They are not mentioned in the Constitution, and none of us learned about them on Schoolhouse Rock!, but they are the motor oil in the engines that power certain parts of the world.
They’re needed in many aspects of life. Some legal. Others less so.
It’s a broad term. In politics and industry writ large, their tasks range from PR crisis management to campaign strategy, to the judicious wielding of clout. A fixer of this sort could be anyone from an ethical, above-board lobbyist to Tricky Dick’s Watergate “Plumbers.” They do the hard (and sometimes dirty) work so their clients—our lawmakers, or other monied interests—don’t have to; every day a fixer is out there twisting arms and/or trading horses, a politico can be on camera kissing babies, cutting ribbons, and making pretty speeches.
In sum: “A fixer is someone who can do something other people can’t and in a time frame that very few others can accomplish without leaving much of a trail.”
So says Hank Sheinkopf. A bareknuckled warrior of 50 years of backroom brawling beginning in his native South Bronx and by now spanning the globe, Sheinkopf, the CEO of Sheinkopf Communications, has helped elect presidents in the United States, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, and lesser politicos in 44 states. He’s pitched in with labor unions and fought for Civil Rights in Alabama. In addition to several advanced degrees, including a PhD, Sheinkopf is also an orthodox rabbi. “It makes me different,” he says, though there is a universe of thought behind those words.
His modus operandi is a sort of clear-eyed, hardball application of that old maxim “80 percent of success in life is just showing up.”
With the arrival of the fixer, a threat is implied but not made.
“How do you make things happen?” he asks. “You just show up in a room. The fixer’s main job is to show up and shut up. All your opponents should be doing is looking at you in a $3,000 suit that looks like it cost every penny of that, shined shoes, hair combed. Have an aura, be happy and smile and let everyone else wonder what the fuck you do. They know why you’re there. I wear a Mickey Mouse watch to throw people off balance. I’m not physically imposing but people know I’m ready to throw a punch...even at 70 years old.”
With the arrival of the fixer, a threat is implied but not made. He is a known quantity in the circles he runs with. His reputation precedes him. We know what you are doing, the fixer’s presence states, and we are prepared to fight back, but you don’t know what our next move might be.
That role is played dutifully and with hard-nosed grit by Jeremy Renner in the new Paramount+ original series Mayor of Kingstown. In it Renner plays Mike McLusky, of the McLusky family—power brokers in Kingstown, Michigan “where the business of incarceration is the only thriving industry.” And, you guessed it, Mike McLusky, aka “the Mayor,” runs that business.
Why do they call him the mayor, though he’s not been elected to office? Because he runs the city. And when a character wonders aloud what the real mayor would think of that, it’s calmly explained, “The real mayor knows it too.”
“We don’t break the law,” says “the Mayor” in the show’s gripping trailer. “We just bend it.”
He and his family also play in between it, and around it. They may even help write it. “You wanna know who’s running what? Anytime? Where? You come to me,” he explains to someone who very clearly hasn’t learned the lay of the land just yet.
This, in essence, is the fixer.
Veteran Texas political reporter RG Ratcliffe has covered plenty of facilitators—lobbyists, wheeler-dealers, “power brokers,” fixers—in his long and storied career. In Texas, he says, it’s less about threats than favors, and the bigger the better. Not payoffs, or anything you could put a price on, but just being sweet, as Texas ladies like to say.
The best of the modern era’s lobbyist/fixers is someone he’s covered a fair amount over the years, and who Texas Monthly described thusly: “nobody knows what [he] does, but he does it quite well.” In 2004, one such “favor,” which could be classified as a big’un, this famous fixer was able to grant was providing the then Speaker of the Texas House, a devout Catholic, a private audience with the Pope.
Without context, this may very well seem above board. But at the time, powerful Texas business interests were afflicted with a wave of lawsuits regarding asbestos. That’s when the Texas Fixer and a hyper-Catholic attorney who just happened to represent a company that was a defendant in a raft of asbestos suits, decided to do the Speaker a favor. No strings attached—out of the goodness of their hearts, they wanted to do something sweet.
Though not a Catholic, the Fixer accompanied the Speaker and his family, who were also joined by an attorney fighting the asbestos lawsuits, on the expedition. According to published reports, the Speaker literally kissed the Pope’s ring and received a papal blessing in return.
Ethics hounds questioned the trip, even though the Speaker paid for it privately. Couldn’t an impartial observer be forgiven for believing that in fulfilling every devout Catholic’s quintessential Bucket List pilgrimage, the Fixer might just have obligated the Speaker to his clients in some small way?
"For many Catholics, meeting the Pope is one of the most profound experiences of their lives," an Austin-based ethics watchdog said at the time. "And you owe a huge debt to those who arrange that meeting. For a lobbyist, it will ensure that there is a long-term debt that will be repaid in many subtle ways by the speaker."
Nonsense, said the Speaker’s reps. He was opposed to the sort of lawsuits being brought anyway, smooch of the Pope’s ring or not.
When you talk to this famous Fixer about situations like this, “he just says he’s doing favors for people and then they do favors back,” Ratcliffe says. “He’s not really doing it specifically for anybody—he’s just developing a goodwill relationship that then allows the lobby partners to have the politicians feeling a little more amiable to them.”
Many of the people you may have to cozy up with as a fixer aren’t on as lofty a perch as the Supreme Pontiff. Sheinfopf, when surveying the long list of folks in his orbit over the years, can recall stories working with everyone from commercial developers to politicians, real estate tycoons to folks involved in “gaming,” and, in at least one instance, the mob itself.
This particular tale happened at the beginning of his career, circa 1972, in the Bronx. “I used to work with a lot of wiseguys in the South Bronx,” he says. “Why did I need the wiseguys? They would come up with the cash to get Black and Puerto Rican politicians on the radio. They had no money and could raise no money, so the money would come from the wiseguys. Why did the wiseguys want to spend that money? Because they had road and construction projects in the South Bronx and they wanted to be able to dump everything they wanted there and no one would give a shit because poor people live there. That was an easy one—I go get the money, and then the people they helped elect took care of them.”
Every place is different, he says. Some states, counties, and towns are all about favors and campaign checks. Others are more combative. “Every capital, every city, has its own culture,” Sheinfopf says.
And each and every one of them needs fixing.
Stream Mayor of Kingstown exclusively on Paramount+ starting November 14.