of his father, Harold Ickes Sr., who served F.D.R. as head of the Public Works Administration and as Secretary of the Interior. Like his son, the elder Ickes had a reputation for being hard-nosed and cantankerous, but he was also deeply loyal to his President, which made him an ideal confidant and clean-up man-also much like his son.
“It was an extraordinary legacy to have,” said Mr. Ickes. “I still remember Franklin Roosevelt coming out to our house, the Secret Service putting him in his wheelchair because we had several steps to go up to get to our house, and I remember him shucking corn in our living room.”
The younger Mr. Ickes was himself “totally apolitical” in his youth-in part, perhaps, as a reaction to his father’s legacy, in part because the elder Mr. Ickes died when his son was just 12. Nonetheless, by his mid-20′s the DNA had begun to kick in, and shortly after graduating Stanford, Mr. Ickes headed south with the brigades of young civil-rights activists to fight for voting rights. He gave two summers and his left kidney to the cause-the result of a beating by three gun-slinging segregationists-and when he returned north to go to Columbia Law School, he was a radicalized man. At Columbia, he tried his hand at the dissident game by joining Students for a Democratic Society, but in the end it was in the gritty world of campaign politics that he found his calling.
“I had no idea what the hell we were doing-I didn’t know an election district from a fire hydrant-but it was fascinating,” he said of his first campaign experience working on the 1966 Congressional campaign of the liberal activist Allard Lowenstein.
Indeed, the young Mr. Ickes found it thrilling enough to join Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent run for President in 1968 and to work, in some capacity or another, on every Presidential election ever since-from managing George McGovern’s New York State operation in 1972 to running Jesse Jackson’s national campaign in 1988. In 1989, he directed the campaign that made David Dinkins the first black Mayor of New York City.
And then, in 1992, the Clintons came calling. Though somewhat mismatched ideologically-the Clintons were centrists, Mr. Ickes decidedly liberal-the trio had been friendly since the early 70′s, when Mr. Clinton and Mr. Ickes worked together on Project Purse Strings to try to cut off funding for the Vietnam War. The project failed, but the friends stayed close, and when Mr. Clinton decided to run for President, Mr. Ickes signed on as his New York State campaign manager. In 1994, he was rewarded for his work with a job as the President’s deputy chief of staff.
The story of the Clinton-Ickes friendship during the White House years is thorny and a bit perplexing, but ultimately it seems to reveal something about Mr. Ickes. For nearly three years, he served as Mr. Clinton’s scandal czar-running interference, racking up some $300,000 in legal bills-only to be dumped by the President at the beginning of his second term. Mr. Ickes insisted that there were no hard feelings-and, in fact, less than two years later, he began advising Mrs. Clinton on running for Senate (he is also credited as being one of the first people to encourage Mrs. Clinton to run, much as his father tried-though ultimately failed-to encourage Eleanor Roosevelt to run for Senator of New York in 1945). By his own account, he continues to speak regularly with the former President, sometimes as often as every other day.
With such a history, it’s strange to imagine the Clintons in the position of advising Mr. Ickes now on the race for the D.N.C., since the roles have been reversed for so long: The Clintons have been the candidates, Mr. Ickes the loyal advisor. But politics, according to Mr. Ickes, has its own logic.
“Politics is for those who are in it for the long term,” he said. “You win some, you lose some, but you have to really hang in there, because it does carry out. Many successful politicians are just those who hang in there.”