How Slick Young Hack Peter Ragone Rose to Top of Democratic Elite

“I ended up going to that Streisand thing last night,” Peter Ragone said over the phone the morning after the close of the Democratic National Convention, after which he had blown off a reporter who would have loved to go to that Streisand thing-a concert for tickets to which conventioneers were cheerfully volunteering to sell their grandmothers-if only for purposes of capturing the contrast between Mr. Ragone’s new, cool, California political-player life with his grotty, New York political-peon life. “I didn’t want to! But I was standing by the V.I.P. entrance, and Terry’s car pulled up and he said, ‘Come on, I’ve got tickets.'”

The “Streisand,” of course, was Barbra. The “Terry” was Terry McAuliffe, best friend and benefactor of the Clintons and the Gores. Mr. Ragone was serving as director of media relations for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and as of Sept. 1, he will be serving as the Gore campaign’s press secretary in the can’t-lose state of California.

Given that much of the New York delegation could remember Mr. Ragone as the barely post-adolescent voice of New York State Democratic chair Judith Hope, that one sentence is itself a story.

If that story proceeds apace, it will have the shape of a Hollywood movie: how a guy with absolutely no money and no social or political connections goes, in the space of a few years, from being a $150-a-week office boy who occupies, physically and figuratively, the basement of a state party in shambles to the heights of national politics.

“He’s a big kahuna now,” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said, only half-jokingly, to The Observer . But at the moment, it is just a frame of that film, and a particularly golden frame at that. At the age of 30, he is prominent enough to be constantly in the line of vision of major political and media figures, but not high enough to be constantly in their line of fire. He is privy to, and sometimes influential in, assorted campaign decisions of consequence. According to Mr. Lehane, earlier this year-amid the possibility that New York’s Independence Party might endorse both Mr. Gore and then-Senate candidate Rudolph Giuliani, thus threatening to put the Gore campaign at cross-purposes with that of Hillary Rodham Clinton-the Vice President telephoned Mr. Ragone personally to get his views. Whenever the Vice President visited New York in the course of his primary against former Senator Bill Bradley, Mr. Ragone, then serving as the campaign’s New York press secretary, was one of the handful of people who briefed him daily. So he gets the rush of relevance without bearing its brunt. He has been around long enough for his idealism to be tempered, but not long enough for it to have been tainted. “I pinch myself every day,” said Mr. Ragone.

As well he might: He said this on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, blocks from the pink stone apartment building where he has taken a small apartment that he refers to as a “cabana.” Mr. Ragone, who was wearing bright orange swim trunks and an all-too-healthy glow, had been giving a couple of guys a demonstration of the three basic moves of surfing and warning against surfing topless (“Dude, your chest hair will get all waxy”). For the previous several days, in the air-conditioned political biosphere of the Staples Center, he had been sporting a suit and a semi-visible cell-phone wire, doing that wide-stride, square-shouldered, credential-confident operative walk through the least accessible quadrants of the convention, hip-to-hip with the likes of Mr. McAuliffe and Andrew Cuomo. But in both settings, he had essentially the same look: that of ease in the big time.

Sweet mother of Albany, how did this happen?

Night at the Fleabag

If one were the jealous type-say, a young hack who still had the pallor of Plattsburgh, who had not ended up on the left coast advising Mr. McAuliffe on how to deal with Jay Leno-one might say his secret is simple: He did as much sucking up as working up. And indeed, Mr. Ragone has got to be the truest of believers or the biggest boot-licker in the history of sycophancy. You may think that New York politics suffers its fair share of hacks, thugs and ignorami, but to listen to our hero, it is a utopia of bravery and brilliance. Truly, Socrates could not hold a candle to Mr. Ragone’s pantheon. He started out working at the flat-broke New York State Democratic Party early in the ever-embattled tenure of state chairwoman Judith Hope: “I will always have tremendous admiration for Judith because of her tenacity at that time,” he said. He served as the press secretary for the Clinton-Gore coordinated campaign in 1996, and then, briefly, in the entertainment-based private firm of public relations executive Ken Sunshine (a “father figure”). He then returned to the state committee and soon signed on for the then-nascent gubernatorial run of City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a.k.a. “the most virtuous person I have ever worked for,” said Mr. Ragone. “The guy lives the life that politicians talk about when they talk about family values.” He calls Mr. Vallone’s former top aide, Kevin McCabe, “the most interesting political operative I’ve ever come across. His political insights are brilliant.” Within days of Mr. Vallone’s loss, Mr. Ragone was hired to work for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Andrew Cuomo showed me that, with a commitment to ideas and a discipline about accomplishing things, there are no limits,” Mr. Ragone said.

And as for the Vice President, whose New York primary campaign he joined after a short stint on the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton: “He is all those things in one person. He’s tenacious, he’s disciplined, he’s virtuous, he’s a great leader.… I remember walking out of a New York Times editorial board meeting thinking to myself, ‘There is no one else on Earth that I want sitting in the Oval Office when this country faces a crisis.'”

Even the Vice President’s flack rates reverence. “I call him the Jedi Master,” said Mr. Ragone of Mr. Lehane, a fellow H.U.D. alum with whom Mr. Ragone took to leaving voice-mails in Italian by way of standing out.

So much for the suck-up factor. But it must be said that there does seem to be more-than-ample evidence of the true believer. Take his night at the fleabag-please. On one level, it indicates that, for now at least, Mr. Ragone is too discombobulated to locate, let alone inhabit, the neighborhood of slick. “I am going home and I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t find my keys,'” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, wait, I put them under the rock in the hallway of my apartment.'” Mr. Ragone was talking about the night that former Senator Bill Bradley narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to Mr. Gore, who may be disturbed to know that he has put his California press operation in the hands of the only person in New York City who habitually leaves his keys under a rock outside his door. On this night, however, the keys were not under the rock, so he headed to a certain midtown hotel frequented by fleas and felons. “I had just gotten a bank account.” This was at Greenpoint Bank, because Chase did not seem to want his business, based, he presumed, on prior lackluster customer performance. So Mr. Ragone produced his new bank card at the front desk. “But there wasn’t enough money in the account.” There was, however, just about exactly $100 still in a Federal Credit Union account left over from his days at H.U.D. “And I had like $6 on me,” he added. He at last checked into the room at 3 a.m., but “I was afraid to sleep in the bed. So I left my clothes on and slept on top of the sheets.”

Now, the need to exhaust one’s life savings for a night in one of New York’s lousier hotels may not seem to be the surest sign of a political career that is on the charts with a bullet. But in the case of Mr. Ragone, it is exactly that. It is his willingness to work for nothing, and his party’s eagerness to pay him nothing, that has fueled his rise time and time again.

‘Googly-Eyed’ at Barbra

One reason that Mr. Ragone has no money is that he has displayed an almost cheerleader-like enthusiasm for the idea of not earning any. Mr. Ragone, who served as president of the New York State Young Democrats, got his start in Democratic politics by recruiting young voters on behalf of Jerry Jennings, who was then an alderman and is now the mayor of Albany. Once Mr. Ragone graduated from college, Mr. Jennings offered to put him on his campaign payroll, and in fact cut him a check. Mr. Ragone did not cash it. “I didn’t think that I should take money to do something that I believed in,” he said.

Soon enough, he was singing a different tune: After the defeat of Mario Cuomo, for whose 1994 campaign he did field work, he was taking home no less than $150 a week, supplemented by weekend bartending, for the thrill of showing up every day at the below-ground, frequently flooded state offices that he shared with a telephone and many boxes of Mario Cuomo campaign literature. “I cannot tell you how depressing it was then,” he said. “It was like working in a mausoleum.” And a cheapo mausoleum at that: When the state party had to close the Albany office and thought it had to lay off Mr. Ragone on the grounds that it could not afford to move him to New York City, he asked for the same salary, plus a monthly pass on the Long Island Railroad so he could live with his father and stepmother in Merrick, N.Y.

When the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign rolled around, Mr. Ragone, by his own account, had neither the name nor the experience to serve as its New York press officer. Here again, that work-for-nothing gene kicked in. A campaign that had no desire to spend money on a virtually uncontested primary met up with a kid who had every desire to shepherd the bigwigs who nonetheless came in and out constantly. After the election, he took the job with Mr. Sunshine, but within a month, heard the siren call of the state party and, soon after that, of Mr. Vallone’s campaign. “When McCabe told me they were going to pay me somewhere around $80,000, my jaw hit the ground,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why don’t you just pay me half and bring someone else on?'” (Eventually, they did.) In several ways, Mr. Ragone did not fit easily into either the world of Washington, D.C., or of Mr. Cuomo-Washington is not a city with gourmet pasta available round the clock, and Mr. Cuomo is not the type of boss who overlooks a press aide’s proclivity for traveling with a knapsack and a garbage bag (the former for his clothes, the latter for his newspapers). But it was clearly his ten months at H.U.D. that are paying off now. He cleaned up his act, he worked the Washington press, he popped up on the radar screen of Team Gore.

And that’s just the résumé. Mr. Ragone is an Al Gore anecdote waiting to happen. Or at least his mother is: After his parents divorced in 1973, “we were poor,” said Mr. Ragone, who pointed out that he does not mean “poor” in the abject-poverty sense but in the divorce-kicked-us-out-of-solvency sense. “My mom would go on public assistance, but on and off, like most people.” She tripled as a waitress, a phlebotomist (a person who takes blood) and a nursing student. Reluctantly relinquishing custody of her children in 1976, she went to medical school in the Dominican Republic. “It’s a terrible thing in this society that she had to make a decision between her education and her children,” said Mr. Ragone. Now based in Miami, Dr. Liz Welch, as his mother is now known, is a neonatologist, cardiologist and pediatrician. Meanwhile, he and his twin brothers moved in to live a more middle-class life with his father, who had an automotive-repair business, and stepmother. Mr. Ragone’s father died in 1997, but he remains “as close to my stepmother as to anyone on earth.”

“While some women were demonstrating in Washington and burning their bras, there were women, like my mother and my stepmother, who were really changing America,” he said. “My real mother showed that you could play in a man’s world. My stepmother showed that you can be a strong, responsible woman and be a homemaker.” Correction: Mr. Ragone is a Bill Clinton anecdote waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ragone was showing that a total political freak could spring from a totally apolitical family. In high school, he took out his own subscriptions to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal , and started something called the Political Awareness Club. He attended SUNY Albany-not in spite of, but because of, the fact that it was in Albany.

You can take the kid out of Albany, but you can’t take the wonder out of the boy.

Mr. Ragone had given lip service to begging off Barbra, but once he got there, he was “totally googly-eyed,” according to Mr. Sunshine, who represents Ms. Streisand and who saw Mr. Ragone in the “A-minus” selection of glitterati the night of the concert.

And he was googly-eyed before, during and after Mr. Gore’s speech, which Mr. Ragone watched from the platform occupied by the technicians executing the show. “He’s going to come from there, ” he told The Observer, pointing out the tributary from which the Vice President was going to enter the hall. “Isn’t that great ?”

Later, as the confetti came down and the balloons fell, Mr. Ragone’s fiancée, Janine O’Neill, a San Francisco–based headhunter who looks like a freckled porcelain doll, slipped her diamond-fingered hand into his. Mr. Ragone first met her in October, popped the question in London on New Year’s Day, and will marry her in November, right after the election.

His life has, after all, become a movie. He surfs. He schmoozes. He spins. And in the end, he gets the girl. How Slick Young Hack Peter Ragone Rose to Top of Democratic Elite