Al Sharpton had just stepped out of a meeting with Barack Obama.
It was January 2007, and he was down in the Obama Senate office during a trip to Washington to meet with a number of Democratic presidential contenders. Mr. Obama had been almost uncannily pitch-perfect, Mr. Sharpton thought, hitting every talking point and preempting every question.
As he was leaving, he caught sight of a familiar face in the reception area of the office.
“I said, ‘That looks like Patrick.’ And Patrick starts laughing,” Mr. Sharpton said.
At the airport on the way back to New York, he said, he had a further revelation.
“It hit me when I got to the shuttle that a lot of what Obama was saying meant that he must have been talking to Patrick Gaspard," Mr. Sharpton said. "Obama made me feel like he knew every move I made. I said, ‘Patrick did it again.’”
Earlier this year, Mr. Gaspard, a Brooklyn-based, 41-year-old Democratic operative, succeeded Karl Rove as the White House director of the office of political affairs. Unlike Mr. Rove, Mr. Gaspard is at his most comfortable making his presence felt without actually being seen.
“He’s become a real player in the White House, the president himself told me,” said Representative Gregory Meeks. “He’s a low key, behind-the-scenes, no-fingerprints kind of guy. I need something, I call Patrick. And if he calls, it’s a big deal. He’s close to the president.”
Mr. Gaspard’s official responsibility is to provide the president with an accurate assessment of the political dynamics affecting the work of his administration, and to remain in close contact with powerbrokers around the country to help push the president’s agenda.
In practice, he’s something of an all-purpose fixer, if not the carte blanche policy architect that Mr. Rove was for George W. Bush, or the number-one politics guru that David Axelrod is for Mr. Obama.
And while he looks after the president’s interests in Washington, he also uses his position as a lever to manage politically messy situations closer to home.
Earlier this month, for example, when a Republican coup in the State Senate threw Albany into chaos—with potential implications for the congressional redistricting process in 2010–Mr. Gaspard began making calls.
Mr. Gaspard was in touch with Governor David Paterson, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations. He also called Hiram Monserrate, one of the two Democratic legislators whose defection cost his party its 32-30 majority in the Senate.
The two, who have known each other for years, spoke continuously in the hours and days after the coup. According to one source familiar with the substance of the calls, Mr. Monserrate twice asked for Mr. Gaspard to get the White House involved, and was twice rejected.
Soon after, Mr. Monserrate declared himself back in the Democratic fold.
Mr. Gaspard’s political sensibilities were formed in part by his cosmopolitan (almost Obama-esque) personal background.
He was born in present-day Democratic Republican of the Congo to Haitian parents, but raised in America, in Manhattan and Queens.
He writes poetry and considers as a personal hero Aimé Césaire, the pioneering black-pride poet and politician who taught the anti-colonialist theorist Frantz Fanon. He also likes Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet of the Acmeist school.
He has acted in plays and performed spoken word, holds strongly positive opinions about Otis Redding and collects Marvel comics. (His prize possession is the first issue of Conan the Barbarian.) He is a big Mets fan. He was married on the grass of Prospect Park; his wife and two children are about to join him in Washington after living for years in Park Slope.
He jogs regularly and lives cleanly.
“Let me put it to you this way,” former city councilwoman Margarita Lopez, an old boss of Mr. Gaspard, recalled telling Obama vetters who asked her if he ever used drugs or alcohol. “That man doesn’t drink Coca Cola.”
He can be brutal, though.
“Don’t be mistaken about him being a gentleman–don’t even go there,” said Ms. Lopez. “When a situation got to a point that there was no resolution I would reach Patrick and say, ‘Go for it, and bring me no hostages, this battle is going to be won with no hostages.’ And I can tell you Patrick delivered every single time.”
Mr. Gaspard declined requests to be interviewed for this article.
Mr. Gaspard’s father moved with his wife from their native Haiti to post-liberation Zaire, when its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, appealed to French-speaking academics of African descent to teach there. Three years after Mr. Gaspard’s birth, the family moved to the Upper West Side, where they lived until Mr. Gaspard turned 11.
He fell in love with the 1973 Mets, and especially Tom Seaver. Soon the Gaspards, including his brother Michael, who currently works as a consultant for the Advance Group, moved closer to Shea Stadium, to St. Albans in Southeast Queens, from which Mr. Gaspard commuted to high school at Brooklyn Tech.
He attended the School of Visual Arts and later Columbia, but like Mr. Rove before him, Mr. Gaspard left college early to submerge himself in politics. He interned in the office of Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins.
He got his first taste of campaign work doing advance for the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, during which time his energy and affinity with local political organizations caught the notice of Harlem-based consultant Bill Lynch, whose office floor Mr. Gaspard got in the habit of crashing on.
Mr. Lynch later brought Mr. Gaspard on to Mr. Dinkins’ first mayoral race, and then to City Hall.
“He was smart and loyal and really knew his way around,” Mr. Dinkins recalled.
By the time Mr. Gaspard left the Dinkins administration to do consulting for unions and political campaigns, he had already cemented a lasting reputation as an organizer with extraordinary political and sartorial sense.
Councilman Bill DeBlasio, who worked with Mr. Gaspard in Mr. Lynch’s shop, remembered his friend helping him pick out a new wardrobe when he went to work as state director for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
“He took me to Barneys and showed me how to dress well,” said Mr. DeBlasio. In 1997, outgoing Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger enlisted Mr. Gaspard for her doomed campaign against Rudy Giuliani. Now, as the head of the American Jewish World Service charity, she still seeks his help, recently meeting with him in the White House to discuss Darfur aide programs and policy.
“His job is to connect people,” she said.
After working on outgoing Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger’s extremely unsuccessful mayoral campaign against Rudy Giuliani in 1997, Mr. Gaspard became chief of staff to Ms. Lopez, a radical feminist from the Lower East Side who was one of the mayor’s most raucous critics.
She once declared on the floor of the City Council that Mr. Gaspard was “an honorary lesbian,” and recalled that, at times, he outdid her.
“One time we have a staff member who saw this man, and when she saw this man, she said, ‘Oh my god that man is so handsome, it’s so sad that he’s gay,’” Ms. Lopez said. “Patrick looked at her and said, ‘What did you say?’ And she said, ‘He’s gay, that is so sad. Because he is so gorgeous.’ And Patrick said to her, ‘You mean to tell me that because he is so gorgeous, he should not be gay?’ And she said, ‘Yes, it’s not useful to women!’ And he said, ‘You are the biggest homophobe I have ever met in my life, and you don’t even know it.’”
(Just this week, on June 22, Mr. Gaspard led an administration call with LGBT activists frustrated with President Obama’s incremental approach to gay rights.)
In 1999, Ms. Lopez loaned Mr. Gaspard out to help 1199 SEIU, the politically powerful labor union, to organize a march in protest of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant. Mr. Gaspard impressed them.
“He knows what buttons to push and in what order,” said Jennifer Cunningham, who was then the union’s political director, and who went on to work closely with Mr. Gaspard for the next eight years.
George Gresham, the current president of 1199, said that Mr. Gaspard often took a “statistical” interest in candidates, just as he did to baseball box scores and farm systems, wanting to know not just their vision or why they should hold office, but how they expected to win.
“Patrick could distinguish between those who were serious and those who weren’t,” he said.
Several of his former colleagues said the most difficult time for Mr. Gaspard during that period was in 2002, when the union supported Republican Governor George Pataki over Carl McCall, then a two-term state comptroller who was attempting to become the first black governor in the history of the state.
“All of us developed a political maturity at that time,” said Mr. Gresham. “We say we don’t have permanent friends, we have permanent interests.”
In 2003, Mr. Gaspard went national to work as the deputy national field director for the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, and after Mr. Dean was knocked out of the race, as the national field director for George Soros’ political action group America Coming Together.
In 2005, he took a leave from the union to work for another underdog Democrat, Freddy Ferrer, in a landslide loss to Michael Bloomberg. A year later, when 1199 played a major role in backing Andrew Cuomo, who had challenged Mr. McCall in the 2002 Democratic primary, in his run for Attorney general, Mr. Gaspard worked on races in Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, DC.
He also worked on local races.
“Without Patrick Gaspard, Yvette Clarke would not be in Congress,” said Josh Isay, a consultant to Mr. Bloomberg who worked with Mr. Gaspard on that heated race, a four-way primary in 2006 for a House seat in Brooklyn vacated by Major Owens.
In that race, as in most other matters, he did his work quietly.
In December 2006, Mr. Sharpton asked Patrick Gaspard to help him assemble an emergency meeting of about 300 activists, black nationalists, union and political leaders to decide on an appropriate response to the police shooting death of Sean Bell, an unarmed young black man.
At one point, things got ugly¸ with one activist criticizing the attendance of the teacher’s union president Randi Weingarten at the meeting.
“One guy who nobody knew got up and said, ‘I don’t know why we got the head of the teachers union here, these white teachers are destroying our community,’ and went off on her,” recalled Mr. Sharpton. “And Patrick ran over to me and said, ‘I think you should call for unity and talk about how important it is that whites, blacks, everybody march together. I could say it, but I think it is better for your to say if, for the crowd, and for your own beliefs.’
“And I got up and said it,” Mr. Sharpton continued. “And as I said it, he was whispering something in Randi’s ear, and Randi got up and started talking about how committed she was and she didn’t care who didn’t appreciate her working with Reverend Sharpton. And it occurred to me that Patrick was going around the room telling everybody what to say.”
As the presidential election neared, it became increasingly clear that Mr. Gaspard’s home senator, Hillary Clinton had designs on the White House. Friends of Mr. Gaspard said that he was an early supporter of Mr. Obama, whose inclusive campaign was, as Mr. DeBlasio put it, the “clear and pure” iteration of the pan-racial “gorgeous mosaic” Dinkins campaign of 1988. Publicly, Mr. Gaspard remained neutral, but as early as January 2007, he was involved.
After unofficially helping out Mr. Obama, Mr. Gaspard met with the Illinois senator and Mr. Plouffe in Washington in February of 2007 to discuss coming aboard.
“President Obama and I met with him and really liked him, because he wasn’t your traditional political schmoozer,” Mr. Plouffe said. “There was a depth to him that we found attractive.”
(According to the New Yorker, this was the meeting during which Mr. Obama famously told Mr. Gaspard, “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”)
As Mr. Plouffe noted, Mr. Gaspard turned them down.
But true to form, Mr. Gaspard pushed Mr. Obama’s case behind the scenes within the union, and played a critical and active role in blocking an endorsement of John Edwards before the Iowa caucus. That paved the way for SEIU to endorse Mr. Obama, and when they did, Mr. Gaspard openly expressed his support, heading to Wisconsin and eventually leading the union’s volunteer efforts in primary states like Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
He eventually joined the campaign as political director, and shared a long table in a small office in Chicago with Jen O’Malley and Jon Carson, where they’d pore over maps and manage activity in the states.
He was responsible for notifying many of the country’s leaders that Mr. Obama had selected Joe Biden as his vice president, and during the Democratic convention in Denver, he joined Mr. Plouffe and a few others in working out the exact logistics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign role and choreographing her casting of New York’s convention ballots for Mr. Obama.
During the presidential transition, influential New Yorkers had already started stepping up efforts to catch his ear.
In October of 2008, Kevin Sheekey, Michael Bloomberg’s closest political aide, wrote Gaspard asking if he could make some time for him, and they stay in touch on issues relating to the city. Lots of local officials have done the same.
“From the delegation point of view, if need be, we know we have a person,” said Representative Joseph Crowley. “We have access.”
In May of this year, Al Sharpton went back to Washington, this time for a meeting with the president about education policy.
At one point, as Mr. Sharpton waited outside the Oval Office with Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, Mr. Gaspard stopped by to say hello.
As Mr. Sharpton tells it, he turned to Mr. Duncan and said, “You guys are real shrewd in this administration.”
He motioned to Mr. Gaspard and said, “It’s hard for me to march against you if I ever get mad, because you’ve got our best organizer.’”