Washington political circles were abuzz late last week as word leaked out that DNC chairman Howie Dean had made two significant hires, neither of which he particularly wanted to make.
By Sunday word was out that two former Clinton White House staffers, one of whom had close ties to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, were two of the first new hires for the DNC since Dean was elected to the chairmanship.
Karen Finney, who worked as a communications specialist in the Clinton White House, and then served as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, will be the party’s new communications director. It is expected that she will have a more visible role than the current spokesman, Jano Cabrera. “Dean is going to learn that he’s going to need a kinder, gentler face for the party, and Karen is going to be it,” says a DNC fundraiser.
The second hire is perhaps more significant. Dean is set to sign on Mike Gehrke as head of the DNC’s opposition research unit. He filled similar jobs in the Clinton White House, as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Gehrke is considered to be a close associate of former senior Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, who recently took control of the AFL-CIO-financed 527 America Coming Together, an organization that spent more than $40 million campaigning against Republicans in the 2004 election cycle, and that will spend millions fighting the Bush administration’s Social Security reform package.
Under federal election law, 527 organizations are barred from coordinating operations with political parties, but it is widely known that America Coming Together, as well as MoveOn.org, both coordinated with John Kerry‘s presidential campaign, as well as with the DNC through third parties.
“In the broad scheme of things, Mike’s hire will be more important to the party,” says a former MoveOn.org coordinator, who now works for a Democratic political consultant in New York. “He knows how things work, and he knows everyone working for these groups. You can’t coordinate, but if there was anyone who could do it, it would be him.”
Dean was not prepared to hire either Finney or Gehrke, according to the DNC staffer. “Word a month was ago was that he had other candidates in mind, but was blocked. I don’t know who blocks the chairman’s hiring, but Finney was not his first choice,” says the staffer.
For weeks, DNC employees have been waiting for the senior management hiring to begin, and the assumption was that it would be a mix of Dean acolytes, Kerry campaign holdovers, and junior Clinton White House staff. “What is striking is that at least with Finney, she is a Hillary person, and just because of that, you would think Dean would try to avoid it, at least in the beginning,” says the DNC staffer. “Now all the talk is going to be about how Hillary is forcing her people on the DNC. And in this case, it might actually be true.”
When it comes to opposition research, the Clintons are known to do a pretty good job. That should have Sen.Joseph Biden a bit nervous.
Now, Democrats, especially in the Senate, love Biden for his pit-bull defense of the party, but they understand that he has his weaknesses: “The guy will debate to the death in defending you, but he can’t help touting himself, and his campaigns always seem to have that whiff of scandal, at least with money,” says Democratic leadership source.
Both were recently on display. First, the embarrassing New Yorker profile, which last week had Biden on the record claiming he was the key foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry‘s presidential campaign, but whining that Kerry never listened to him. Second was news that one of Biden’s former fundraisers, Roger Blevins, was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for embezzling more than $400,000 in political donations to Biden’s leadership political action committee, one that Biden intends to use to initially seed his 2008 presidential run.
Blevins was convicted of stealing the money and spending it on three Florida men he met a gay pornographic Website in 2002 and 2003. Blevins used the money to buy the men lavish dinners, and expensive cars, including a Porsche Boxster and a BMW convertible. With the exception of $10,000, which was returned by a couple who received it from Blevins as a wedding present, none of the money is likely to be recovered.
“Biden’s campaigns have had problems in the past with donors and donations,” says a DNC fundraiser. “It appears to be a management problem or a judgment problem. Either way, it reflects badly on Biden and that isn’t lost on folks who are looking to collect dirt on him.”
At least two of Biden’s prospective Democratic primary opponents have been sifting through the Blevins case, as well as several other incidents, for dirt on Biden.