HELENA – When President Bush began his push to privatize Social Security in late 2004, congressional Democrats determined to beat it back tapped a Montana political operative to help.
Jim Messina, 35 at the time, was chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who was the Democrats’ point man to bury Bush’s proposal. While Baucus was the public face of the opposition, Messina ran the ground war.
“Bush hadn’t been beaten on anything in the first four years, and people thought he was invincible,” Messina said. “In December (2004), people were saying he was going to get it done, and by May it was dead.”
Messina, 39, has made a career out of running effective campaigns, including this summer and fall as chief of staff for the national presidential campaign of Democrat Barack Obama.
In January, the University of Montana alumnus will take his talents to the White House in one of the top political jobs in the country: Deputy chief of staff for Obama. “I can’t describe how excited I am,” he said. “That’s the job I wanted. I couldn’t be any happier.”
As one of two deputy chiefs of staff in the White House, Messina will have many departments reporting to him, including legislative affairs, political affairs, personnel, scheduling and “ad-vance,” which is political-speak for having the president sell his proposals to the public and Congress. Messina will report to Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff.
“I’m the operational guy,” he said. “My job is to make sure we get to our goals and that we are consistently moving the president’s message to the people.”
Bosses, colleagues and political friends describe Messina as a dedicated worker who has earned his reputation as a mastermind of organizing and running political campaigns.
“He didn’t skip any steps,” said Matt McKenna, a fellow Montanan who has worked with Messina on several campaigns. “He’s had a very methodical rise to where he is. I think that’s why he’s so good at it. Every step along the way, he learned something new.
“There is no secret formula. It’s just hard work. He really just grinds it out.”
Messina grew up in Boise, Idaho, and said he hadn’t really considered UM until visiting with a recruiter at a college fair. He did some research, found that UM’s journalism school had a good reputation and decided to go.
“I did it on sort of just a gut feeling,” he said. “I didn’t go visit the campus. It was honestly the single, best decision of my life. My ashes will be strewn on the M when I die.”
Messina got involved with the college Democrats and majored in political science. As a junior at UM, he won an internship at the 1991 Legislature, working as an aide to three Democratic lawmakers. He said he came out of the session “knowing everyone,” and eventually ended up working for the Democratic Party on the 1992 legislative campaigns.
He finished up his political science degree at UM and got back into the campaign world, working to re-elect Missoula Mayor Dan Kemmis in 1993 and as state Democratic Party’s coordinator for legislative races in 1994.
It wasn’t until 1995 that he signed on with Baucus, who became the foundation of Messina’s career for the next dozen years. He joined Baucus’ office in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to the chief of staff, worked on his 1996 and 2002 campaigns and took over as chief of the senator’s staff in early 2005.
At that same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., chose Baucus to lead the battle against President Bush’s privatization of Social Security. Behind Baucus was Messina – and Reid knew that, too.
“Reid asked me to run the campaign against Bush’s Social Security proposal,” Messina said. “Part of what Max and I did was make sure we talked about only two things: It would cut benefits and explode the national debt. It was a very consistent message.”
Messina orchestrated the campaign, enlisting sympathetic groups to criticize the proposal and targeting Republican members of Congress who indicated they might oppose Bush.
Baucus said he has rarely known anyone with Messina’s political smarts, stamina and sheer likeability.
“When you see Jim Messina, you just immediately like him,” Baucus said. “He motivates people (and) he knows the substance, the issues. He knows how to execute, how to get it done. He’s a results guy.”
Baucus was with Messina at the Montana-Idaho State football game in Missoula on Nov. 15, when Obama called to offer him the job of deputy chief of staff.
Messina was tapped by Obama in June to coordinate field operations and political policy for the Democratic presidential nominee’s national campaign.
Messina led the research team on Republican John McCain’s potential vice presidential picks, preparing for how the Obama campaign would respond.
The choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a surprise, Messina said, though not completely.
“She was on our third tier. I had seen the Troopergate stuff and I thought there was no way they’d pick her,” he said.
McCain’s surge in the polls after the Palin pick caught many Democrats off-guard, and created a near-panic among some of Obama’s closest supporters, Messina said.
“We had a whole lot of bed-wetters after Sarah Palin was named,” he said. “But during that whole time, Barack didn’t panic, so we didn’t, either. We were still looking good in the swing states that we had to do well in.”
Messina is unmarried and travels and works long hours. Yet he still finds the time to indulge his other passions, such as long-distance running, cycling and rock music.
The Saturday after the election, he was in New York City with McKenna, taking in a Drive-by Truckers concert, and he’s a fan of U2. He also plays bass guitar in what one friend described as “his own horrible band,” known as Even Less Dignity.
Barrett Kaiser, Baucus’ communications director and a longtime friend, said that while Messina has lost a few campaigns during his career, it doesn’t happen often.
“His biggest strength is in winning campaigns,” Kaiser said. “But he has a keen mind for both politics and policy. You can air-drop him into any scenario, analyzing the tax code or figuring out where to put 50 field staff to win a campaign. He’s only going to be twice as smart as everyone in the room.”
He’s also a relentless competitor, friends said, who will let people know when they’re not cutting it, or who won’t hesitate to do some dirty work when it needs to be done. But they say that reputation overlooks a person who wants to improve the country.
“Jim has an incredibly big heart, and there is a sensitive side of him that sees injustice and wants to do something to correct it,” said John Mudd, a Missoula attorney and friend.
Messina said he’s always felt that politics was a way to get things done for people without inherent power or money. Yet he said, over the years, he’s come to see the advantages of working toward the political center to accomplish policy goals.
In fact, every few weeks, Messina has a beer in Washington with a Republican he helped defeat 12 years ago, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who lost to Baucus in the 1996 race for U.S. Senate.
“And (Rehberg) always buys, because he’s rich,” Messina joked. “I’m not paying for my two Budweisers.”
Rehberg, a rancher and property developer from Billings, said he enjoys an “arm’s length friendship of mutual respect” with Messina, whom he admires as political hand.
Obama’s hiring of Messina and others like him indicates that Obama is serious about governing and running a smooth political machine, Rehberg said.
“If he’s bringing in a guy like Jim Messina, he’s bringing in some people with real talent,” Rehberg said. “And I always say at the end of that sentence: ‘Darn it.'”
Messina, who worked until midnight every day last week, says he’ll have many more long days in the White House, looking to carry out the agenda proposed by President-elect Obama: “This president is very clear about what he wants to accomplish, and we’re going to help him accomplish it.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.