Mo Elleithee Follows in Brad Woodhouse’s Footsteps With New Role at DNC

Cool customer: Elleithee hopes to avoid "gotcha" politics.
National Journal
Sept. 8, 2013, 8 a.m.

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.”

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