Steven Walters: How aides can get politicians in trouble

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Steven Walters
Monday, February 10, 2014

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a reminder of this political axiom:

The most dangerous person for an elected state official—Democrat or Republican—is often the junior staffer who is dead-sure certain of what The Boss needs to know, what that staffer thinks he or she can fix without The Boss knowing, and the one who is dedicated to helping The Boss keep winning elections.

Christie is now reeling from decisions made by those he trusted—many of them now ex-aides—subpoenaed by Democratic legislators.

The New Jersey governor insists he was never told, and didn't know, that those aides closed George Washington Bridge lanes from Fort Lee to punish that city's mayor for refusing to endorse Christie's re-election.

The traffic jam stranded angry commuters, school children and those on their way to medical appointments.

The controversy may or may not ruin Christie's bid to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. But every elected official across the nation should learn from Christie's example because they all run the risk of having overzealous aides, volunteers and even interns act in ways that embarrass or ruin them.

Here's how it happens:

Your best friend from high school, college, or even elementary school stays close and helps you out when you run for office. Or a kid, willing to do anything, shows up at your first campaign office. Or a wide-eyed college student majoring in political science wants to learn about politics firsthand, or to get a college credit or two. This person drives you to campaign or official events, makes “please vote” campaign calls, takes and picks up your dry cleaning, baby-sits your kids in an emergency and makes sure fund-raising events succeed.

You end up trusting this person for years, maybe decades.

This person is there when you make the toughest political decisions:

How do we attack our opponent? What do we leak to a friendly reporter? What position do we take on an issue that polls 50-50 back home? Who's writing checks? Can they give more? Why is someone not donating to us? How does this race lay the groundwork to run for the Legislature … for Congress … for governor … for president?

If you win an election, you might find jobs with real salaries and real benefits for such people. Or, if they don't get patronage jobs, they remain part of your “kitchen cabinet” group of insiders.

Soon, even though they might still be in their 20s, those aides confidently know—absolutely know!—how to help you, what calls you should not take, who you should and should not meet with, and how to protect you.

You're a Very Busy Person, after all. You can't meet with everybody. You can't make every decision. You have to trust somebody, so why shouldn't it be someone who has been there from the beginning and who knows all you've been through?

Those aides have entered the Danger Zone. They can give orders, or respond to controversies, using that “I'm speaking for The Boss” tone that commands attention.

Not only can those aides make the wrong decisions, but they also decide when—and how—to act without The Boss' knowledge, intentionally giving The Boss deniability if their decisions blow up. If they do blow up, these aides know they're gone. History. “No longer work here.”

One more reason why those aides are especially dangerous:

They are often so seduced by politics that they plan to run for office—maybe even your job, if you move up the political ladder or retire.

At that point, an aide might not make the best decisions for The Boss.

Wisconsin examples?

-- Four-term GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson told his campaign managers: I want to win by a bigger margin the next time than I did last time. Imagine what pressure that put on campaign managers and those working for them.

-- An aide to former GOP Gov. Scott McCallum once ordered cheap silver discs bearing McCallum's image to give to Capitol visitors to his office. It was news to McCallum.

-- Aides to Republican Gov. Scott Walker made some decisions—having Walker take a call from a liberal talk-show host pretending to be a conservative billionaire and hiring an ex-campaign worker who disparaged minorities on social media—they would like back.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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