Mo Elleithee doesn’t seem like your typical Washington insider. Despite decades spent in the partisan messaging wars, the new communications director of the Democratic National Committee is refreshingly sincere, low-key, and — for now, at least — not interested in conventional political theatrics.
Two weeks into the job, Elleithee talks passionately, but evenly, about “telling the bigger story” of the Democratic platform, and he hit on themes of “expanding opportunity” for all Americans during his interview with National Journal Daily. He is not shrinking from the looming conflicts with Republicans, he promises, but he hopes to elevate the conversation above reductive, partisan sniping.
“I will be forceful,” Elleithee says. “I will have fun on Twitter with [Republican National Committee Communications Director] Sean Spicer. But at the same time, I hope I can “¦ add to an actual discussion and a debate rather than just gotcha politics.”
Elleithee, a first-generation American, grew up in southern Arizona. His Egyptian-immigrant parents were largely loyal Republicans — save for a vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976, in no small part because he brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel — until the mid-1990s, a conversion for which their son jokingly takes credit. Early on, the Kennedys and Mario Cuomo inspired Elleithee’s rebellion to the left. He says he was a “political geek” in high school, going as far as playing presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis in a mock debate. His peers deemed Elleithee the debate champ — but, like Dukakis, he lost the election.
Georgetown University lured Elleithee to Washington to study international politics, but he wasn’t sure that working in this town was his calling until after a few wrong turns. He took the Foreign Service test after graduating but didn’t score high enough to make the notoriously competitive grade. Thinking the law might be a suitable alternative but not quite ready to return to school just yet, Elleithee let the gravity of life pull him toward a job as a legal assistant at a Wall Street firm. It didn’t take him long to realize the world of the moneyed elite wasn’t for him, unabashedly admitting that he “hated every minute of it.”
Elleithee recalls going home exasperated from one “particularly bad day at work,” making himself some dinner, and plopping down in front of the TV. It was Election Day 1994, a historic and unforgettable day for both parties, and a turning point for Elleithee.
“I watched the returns come in,” he remembers. “And I watched the bloodbath. I watched Ann Richards go down in Texas. I watched Mario Cuomo, my hero, go down in New York. And I said, “˜That’s what I’ve got to go do.’ That was the moment.”
Newt Gingrich’s “Republican revolution” awakened Elleithee’s political passions, and soon after, he heard about a graduate program at George Washington University for would-be campaign managers. He finished his degree in 1996 before beginning an eclectic career in political advocacy and communications that has cut across local, state, and national levels.
Elleithee’s lengthy résumé belies his age — just 40 — and could double as a Democratic Party “Who’s Who.” His career includes stints with Tom Udall, Bill Bradley, Janet Reno, Wesley Clark, Tim Kaine, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Elleithee is also a founding partner of Hilltop Public Solutions, a Beltway-based political consulting firm. (He’s on a leave of absence.)
Elleithee has notched numerous campaign victories — and defeats — but he says working on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign ranks among his most personally memorable gigs.
“Going to Hillary Clinton rallies and seeing blue-collar dads hoisting their daughters up on their shoulders, saying, “˜That can be you someday,’ but then going to a Barack Obama event and seeing young African-American fathers hoist their children up on their shoulders and say the same thing,” Elleithee says, before pausing to gather his thoughts. “Even though I was on the losing side of the primaries, I was still proud to be part of the process.”
As for the incessant speculation about Clinton’s 2016 ambitions, Elleithee says he has no clue what she’s thinking but is dismayed at the growing power of special interests in molding the political narrative. He says he hopes his perch at the DNC will help him restore some control to everyday people and grassroots movements.
“One of the reasons I took this job was because I was getting sick of looking out there at all these super PACs already gearing up, and a proxy campaign already being waged about 2016 between pro-Hillary forces, anti-Hillary forces — and she hasn’t even decided what she’s going to do,” he says. “I am not prepared to concede or to outsource the American political process to these outside groups.”
As for Elleithee’s plans for the DNC, he says he wants to tell “the story” of a Democratic agenda that “will help create and expand opportunity for all Americans.” He adds, “We’re going to proudly wave the flag of the Obama agenda and push aggressively as we can. That will be our primary focus.”
Brad Woodhouse, Elleithee’s predecessor at the committee, who now is running Americans United for Change, believes the new guy’s style will serve the DNC well.
“He very much fits the Obama mold of no drama, very low-key, even-tempered,” Woodhouse confirms. “He never gets too hot, never gets too cold. And I think that’s the type of personality that can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Elleithee is married to Tali Stein, a consultant; they have two children, 3-year-old Sadie and 5-month-old Oliver.
Offering that running for office is definitely “not for me,” Elleithee wraps up his interview with NJ Daily with a sheepish admission, befitting his grounded style.
“I’m so glad this is over, because talking about myself is actually one of my least favorite things,” he confesses. “I’m so used to talking about something bigger.”