Meet the Democratic Operatives Fighting Their Party Establishment Over Its Future

The same consulting firm in Washington is helping not only Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign but two underdog Senate candidates fighting party-approved Democrats in primaries.

(From left) Julian Mulvey, Mark Longabaugh, and Tad Devine.
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Nov. 8, 2015, 8 p.m.

Tucked away in a condo com­plex in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s quiet Glover Park neigh­bor­hood, three vet­er­an polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives tap away at laptops around a single con­fer­ence table. Sur­roun­ded by cam­paign signs from lib­er­al past cli­ents like Ed­ward Kennedy, the men pop in and out of con­ver­sa­tion to an­swer phone calls, for­ward emails, and re­fuel on caf­feine.

This is the headquar­ters of the Demo­crat­ic in­sur­gency.

Tad Dev­ine, Ju­li­an Mul­vey, and Mark Longabaugh—to­geth­er Dev­ine Mul­vey Longabaugh—rep­res­ent as cli­ents not only Bernie Sanders, the avowed so­cial­ist pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate tak­ing on Hil­lary Clin­ton, but also two little-known, un­der­dog Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates run­ning against party-ap­proved fa­vor­ites: Cin­cin­nati Coun­cil­man P.G. Sit­ten­feld and former Chica­go Urb­an League CEO An­drea Zo­pp.

All reg­u­lars on the Demo­crat­ic cam­paign cir­cuit, the three con­sult­ants in­sist they’re not try­ing to ruffle any feath­ers with their party. Rather, they’re try­ing to save it.

“Listen, I’m a Demo­crat. I want the Demo­crats to con­trol the House and the Sen­ate,” Dev­ine said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al. “But I’m also some­body who for a long time has felt that the de­cisions about who’s the strongest can­did­ate … these are de­cisions that are best made by voters. If you let the in­siders make de­cisions about can­did­ates be­fore any­one has even cast a vote, I think you run a great risk of the strongest can­did­ate not be­ing the nom­in­ee of your party.”

So Dev­ine Mul­vey Longabaugh has em­barked on a battle against the party es­tab­lish­ment—in­clud­ing the party com­mit­tees the three men also count among past cli­ents. The firm’s cli­ent in Ohio, Sit­ten­feld, is a 31-year-old city coun­cil mem­ber run­ning to the left of 74-year-old former Gov. Ted Strick­land on is­sues like guns and the Key­stone XL pipeline. In Illinois, the firm rep­res­ents Zo­pp, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity lead­er and former cor­por­ate CEO who is wa­ging an out­sider cam­paign against Rep. Tammy Duck­worth, the Wash­ing­ton fa­vor­ite. Both Duck­worth and Strick­land have already been en­dorsed by the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

The firm be­lieves the Demo­crat­ic Party as a whole has be­come more pro­gress­ive since its last set of ma­jor primar­ies. And en­er­giz­ing a more pro­gress­ive party, the three op­er­at­ives say, re­quires can­did­ates who aren’t afraid to ar­tic­u­late their is­sues.

“If you look at our firm as a whole, we work for pro­gress­ive can­did­ates and pro­gress­ive causes,” said Longabaugh, who has worked on the in­sur­gent pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns of Bill Brad­ley and Richard Geph­ardt. “Ideo­lo­gic­ally, we ended up with these can­did­ates be­cause of what we be­lieve and what we stand for.

“If we’d wanted to cash in, we could have gone in­to cor­por­ate work a long time ago,” he ad­ded.

In­deed, the firm’s non­can­did­ate cli­ent list says plenty about the men’s polit­ics. The Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, May­ors Against Il­leg­al Guns, and the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters rep­res­ent the lib­er­al back­bone of the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Longabaugh, a Cin­cin­nati nat­ive, and Dev­ine, of Rhode Is­land, have worked to­geth­er and against each oth­er on Demo­crat­ic cam­paigns for dec­ades. Dev­ine met Mul­vey, who grew up in Eng­land, while teach­ing at Bo­ston Uni­versity, and fol­lowed the young­er man’s ca­reer as he entered in­to the cam­paign world. When Dev­ine’s old busi­ness part­ner re­tired in 2007, he went in­to busi­ness with Mul­vey, and Longabaugh joined the two in 2011.

Their re­sumes don’t ex­actly scream “polit­ic­al out­siders.” But they do share a pen­chant for cam­paigns that were ini­tially over­looked by oth­ers in Wash­ing­ton.

“I’ve been do­ing this for people out­side the sort of in­side lane of polit­ics for many years, and a lot of them have turned out to be very suc­cess­ful can­did­ates who won very sur­pris­ing elec­tions,” said Dev­ine, who notes that John Ed­wards was “an un­known tri­al law­yer from North Car­o­lina” when he met him. “We’ve all done our fair share of work­ing for can­did­ates who wer­en’t the fa­vor­ite can­did­ate when they star­ted the race, but many of them wound up get­ting elec­ted to of­fice and hav­ing really good polit­ic­al ca­reers.”

“One of my first wins that got some at­ten­tion was [former Rep.] Chris Car­ney in 2006,” said Mul­vey. “It took us months to con­vince Wash­ing­ton this is vi­able!”

Longabaugh points to his work on the 2008 cam­paigns of now-Sen. Jeff Merkley of Ore­gon and former Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina. “I went in­to both of those races with an [in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure] ba­sic­ally fun­ded by or­gan­ized labor, and the Sen­ate com­mit­tee was sit­ting on the side­lines in both races, frankly. … By Labor Day, all the sud­den the Sen­ate com­mit­tee is like, ‘Oh, ac­tu­ally, we can win these races.’”

Already this elec­tion, Sanders has ex­ceeded early ex­pect­a­tions. And while he and the two Sen­ate can­did­ates are still con­sidered dis­tant long-shots in their primar­ies, the firm is har­ness­ing what it sees as a break­through mo­ment for lib­er­als in down-bal­lot races.

The firm’s first TV ads for Zo­pp and Sit­ten­feld, which ran dur­ing the first Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial de­bate, called for primary de­bates at the Sen­ate level. Both can­did­ates touted their unique back­grounds—Sit­ten­feld as a mil­len­ni­al politi­cian and Zo­pp as a pro­sec­utor and busi­ness lead­er—and pitched pro­gress­ive policy plat­forms.

“The mes­sage ter­rain in a lot of these races across the coun­try is sim­il­ar wheth­er it’s a pres­id­en­tial race or a race for Sen­ate,” said Dev­ine. “We’re try­ing to take ad­vant­age of an op­por­tun­ity to break through in all of these races, and for each one of them, that’s worked out very well.”

Longabaugh poin­ted to a piece of dir­ect mail Sanders signed for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee as proof that the Demo­crat­ic Party, even at an or­gan­iz­a­tion­al level, “real­izes the tre­mend­ous power and in­flu­ence Bernie is bring­ing.”

Asked wheth­er any of them were con­cerned about put­ting re­la­tion­ships with their party in jeop­ardy, none bat­ted an eye.

“As for the fal­lout … I’m not go­ing to worry about the fal­lout,” said Dev­ine. “The way to suc­ceed in polit­ics is to work for people in tough races and help them win. And if you do that, a lot of oth­er people are go­ing to want you to work for them, and I think party in­sti­tu­tions will as well.”

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