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Top One Magazine

‘I Had Been Seen as a Little Radioactive’: Lis Smith Talks Mayor Pete, How She Picks Stars and the Future of the Democratic Party

Lis Smith is recording this call. After 20 campaigns flacking for candidates such as Transportation Secretary and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and President Barack Obama, Lis Smith is finally flacking for Lis Smith. Ahead of the release of her highly anticipated political memoir (which Politico Magazine excerpted last week), that includes figuring out how to get her computer to record our phone interview — ammo to use in the event that it’s needed to set the record straight.

Smith, the famously aggressive political operative battle-honed in the brass knuckles politics of New York City and in red-state political tilts, plotted the rollout of Buttigieg’s longshot presidential campaign. Now she has carefully orchestrated her own book’s launch — doling out choice anecdotes to her beloved New York tabloids: “De Blasio didn’t trust NYPD security to keep secrets, ex-aide Lis Smith claims,” blared one headline, which elicited an on the record statement from De Blasio himself. Even TMZ got in the act — “LEO DICAPRIO OFFERED BUTTIGIEG HELP DURING 2020 RUN,” trumpeted the chyron. She texts the buzziest bits to her sprawling network of journalistic contacts, who tweet them out.

Smith’s Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, out July 19, is an irreverent, intimate and honest look behind the curtain of modern political image-making — including her own. From her days as a college intern for John Edwards to her own brush with the New York tabloids, the book traces her entertaining path to the height of the American political consultant class.

Smith did not let anyone featured in the book read it ahead of time, not even former principals like Buttigieg or Cuomo, whom she levels in the book in the way her beloved Cincinnati Bengals’ new right tackle La’el Collins might decimate an opposing player.

“If I’m going to be honest about other people and their shortcomings, it’s really important for me to be honest about myself and my own shortcomings,” Smith told me.

The two of us talked this week about Buttigieg’s political future, whether Cincinnati Bengal’s quarterback Joe Burrow could jump into politics, and the ingredients of a good political candidate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Wren: In the beginning, you scored the contract for this book based on your high-profile turn as a senior communications adviser to Pete Buttigieg. A lot of people — people whose opinion you respect — told you that you were nuts when you chose to work for Pete. I know of one person in particular who said you were making a catastrophic career mistake working for a total nobody. And yet you signed on anyway. Why?

Lis Smith: My favorite was one person asking me if I lost a bet or something.

Wren: Who?

Smith: I’m not going to say who. I’m just going to leave it there because I thought it was funny.

From the second I met Pete, I knew that there was something special about him. He was a once-in-a-generation talent, someone who perfectly met the moment. When I met him was right after Trump won the election, and Democrats are running around with their hair on fire — for good reason. And you had Democrats out there saying, “when they go low, we kick them in the face,” and engaging in all this over-the-top rhetoric.

Pete was completely different. A lot of people thought that to beat Trump, you had to be Trump. And what Pete understood, and why I believed in him, was that to beat Trump, we didn’t need to be him. We needed to be the antidote to him. And there was not a better antidote to Trump than Pete — in terms of style, in terms of life experience, and in terms of his worldview.

It was a long shot. Everyone thought I was crazy. But it was one of those moments where I had to go with my gut.

Wren: There’s a part of Pete that is a little wonky, a little square. In some ways, he came across as a Midwestern dad before he was, in fact, a Midwestern dad. For example, you write in your book about going to a pop-up bar in South Bend with Pete and his best friend and campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl. Pete asked the bouncer what the scene was like inside, and the bouncer told him it was “lit.” The term was lost on him. Did it worry you that he might not be the candidate with whom people most wanted to have a beer — or should we say, get “lit” with?

Smith: One of the things I’ve learned over my time in politics is that you’ve got to let your candidates be themselves. Let Pete be Pete. I remember hearing from other consultants, “Why is he going out there speaking seven languages? He’s going to sound so elitist.” Or: “Why does he have to answer every question with a proverb?” Voters can smell when candidates are being authentic, and when candidates are not. Why that works with Pete, whatever you want to call it — the earnest side of him, this nerdy side of him, the wonky side of him — was because it was authentically Pete.

I think he’s a really good person. He didn’t feel the need to go out there and be the coolest guy or the hippest guy on stage. Most people do have corny sides to them. Most people do have nerdy sides to them. Most people do have earnest sides to them.

Wren: You’re a very competitive person. How did that manifest itself with Pete, the first candidate you’ve ever advised who was approximately the same age as you?

Smith: It made me want to be better at my job. Pete made us all show up to give our 100 percent at work — made us all better at our jobs. On a cornier side, I think because he is such a good person, he made a lot of us better people throughout, because politics can be sort of a nasty business.

I really did feel he treated me as an equal. And it was the first time I’d worked in politics that I’d ever felt that way. It meant a lot to me as a woman to have someone like that. In the car, we’d go back and forth on random trivia, and pulling up things on Google. Usually, it was all good-natured. Fantasy football — we were competitive about that. We were on the bus in New Hampshire the week we were playing each other and furiously checking our lineups.

Wren: You’re often credited with vaulting Pete from the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city to a member of Biden’s cabinet. How much of his success was because of you, and how much was because of him?

Smith: Mayor Pete is where Mayor Pete is now because Mayor Pete is just one of the most uniquely talented members of the Democratic Party. I am humbled and flattered and appreciative of when people recognize the hard work I put in on our media strategy, and the fact that we employed a media strategy that was radically different from everyone else in the field.

There was only one path for us to break through. And that was our media strategy. It was a slim path. I would give Pete 95 percent of the credit and give me five percent of the credit. You couldn’t have pulled off that strategy with a Bill de Blasio. The more people see Bill de Blasio, the less they like him. The first time people saw Pete, it was the same as the reaction I had when I first met him, which is “where the hell has this guy been my entire life?”

Wren: Tell me about that five percent credited to you. What is Lis Smith’s secret sauce? What do I get if I pay for your consulting services? Is it your relationship with reporters and cable bookers? Your knowledge of the process?

Smith: I think I’ve got good relationships with people in the media. But you know, more importantly, through some trial and error, over this very long career, I learned the importance of letting candidates be candidates, right? Letting Terry be Terry. Letting Pete be Pete. Letting Claire be Claire. So what I try to do is to meet candidates where they are, and to help work with them on what their strengths are and not to erase the things in them that are quirky or not, but see if we can use them as assets.

But another thing is that I’m not someone who’s just worked in New York. I worked in politics nine years before I ever moved to New York. I worked in states like South Dakota, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia. I, in those races, became extremely battle-tested. None of those races were particularly easy. But they did teach me the importance of always making sure that candidates are reflecting the values of their voters. A Democratic candidate in West Virginia is going to look very different from a Democratic candidate in New York, and we can’t impose this one-size-fits-all thing and think that the Democratic Party is going to be a majority party.

Wren: Much has been made about Trump Derangement Syndrome — this idea that, true or not, he scrambles rational political responses from otherwise reasonable people. Does something like Buttigieg Derangement Syndrome exist? What makes him such a magnet for criticism on both the left and the right?

Smith: Yes. Because he completely disrupts the idea of what a successful younger politician is. He doesn’t yell and scream, take the most extreme positions on issues, or tweet incendiary things. It’s sad, but our politics isn’t built to deal with people who are reasonable.

Wren: You and Pete have very different brands. I think I’ve heard Pete use the F-word once or twice, for example, and his personal life doesn’t play out in the pages of the New York tabloids. You deploy the F-bomb like Picasso used drypoint. In what ways does your brand benefit from Pete’s, and in what ways does Pete’s brand benefit from yours?

Smith: In my experience, the best working relationships between candidates and their top staff often depend on a sort of yin-yang dynamic. Because Pete is so Midwestern nice, I think it was helpful for him to have someone who could help kick him into another gear, and sort of push him to have the more aggressive instinct you need to break through in a presidential race.

I was coming off some New York races where everything is just all-day personal attacks — getting in the mud. Pete helped pull back that part of me, because while that might work when you’re dealing in the New York tabloids, that doesn’t sell as well in the Des Moines Register. I could bring out a little bit more of a killer instinct [in] him, but he could bring out sort of a gentler, more thoughtful side of me that was mutually beneficial to the campaign.

In my book, I sort of get at this, but we are sort of an odd couple. Why would a Pete Buttigieg hire me? There is this thing that I have to be very honest with, because maybe I had been seen as a little radioactive because I had unwillingly had my private life spread all over the tabloids, more established candidates might not have hired me.

On the flip side of that, the most established, the most convention conventional political consultants weren’t going to go work for Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend. So it was just sort of the perfect confluence of all these things where that yin and yang dynamic got us together.

Wren: He rehabilitated you — and taught you to love the political process again.

Smith: Yeah. Yeah. [Smith’s voice breaks here.] Hold on, I’m sorry. It’s just a personal part of my book. He did.

Because 2015 and 2016 were really difficult times in my life. I had gone through this awful breakup [with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer]. I’d worked for former [Former Maryland Gov.] Martin O’Malley, who got like 1 percent in the Iowa Caucuses. I see Donald Trump win the White House, which like everyone else, I’m flabbergasted. I’m horrified. And you just like have this moment, where you’re like, ‘Maybe this is it. Maybe I’m done. And maybe I should’ve gone to law school. Maybe there’s still time for me to choose a new life path because I felt extremely disillusioned.’ And so much of my book is about the power of belief and the element of belief that it takes to succeed in professional football, in politics, and he’s the one who brought that belief back for me, and brought my love — my pure love of politics — back for me. And it’s something that forever I’ll be thankful to him for.

Wren: You mentioned that some people might view you as radioactive. In recent months you have made a name for yourself by working for this new crop of candidates out in the middle of the country: Michigan State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, Aftab Pureval and others. What is this new phase of your career about?

Smith: Democrats love to bitch that we don’t have a bench. And you know what their problem is? They’re just not looking in the right places. The Democratic bench isn’t going to be found on “Meet the Press” every Sunday, and it’s not going to be found on cable news. Oftentimes it’s not going to be found in Washington, D.C.

Seeing how Pete cuts through with people and what a truly effective messenger he’s become for the Democratic Party, it makes you realize: There’s not just one Mayor Pete. There are probably dozens of Mayor Petes out there across the country. We’re just not looking for them. And someone needs to be. It’s really fun. It gives me so much joy when I sit down for a Zoom with Mallory McMorrow which is supposed to be 15 minutes and it turns into two hours, and I get goosebumps again. And it’s really heartening because you realize the future of the Democratic Party is really bright, and that all we need to do is help lift these people up. And if I can help you with my experience, my profile, my contacts, to do that, then I will do it.

Wren: What do you look for in a candidate? What do all the good candidates you’ve worked for have in common, and what do the bad candidates have in common?

Smith: All the good candidates are comfortable in their own skin. They know who they are and will not let consultants, pundits, whoever, change them.

The bad candidates are people who are insecure, who put their finger in the wind, who don’t trust their instincts enough and don’t have the backbone to do the right things. And they all lack humility. The good candidates have humility. Even people like Terry McAuliffe and Claire McCaskill, who both have outsized personalities. The thing with Terry McAuliffe is that he’s in on the joke. Part of it with him is the persona. There’s a public Terry and a private Terry. The private Terry is a lot more low-key, and lot more humble, a lot more thoughtful.

I’m realistic here. Running for politics — there’s got to be a little element of narcissism or whatever you want to call it in you. But as long as it’s just like that one percent that you need to have the confidence that you can go out and rally thousands of people, and that it’s just that 1 percent and not 70 percent, then it’s all good.

Wren: You write pretty transparently in the book about times you’ve been fooled by a candidate. John Edwards comes to mind. Bill de Blasio, too.

Smith: So with John Edwards, I was a college student. I first met John Edwards when I was 19 or 20 years old. I would say that these days, my vetting skills are maybe a little savvier. With Bill de Blasio, that was a different situation. I was blindly ambitious, versus blindly loyal, and where the shiny object of being a New York City press secretary was more alluring to me that I was willing to overlook his very clear deficiencies.

Wren: This book is in some ways a tell-all about the role of a political consultant.

Smith: One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was because when I was thinking at 19 or 20 about getting into this world, [a book like this] didn’t exist. Deciding to get into politics for me, and in the world of political operatives, was like jumping off a cliff. What I realized from my time working in politics is how much mystery there still is around this industry. So I wanted to write a book to tell people, “Hey, if you want to know what politics is like — the ins and outs, the good, bad, and the ugly — this is a book for you.”

I think now more than ever, people need to understand how the media works. They need to understand how the political process works. We’ve seen a lot of cataclysmic things happen. The Covid pandemic. We just had the Supreme Court decision on abortion. Now more than ever, people are seeing politics touch everything in our lives. Politics is literally a matter of life and death. I want people to know what it’s like behind the scenes.

Maybe somewhere an 18-year-old girl like me can pick up my book and can learn something from it — about how you work with candidates, how you work with the media, how you deal with crisis, and also learn from my mistakes. Mistakes that I’ve made with media. Mistakes I’ve made in my private life. Mistakes I’ve made in my professional life. But it’s not just about the 18-year-old girl. I want Democrats to read this book. I want Republicans to read this book. I want political people to read this book, because I think it’s fun. I think it’s a little bit of a ride.

Wren: I want a window into how you advise candidates amid a crisis. On Sunday, Bill de Blasio put out a statement in a New York Post story in his own name defending himself against the portrait you paint of him in your book as “obsessively paranoid.” If you were working for him, and a book like yours came out authored by someone else, how would you have advised him to address the situation?

Smith: Oh, that’s simple. You never get in a fight with someone who’s trying to promote a book. So I would obviously advise him not to respond.

In a crisis, the most important thing to do is to pause, to take a step back and get all the facts, and game out your response. This is what day one looks like. This is what day two looks like. This is how we stop there from being a day three. The problem with a lot of people, not just candidates, but anyone in life who is caught up in a crisis is that they react. They lead with emotion. They feel like if they don’t respond within two minutes, that the crisis is going to fester. A better response that is informed by all the facts is the most effective way to respond.

I had to deal with candidates who, unfortunately, did not give me all the facts, and you can’t effectively handle a crisis. Honesty is really, really important to handling a crisis because you have to have all the facts at your disposal.

Wren: Did you have a good handle before the campaign on Pete’s vulnerabilities?

Smith: Are we talking about the same Pete Buttigieg? That maybe once he double-dipped his fry at Barnaby’s? Let’s be real, Adam. We knew the McKinsey stuff would be it, but he was bound by an NDA. And I talked about that in the book. But until they released him from the NDA, we just didn’t get his clients. What else was the oppo they were dropping? He wrote a paper praising Bernie Sanders at Harvard? One thing I find incredibly admirable about him is what you see is what you get. And he is as squeaky clean behind the scenes as he is in front of the camera.

Wren: One of the theses of Pete’s campaign was that mayors are on the front lines of democracy. They are doing things that are more directly relevant to people’s lives. That cut both ways during the campaign for Buttigieg, particularly when a white police officer killed a Black man in South Bend. Not long after that, at the presidential primary debate in Miami on June 27, you take us inside the greenroom backstage as you watched Pete get asked about this incredibly fraught moment. The spotlight turns to Kamala Harris, the only Black candidate on stage. You write: “‘Here we go …’ said Larry Grisolano, Pete’s media consultant, stating the obvious. The attack we had been dreading was coming. Except then it didn’t. Rather than going after Pete, Harris trained her fire on Biden.”

In that moment, in retrospect, it seems like Harris could’ve ended Buttigieg’s campaign. How consequential was that looking back?

Smith: I don’t know, because I think one thing we saw was that he was pretty good about handling stuff. And when he was asked about that, he gave a really strong answer, and he took responsibility for things he did do in South Bend or things he didn’t do in South Bend. But to me it was more just revealing [the] nature of the sliding doors of campaigns, and I think that’s what you’re getting at. Before a debate, you have no idea how much gossip is going around. Also how many, like, mind-games campaigns are playing with others. And you don’t know who is actually going to attack you. I think we saw that Kamala’s attack on Biden was obviously — was pretty pointed. But Joe Biden is president today, and Kamala Harris is his vice president.

Wren: How is Harris doing as a communicator?

[The vice presidency] is probably the toughest, most thankless job in Washington D.C. I think that she gets a lot of unfair criticism. Like we saw with Hillary Clinton, women are sometimes held to a different standard. She’s a Black half-South-Indian woman. That means that she’s held to a different standard than sometimes other candidates. My advice is just go out there more, communicate more. I know that the media loves to pick up on a gaffe here or there but the more comfortable you are, the more interviews you do, the more comfortable you get in front of the camera, and the less little slip ups matter. She’s had some very forceful moments as vice president. She is a talented communicator. It’s just that I think with both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that it would do the administration good to get out there a little bit more, and not to let the media and the Twitter dialogue get in your head, because most people don’t speak like Pete Buttigieg in these beautiful, poetic, perfectly formed sentences. I think that’s always been part of Joe Biden’s appeal. And so my advice would just be, get out there more, especially with Kamala, go out there more. When you do more interviews, it reduces that gotcha instinct with the press, it reduces that cat and mouse game.

This is an election where the women voters are going to be really important. And it’s going to be really important to have a woman sort of leading the charge on these issues, who is able to really empathize with the despair a lot of women are feeling.

Wren: Based on how you characterized the vice presidency, would you ever counsel the transportation secretary, regardless of what year it is, against taking the vice presidency?

Smith: I’m not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole. I see that being taken so far out of context. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know you’re asking it in good faith, but I am declining to answer it in good faith.

Wren: Fair enough. In that same vein, I know that there were people in the transportation secretary’s inner circle that thought his taking that position wasn’t the best idea. How has it turned out so far?

Smith: I think it’s been great. It’s a role that clearly lends itself to his skill set. Because it would drive me nuts during the campaign hearing all his wonky, wonky talk about infrastructure, about roads, about smart sewers. And it was a running joke between us: I was like, “I can’t listen to you talk about smart sewers one more time, or I will lose my mind.” He loves that stuff.

As someone who was a mayor who was on the ground, who knows how important this stuff is, he’s a great messenger to send out there to these smaller media markets everywhere, where he can meet with the mayors, speak to them in their language, help make sure that they’re getting the resources they need. I think it’s just shaped up to be a perfect role for him. And as you saw on Fox News Sunday, as I went to bed last night, [his clip] has 8 million views. There’s just no one who can do a TV interview like Pete Buttigieg.

Wren: You’ve worked in a lot of red states — South Dakota, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio. Based on that experience, how should Democrats make gains in those kinds of states in 2022?

Smith: You’ve got to meet voters where they are. The most important thing is there’s no one way to be a Democrat no matter what any of these lefty groups in Washington say, and we cannot expect candidates in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Ohio and Arizona and North Carolina to check off every box on the progressive party purity test. If we do that it is a recipe for disaster.

Wren: One of your legacies is the “coaching tree,” to use an apt football metaphor, that you left behind on the Pete campaign. Alums [of the campaign] are on the Hill. They’re in the agencies. They’re out in country working on campaigns. Some are even in the White House, like Deputy Press Secretary Chris Meagher, who briefed the press not too long ago. What’s that like?

Smith: Don’t make me praise Chris Meagher. I’m joking. Not to be cheesy, but it is one of my proudest accomplishments.

What’s especially important to me, is, you know, making sure to take a lot of young women under my wing. When I was starting in politics, we didn’t have women. There were very, very few women in positions of power. It wasn’t really until 2012 when I worked for Barack Obama that I did find a really strong female mentor in Stephanie Cutter and I learned so much about my job, so much about politics, so much about how to effectively communicate from Stephanie Cutter.

Wren: What is your relationship with Pete like now?

Smith: We check in here and there. I consider him a friend . He’s someone I ask for advice. He’s someone who is very special to me, and I hope he’s always a part of my life. I love him.

Wren: When you started working with Aftab Pureval did Pete feel like you were two-timing him with another Midwestern mayor of a river city with a funny name?

Smith: That’s hilarious. No. The one thing you saw on our campaign in 2020 is that everywhere we went, he was introduced by young leaders, young mayors. I remember in Iowa, we had all these young mayors for him. He knows the importance of building up our bench.

Wren: Let’s talk about another Cincinnatian: Joey Burrow, your Bengals’ politically outspoken quarterback. Your Bengals fandom — and their Super Bowl run — is a part of the book.

Smith: Joey Burrow is an incredible leader. He was an incredible leader at Louisiana State University — someone that team could rally around, and such a maturity to him. We’ve got that Joey Burrow swag, but he does have humility to him. He has a clear social consciousness to him that you don’t see in a lot of professional athletes. He’s someone who is involved fighting childhood hunger. He weighed in after the shooting in Uvalde. He weighed in after the Supreme Court decision. That’s a pretty ballsy thing to do.

Wren: Could see a political career for him?

Smith: You never say never. But I don’t know what’s inside him. But I appreciate his courage in being willing to speak out about it.

Wren: How is the Lis Smith depicted in this book different from the Lis Smith in the popular political imagination?

Smith: I think a lot of people get a very one-dimensional view of me. And especially on far-leftist DSA Twitter, I’m basically just depicted as a mix between Lady Macbeth and Rasputin in a wig, that I’m like some soulless political operatives. And no, politics is my love. It is my passion. It has been my passion since I was nine years old, which sounds sick. But I understand that what I do isn’t just a game. It’s that everyday when I go into work to try and get these people elected it’s because it will impact lives. It will hopefully make the cost of prescription drugs go down, or cut the price of insulin. It will codify Roe v. Wade. Politics is really personal to me.

I think that’s probably the biggest misconception about me. People read about my personal life in Page Six, and they think I’m going to be sort of an out-there type of person that is attention seeking and all of that. In real life, I have a really close-knit family. I have a really close-knit group of friends who have nothing to do with politics. And I have a nice, quiet life where I don’t live in Washington, D.C. I don’t live and breathe politics every day.

Tim Miller, my friend, wrote a great book weeks ago, where he talks about the danger of getting sucked up in the game. And I agree with him that you can’t get sucked up in the game. I’ve always tried to be very grounded. But I love politics because it touches everything in our lives. And if people like me don’t get involved, then I’m scared about the future of our country.

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