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Ben Carson’s state director, Dave Tille, watches the Voters First Forum at a staff watch party.




The life of a campaign staffer
Long list of presidential candidates makes for seller’s market for local staff

08/13/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



Behind every candidate for president is an army of dedicated campaign staff, and in the key, early-voting state of New Hampshire, a handful of people have made careers as political operatives.

 
Influential locals
A campaign’s hierarchy, by all accounts, is rarely a top-down authoritarian approach. Serial campaign staffers say it’s far more common to see a team of collaborators brainstorming a strategy. But if there were a clear food chain, senior advisors and strategic consultants would be close to the top of it. And if a presidential campaign is putting most of its chips on New Hampshire, then experienced strategists from the state will hold more sway.
Jim Merrill, an attorney and state director of the Bernstein Shur Group, has worked on presidential campaigns since 1999, when he was a staffer for George W. Bush.
“I’ve been a field staffer, I’ve been a grassroots chairman, I’ve been legal counsel, I’ve been a campaign manager, I’ve been a general consultant slash senior advisor. So, I’ve been in multiple roles over the years,” Merrill said.
He’s presently a senior advisor to Marco Rubio’s campaign in New Hampshire and the Northeast. Rubio is a young U.S. senator from Florida with his eyes on the Oval Office. This is the fifth presidential cycle Merrill has been involved with. Prior to that, he worked for Gov. Stephen Merrill.
“It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. But it’s very rewarding work,” Merrill said. “It’s the experience of a lifetime.”
As a consultant, he’s responsible for the overall direction of the campaign, communications, staffing and logistics.
“I enjoy the process of building a campaign, often times from scratch,” Merrill said. “It is a rare job where you may, at some point in the campaign, be required at 2 in the morning to change plans for a candidate’s visit the very next day. It is a very rare job where you are directing volunteers and traffic for an election that’s gonna happen the next day.”
Merrill says a good campaign staffer needs to be a jack of all trades, with skills in communications, organizational skills and the ability to work under deadline.
David Tille, another serial campaign staffer and policy advisor for elected officials, echoes this, saying staffers are often self-motivated, altruistic and determined individuals.
“It’s unusual work in the sense that ... it’s very consuming work. People that work in campaigns, they really put their heart and soul in it,” Tille said.
Tille is currently the state director for the Ben Carson campaign in New Hampshire. A U.S. Army veteran, he got his start in politics when he interned for Pete du Pont’s presidential primary campaign in 1988.
 
Risky business
For Alicia Preston, who’s working on former New York Gov. George Pataki’s campaign, there are a few other qualifications to being a campaign staffer.
“[You have to be] someone who’s clearly certifiable,” Preston said. “You have to be willing to take on a little bit of risk. It is a very unsure career because you have seasons to your employment. But most people I know who join this field honestly do it because they believe in what they’re doing.”
Preston calls herself a “true believer” Republican who gets to do her hobby for a living. She first got exposed to political campaigns as a child helping her uncle, Bob Preston of Hampton, run for state senate, governor and congressional office. Ironically, her uncle was a Democrat.
Later, Preston got into journalism, where she learned the communications skills she now employs for winning elections.
“I was given the opportunity to work for then-Governor Craig Benson. So I took it, and I crossed into the dark side,” Preston said.
Preston said the seasonal nature of the work can make it an insecure source of income. Between election seasons, times are lean.
“[I] eat store brand-named pasta and wait for the next election,” Preston said. “There are a lot of months you don’t have a paycheck or you have a really small one, and you struggle. But then you get back up and you do it again because you believe in it.”
Since the work is so temporary, Preston said the contracts usually set a monthly wage.
“Someone working the field can make $2,500 a month. Someone higher up can make anywhere up to $12,000 to $15,000. ... For a state director, it can be anywhere from $5,000 to that, depending on what the role of the state director is,” Preston said.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, the Rubio campaign is paying the Bernstein Shur Group about $12,000 a month, and the Carson campaign is paying Tille about $7,500 a month plus travel expenses.
Probably the best-paid campaign staffer in New Hampshire this election season is Corey Lewandowski, who Politico reported is earning $20,000 a month working for billionaire Donald Trump’s campaign. That would be $240,000 a year, to put it in perspective. The article also noted Lewandowski has a home in Windham valued at over $800,000 and supports a family of six, though he grew up poor in Lowell, Mass.
Many Republicans fear taking a job with a party pariah like Trump will burn bridges in the long run, so few jumped at the chance.
For those like Preston, who are working the grind for more modest pay, things are getting better.
“It’s gotten easier, to be honest, in the last few years because there are more organizations that work beyond just the [election] cycle,” Preston said.
She does freelance public relations and communication work for issue advocacy groups and corporations when there are no candidates running for office. But lately, the election seasons have been getting longer.
“Campaigns seem to be starting earlier. There are certainly several months off, but it’s not like it has been in the past where you’re on 10 months and you’re off the politics for another year plus,” Preston said.
 
Seller’s market
Preston says there’s no one way to get connected with a campaign.
“Sometimes I’ve approached candidates. Sometimes, they’ve approached me. But it always has been a mutual decision because as much as they have to like and want to hire me, first and foremost, I have to believe that the person ... should hold that office,” Preston said. “Certainly, a lot of staffers will apply to, or approach ... multiple campaigns and see what works out best. Especially in a presidential election where you have multiple candidates running in the same party, it’s more of a process than just ‘here’s my application.’”
She said the final decision can come down to pay, title and role or which candidate the staffer feels is the best fit.
And Merrill said campaigns often compete over certain staffers.
“Especially in a cycle like this where you have so many candidates, there’s a finite pool of experienced staffers out there. So it does happen at times when you have staffers who have multiple opportunities.” Merrill said. “It has been a seller’s market.” 
 
As seen in the August 13, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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