Meet Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon
The likely campaign manager of Hillary Clinton's likely 2016 campaign has been quietly pulling the strings of Democratic politics for years. But he's about to be forced out of the shadows.
Photo by Douglas Graham/CQ-Roll Call Group
On a joyous early November evening in 2013, newly elected Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe celebrated his victory alongside hundreds of loyal supporters. Despite having never held elected office, the former Democratic National Committee chairman had prevailed over the state's Tea Partying attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, in a tight and vicious race. While McAuliffe had celebrity, the bigger force behind his impressive—and perhaps unlikely—win stood off to the side, out of the spotlight, exactly where he likes to be.
Robby Mook boasts one of the most impressive résumés in Democratic campaigning—out-organizing Barack Obama's 2008 team in Nevada, Indiana, and Ohio while working for Hillary Clinton's first campaign, and leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are among the highlights. But the 35-year-old Vermont native prefers to operate in the shadows, rarely talking about his political victories and the politicians he's helped put in office.
In his next job, as the presumptive campaign manager for the presumed Clinton presidential campaign, Mook will face his biggest challenge to date, tasked with keeping a $1 billion effort of big personalities and bigger egos on track, on time, and on point. If he succeeds, Mook won't be able to keep his name from being mentioned alongside men like Jim Messina, David Axelrod, and Karl Rove—in other words, his years of discreetly pulling the strings of Democratic politics are coming to an end.
Robby Mook may have been born for this shit, but he wasn't born into it. The son of a Dartmouth College physics professor and a hospital administrator, Mook got an early start in politics, volunteering for the campaign of Vermont state legislator Matt Dunne at age 14. As a student at Columbia University, his organizational vision for the campus chapter of College Democrats impressed his fellow students. Sam Arora, who was a couple years behind Mook at Columbia and went on to serve as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, was an early convert. "Back in 2000, 2002, I remember Robby at College Democrat meetings advocating for the creation of a student-voter file," Arora told me an interview. "That's Robby, thinking very strategically while living in a college dorm."
Mook quickly rose up the organizing ranks of Democratic politics, working as a field director for Howard Dean, and later as deputy national field director at the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 presidential campaign, and joining Clinton's primary campaign in 2008 before heading up the Democrats' efforts to hold on to the House of Representatives. His candidates haven't always won—in fact, his record is pretty bad, when it comes to presidential races—but Mook has nevertheless impressed high-ranking Democrats everywhere he went.
"He would rather win races than, no offense, talk to reporters," said Kelly Ward, who worked under, and eventually succeeded, Mook as executive director of the DCCC. Noting his gift for organizing, Ward recounted memories of a weekend in 2012 when Mook was still executive director for the DCCC, and organized a canvassing trip for the staff. He spent the ride to the targeted district pouring over spreadsheets of voter information, Ward remembers, looking for an edge, and holding conference calls with pollsters. "Then he got out of the car, started canvassing, and was better at it than any of us," she said.
Among his operative acolytes, Mook seems to engender overwhelming loyalty and dedication. Former campaign vets remember that during the 2008 Nevada primary, Mook as treated like a cult figure whenever he stopped by the dive bar where Hillary staffers would spend what limited free time they had. "Robby does relationships," said Teresa Vilmain, a veteran Democratic campaign organizer. "He takes time to get to know people. He invests in relationships. He's not afraid to ask questions. He knows what he doesn't know and hires people who are smarter than him in those areas."
Arora remembered canvassing in 2005 for David Marsden, a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, simply because Mook was in charge. "A bunch of us went down and knocked on doors for some candidate we'd never met because it was Robby and he said the candidate was going to do great things for Virginia. I didn't know the candidate, but I was happy to give up a few weekends," he said. "You know if Robby is behind it, it's going to be a good effort."
For a Clinton campaign that has struggled with discipline and infighting, Mook's reputation for avoiding drama could be a crucial asset. And significantly, Clinton appears to trust Mook. "You can't have someone in such a pivotal and important position who is unknown," Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, State Department official, and Clinton ally, told Bloomberg. "For people that want to be reassured about no repeat of 2008 issues, I think that he definitely answers the mail on that, too."
But Mook is not without his detractors. His campaigns are known for effectively defining the opposing politician—an essential strategy in today's political landscape, but one that can also have unintended consequences. In 2013, Time called he McAuliffe-Cuccinelli battle, " The Dirtiest, Nastiest, Low-Down Campaign In America," and while Mook's man won, the cost was high: McAuliffe has struggled to make political progress while in office, amid constant battles with an entrenched Republican legislature. "[McAuliffe] didn't have a mandate for having run on anything in their point of view besides 'Ken Cuccinelli sucks,' then they basically shut him down the first year," Benjamin Tribbett, a Virginia political blogger and strategist, told me. "It was like a dog trying to catch a squirrel. What was missing in that campaign was what happens once you catch the squirrel." Suggesting that the hype surrounding Mook may be overblown, Tribbett speculated that he may be good at putting himself on winning campaigns, and then claiming credit when demographics trend in his favor.
It's not hard to see a Mook-managed Clinton campaign playing out the same way. The 2016 presidential election will almost certainly get dirty and negative, but Mook's tactics could push things further in that direction. And in the event that Clinton is elected, a particularly savage campaign could make it next to impossible for her to get her agenda past congressional Republicans already predisposed to blocking her at every turn.
The closeness of Mook's crew of disciples could also be an issue. In November, ABC News revealed the existence of a listserv called the "Mook Mafia," a group of 150 or so Democratic campaign vets led by Mook and his buddy Marlon Marshall. The emails reported by ABC were relatively light blows—claims to "smite Republicans mafia-style" and "punish those voters"—but the attitude could raise larger issues as Mook gains a bigger national profile. Having a campaign managed by a man who openly compares himself to a mafia don might not be the best way for Clinton to distance herself from the perception that she is a political insider who sees her nomination as an inevitable coronation. And there's always the possibility that more damning emails or communications between the group have yet to be revealed—unflattering comments from Washington, DC, listservs have a way of revealing themselves at the most inopportune times.
While the structure for Clinton's as yet unannounced campaign is not yet in place, there are already number big-time names rumored to be in the running for key positions. Keeping that group focused on winning an election, rather than beating each other, will be exceptionally difficult tasks for Mook. Already, Clinton's supporters have devolved into petty infighting over money and influence—last week, the founder of one pro-Hillary super PAC loudly resigned from the board of another pro-Hillary super PAC, accusing its leaders of planting unflattering stories about his organization in the New York Times. And, again, this is a campaign that hasn't officially started yet. Once it does, the pressure, the opinions, and the egos will only grow. The campaign hierarchy won't be a straight line, putting Mook, the man responsible for keeping everything together, in competition with other Hillaryland allies at the top of the organization. "Having multiple people at the helm above Robby [Mook] sounds like a repeat of mistakes made in the past," a 2008 Clinton staffer told The Hill.
But fans say that if anyone can succeed in keeping the great Clinton juggling act in the air through 2016, it's Mook. "He is a throwback to a campaign professional of an earlier day. In his own way, he walks softly and carries a big stick. He's great at making the trains run both on-time and in the right direction," a former Mook deputy told me. "Robby is able to do the most modern, Obama-level data and analytics the smartest messaging, the best field tactics but then corral a big group of people to drive towards a common strategy and goal."
Regardless of how the campaign plays out, this is clearly Mook's moment—even if he'd rather you didn't know it. "Running maybe a $1 billion organization is going to be different from running something closer to the ground," Arora says. "But the way a campaign is run and how disciplined it is does trickle down. If Robby's chosen – I assume he is – we're going to see something that is very good."
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