David Freedlander writes about politics and culture. He lives in New York.
If you read through the many, many profiles written of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in the past several months, it’s hard not to notice just how many reporters happen to have had personal encounters with the candidate, often months before he was in the headlines.
There’s the article in the Atlantic where the writer met the mayor of South Bend, Indiana for a chicken tempura lunch in Manhattan. The writer from Indianapolis Monthly who went for a jog with Buttigieg three months before his feature landed, the Washington Post Magazine writer who sat down in a Virginia soul food joint with Mayor Pete long before he declared his presidential bid and the Yahoo News feature writer who crammed into the corner seat of a midtown Manhattan café with him months ago.Story Continued Below
I should know: Last October, I had my own intimate, off-the-record encounter with Mayor Pete. We met at the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca. I had a beer—he stuck to water—and we talked about his political ambitions and the state of the Democratic Party and why Trump won. He laid out his case for how a millennial municipal official from a town the size of a New York City Council district could somehow seize the Democratic nomination. It felt like we connected—we went over our allotted time, and I had another beer, and by the end I had shifted from very skeptical to only moderately skeptical, just maybe seeing a lane for his candidacy.
When I stood up and left the table, Buttigieg stayed, and I recognized a woman sitting at the bar. It was a reporter from BuzzFeed News, waiting to take my place.
Our meeting was part of a strategy, one run with surprising sophistication and efficacy for a candidate whose highest-profile gig so far is a local office in the fourth-biggest city in Indiana. Buttigieg’s rise from unlikeliest of contenders to actual top-tier presidential candidate has been fueled in part, maybe in large part, by his astonishing success courting the press. And when I began asking around to figure out who was behind that strategy, the same name kept coming up: Lis Smith.
Smith is a fierce New York City-based Democratic operative who helped engineer the plan to get Buttigieg in front of not just national political reporters, but anybody with a camera or microphone. There may be nobody more central to Mayor Pete’s media success—besides the candidate himself, and arguably his social-media-savvy husband, Chasten Buttigieg—than Smith, who serves as a communications adviser and all-around aide. In the past several months, Buttigieg has been not just all over cable and in the newspapers, but in Our Daily Planet, an environmental morning newsletter with just over 5,000 Twitter followers; in a financial planning podcast called Pete the Planner; and on West Wing Weekly, the obsessive episode-by-episode podcast breakdown of The West Wing. He’s been a guest on BuzzFeed’s morning news show, been featured on Vice’s nightly news show and sat down with a couple of the guys from Barstool Sports.
Oversaturation? Not possible, Smith says.
“I want him on everything,” she told me.
Smith, standing behind Buttigieg as he campaigns at various events in New York this April. | Mark Peterson/Redux, Yuki Iwamura/Redux
The story of American presidential politics is in part the story of the consiglieres who steer the candidate along the path: The person who pushes them forward, comforts them when the campaign flails, plots long-term strategy and tactical short-term advantage, bends the ear of the press corps and makes the public case for a candidate in ways the candidate cannot. Obama had David Axelrod. George Bush had Karl Rove; Bill Clinton had James Carville. Each was the political id the candidate couldn’t, or wouldn’t, express.
But there may be no political couple odder than that of Buttigieg and Smith.
“Pete and I, you can probably tell are pretty laid-back, pretty low-key, I guess what you would call pretty Midwestern,” said Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager, who sounds like the host of a classical-music radio station who just returned from a yoga retreat. “We are humble and kind, to quote Tim McGraw. Chill.”
“Lis, I guess you could say, comes from a very different world than Northern Indiana.”
Lis Smith bursts through the doors of a marbled hotel bar in Brooklyn wearing oversized Anna Wintour sunglasses, a faux-fur-lined coat and impossibly thin and tall high heels. She’s on her phone talking to another Buttigieg aide. She puts the word fuck through every part of speech the word can be bent into: noun, pronoun, gerund, verb, term of endearment, sobriquet, epithet, honorific. She is practically shaking with excess energy. I tell her that I have been calling around to former coworkers and associates, trying to get a sense of how she operates. “How badly,” she asks me, “are you trying to fuck me over right now?”
She is operating on two and a half hours of sleep, having just arrived back in New York on a charter jet from South Bend, Indiana, after Buttigieg announced he was running for president. She has a 3-day-old copy of the New York Post in her bag. It is, she says, the only newspaper she subscribes to.
She orders a beer, downs it and orders another. It is 5:15 on a Monday evening. Across the street, Brooklyn hipsters of all ages and manner of facial hair are lining up around the block at a bowling alley/music venue to catch Buttigieg at a fundraiser. A few weeks ago, a couple of hundred people expressed interest in this event. Eight hundred have showed up.
And so, she says, she can’t talk right now. Her phone is “literally exploding.” There is a top political reporter for a major national newspaper apologizing for blowing off a meeting with Buttigieg earlier and trying to get one now, asking Smith, “Will you ever forgive me?”
TV news executives are calling, she says, emailing, now complaining that Buttigieg isn’t doing their shows often enough. A text arrives from John Weaver, a top adviser to former Ohio Governor John Kasich. When Smith opens her laptop, there are saved tabs about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, a YouTube video of a facial massage routine, kale recipes, a Time Out City Guide to Dubai and a 2012 Huffington Post article about how the Obama and Romney campaigns used Twitter.
After the fundraiser, Buttigieg is going to rush off to 30 Rock to do Maddow, then in the morning New Day on CNN, and then fly to Iowa, then do “Morning Joe” when he’s back. He is in talks to do a Fox News town hall in the coming weeks, building off the surprise success of Bernie Sanders’ appearance on Fox, and in the past couple of weeks has also been on Ellen and The View, as well as Preet Bharara’s podcast, The Intercept’s podcast and The New Yorker’s podcast. At the newsstand around the corner, you could buy a New York magazine with Buttigieg’s beatifically smiling face splashed across the cover, and a New York Times with an A1 story about his time at Harvard.
“My observation,” said Axelrod, who worked with Smith on Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, “is that she is the quiet hero of his emergence.”
The speed with which Buttegieg emerged has been astonishing, which happens to be the speed at which Smith works. Schmuhl, his campaign manager, says a typical scene from the trail for the three of them is arriving 10 or 15 minutes early to the airport gate, and while he and Buttegieg—who he’s known since 8th grade in Indiana—take a moment to relax for a minute before boarding, Smith will head to the airport bar with her laptop and phone and begins texting and emailing reporters and clapping back to critics on social media. The candidate and the campaign manager dutifully board the aircraft, and just when it seems the door is about to close, as they start looking around nervously, in comes Smith, sunglasses and coat still on, laptop and cords dangling from her arms, phone pressed against her ear.
“You’ve got this hard-nosed New York-style political operative and this friendly Hoosier mayor,” he said. “They have grown to like and trust each other. But it is kind of fascinating to watch.”
Smith met Buttigieg on the recommendation of Axelrod and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. He was thinking of running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. She had served as a senior aide on O’Malley’s 2016 bid and with the Maryland governor when he was head of the Democratic Governors Association. She knew Axelrod from 2012, when she worked as director of rapid response for President Barack Obama’s reelection effort. (The rapid-response job, Smith says, was for her “like being a pig in shit. Are you kidding me? When they gave me the job I thought, first of all this job exists? And you are going to pay me to be really quick and really aggressive and to take on Mitt Romney? I would do that for free.”)
The way Smith tells it, she thought she was done with presidential politics after O’Malley’s campaign fizzled in 2016. She advised a couple of governors still left in office, and started taking on more nonprofit clients. Axelrod told Buttigieg about Smith, and O’Malley told Smith about this young mayor from South Bend. She figured that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation and impossible-to-pronounce last name rendered him dead on arrival, but started researching the 35-year-old Indiana mayor and promptly took an eight-hour fall down a Google rabbit hole. She became obsessed with the idea of working for him, then became further obsessed when she actually met him, and developed the notion that once people got to meet him they would start to like him.
It was by no means an obvious career move for Smith. She has advised New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Montana Governor Steve Bullock, people who on paper at least are far more likely top-tier presidential contenders, and she served as a top aide for a number of Senate and gubernatorial races. The obvious thing to do would have been to take on high-paying, quieter corporate gigs, or to reenter politics with someone truly high profile.
Buttigieg campaigns in Iowa shortly after officially announcing his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
“Lis has an insurgent mentality,” said Axelrod, a top aide for both of President Obama’s campaigns. “She gravitates to candidates who are challenging and testing the status quo. You don’t reach out to the 35-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, because you think it will be an easy ride.”
She signed on as a consultant when he was laying the groundwork for a long-shot campaign to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee. At that point, reporters she had developed relationships with began to reach out, wondering what she was doing wasting her credibility on a little-known character who seemed like a step down the ladder of political prospects. Smith ended up dropping most of her other clients, politicians and nonprofits alike.
“Lis has absolutely no fear,” said Jeff Smith, a former Missouri lawmaker who dated Smith for four years and considers her one of his closest friends. “There is nothing too big for her. She doesn’t give a fuck. She is the most competitive person I have ever known.”
This includes with her own boss. She is 36, a year younger than Buttigieg, which, “Thank God. Otherwise, I would kill myself.” Which is to say that Buttigieg may know seven languages and carry around Ulysses and sit in with the South Bend Orchestra on piano, but as far as his top aide is concerned, it is only because he has an extra year on her.
“I think I am impressive because I am a violinist and I went to Dartmouth and I speak French and have traveled all over the world and, I don’t know, I know a lot about great apes,” she says. “But there have been a few times when I’ve been around him when I knew something, a factoid or something he didn’t know, and let me tell you, I fucking lord it all over him. ‘Oh really, you didn’t know that? I can’t believe you didn’t know that! I thought everybody knew that.’”
That is not the typical relationship of adviser to political principal, but “typical” is not a word people use about Smith. If there is one thing that makes Smith unique, it’s not her knowledge of great apes or her particular skill eviscerating her opponents on Twitter; It’s that her skin was toughened by a stretch of time in the rawest, roughest media environment of all, the NYC tabloid scrum. And when it happened, the story was her.Smith had moved to New York in 2013 to work for Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor who had stepped down in a prostitution scandal. He was attempting a comeback by running for the modest job of New York City comptroller, and when the vote came in, he pulled in a respectable 48 percent, even though the entire city’s political establishment was against him. After his loss in the primary, Smith went to work on the winning election campaign and then the transition of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
That fall, Spitzer and Smith started dating, which led to the New York City tabloids staking out her apartment to watch the pair coming and going. “ELIOT AND DeBABE” blared the cover of the New York Post, which ran several photos of the pair on its inside pages and in a column from the acid-tongued Andrea Peyser which called Smith “not just any ordinary bimbo” and called her “an ambitious, youngish cookie” who “presumably does not charge Eliot for any services rendered.”
Eliot Spitzer and Lis Smith at a Philadelphia 76ers vs. New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in 2014. | James Devaney/GC Images
The tabloids followed the pair to Christmas at Smith’s parents house in the upscale suburb of Bronxville. Smith’s mother is a descendent of a signer of the Mayflower Compact, and a cousin of lead Watergate investigator Sam Ervin. Her father was a partner at the white-shoe law firm Sidley Austin. Just before he was sworn in, de Blasio yielded to Peyser’s prodding and cut Smith loose just before he moved into the mayor’s office.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it taught me a lot,” Smith says. “So many flacks lose their mind over inconsequential things, and have no sense of, ‘This is good press, this is mediocre press, and this is awful press.’ That is something you know once you have been through awful press.”
Spitzer and Smith stayed together for more than two years, with the tabloids following them pretty much the whole time. The saga gave Smith an insight that most campaign operatives lack: what it’s actually like to be that bug trapped under the magnifying glass.
“As a flack, you don’t always understand what it feels like to be a principal, what it feels like to be under scrutiny. And so when they feel like they are getting attacked, or their families are getting atttacked, they think staff can never talk to them on the level, and it is frustrating for principals, because they are like, ‘You are just a kid, you don’t know anything.’ But with me, I can tell them, This is what is going to happen, this is how we are going to deal with it. It may look like the sky is falling, but just ride this out.”
“Candidates and the people around them can get so spun up about things, and when you get spun up you make the worst mistakes,” she says.
The whole saga also taught her the rhythms of the New York tabloids, which have similarities to the national political press. “You get a sense of the news, what is going to get picked up,” she said, reaching into her bag for her copy of the Post, which she said she was saving for Buttigieg. “You know what people are going to react to, and you know that the tabloids, just like the political press, oftentimes just wants a little scalp and then they will move on.”
Buttigieg recently started getting savaged online when it surfaced that he had told an audience in 2015 that “all lives matter,” and as it happened, he was due to speak at Al Sharpton’s annual National Action Network convention. Smith marched him to the front of where the national and New York press were gathered, telling him, “Are you ready for your first gaggle?” He stayed until the matter was exhausted.
The New York tabs may have sharpened her game, but people who’ve known her for years say Smith came ready for the fight. Jeff Smith, her former boyfriend, recalls one time when he was running for office, his campaign manager’s phone rang. The guy didn’t have time to say hello before Smith could hear screaming over the line. “He looked white as a ghost, didn’t say anything, just nodding along. He hung up and looked at me in horror, and then my phone started ringing. It was Lis telling me I need to fire my campaign manager, that the guy is a fucking idiot. It went on like this, just cursing up a blue streak for like two minutes.”
The aide’s mistake, Smith recalls, had to do with email: He failed to BCC reporters on a news release he blasted out. “Keep in mind she was 22 at the time,” Smith said. “And also keep in mind she was wasn’t working on my campaign. She was my girlfriend.”
Later, says Smith, when he was a state lawmaker, “I would say to her, ‘I am going to talk to such-and-such group,’ and she would tell me, ‘This is what you should say.’ And I would say to her, ‘Lis, I am not going to say that, it’s not my style, it’s not going to work. Of course, then I would, I’d get a tepid reception and she would never let me hear the end of it. ‘God, you fucked that up. If you had any balls you would have said what I told you to say.’”
“Dating her was four years of that.”
When Smith signed on to help Mayor Pete run for DNC chair, it was a part-time gig—helping a candidate nobody had ever heard of run for an insider position, the kind of job decided not by the public, but in backrooms by the most hardcore party loyalists.
That is not how she ran his race. She ran it like he was trying to be president, getting him in front of as many microphones as she could. “This 35-Year-Old Mayor From Indiana Is Wowing National Democrats” The New Republic declared. “Pete Buttigieg emerges as Democratic ‘rock star’” proclaimed Business Insider during the race. “Meet the DNC dark horse: Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg is shaking up the race for Democratic chair,” added Salon.
“What we did is fucking ridiculous. I don’t know if that delegate from Oklahoma is going be reading the Elle.com profile, but a lot of people are, and they should get to know Pete Buttigieg,” she says. “That was my philosophy. Let’s just blow it out. It might not get you the votes, but I am not the political director. I am here to get you clips. I figured he was special and it couldn’t hurt if everybody knows who he is.”
Through the DNC race and afterward, Smith treated the national political press like it was another constituency that needed to be courted. She led Buttigieg on a series of one-on-one meetings over beer, coffee, lunch or cigars with what used to be known as the Gang of 500—those reporters, producers and pundits who shape much of the nation’s political coverage. Buttigieg has gotten a number of lavish long-form features, so many that some have jokingly wondered whether Smith is getting paid by the profile.
There were, Smith guesses, probably 150 such meetings with the national press corps, and when he traveled across the country, speaking to local county party dinners and fundraisers across the Midwest and Great Plains, they would make time for one-on-ones with the local political press there, too. “It wasn’t just the biggest names, people you know,” Smith says. “It was younger reporters, super-hungry reporters that really know how to use Twitter, people who can then go to a cocktail party and tell their friends they had a beer with this guy Pete Buttigieg three hours from now.
“It’s a super-aggressive thing to do. Other candidates, they don’t need to do it. They are already well-known.”
As a thirty-something mayor of a medium-size city, Buttigieg faced a credibility threshold with the national press. But he is also the kind of person journalists tend to like: bookish, somehow earnest with a sense of irony, and willing to talk the way journalists like people to talk, playing the pundit and getting into the political process and discussing his own ambitions. And although Smith would never say it, it plays on political reporters’ narcissism, too. Well, of course someone running for president would need to talk about it with me first, right?
“It’s about getting to know people and them getting to know you,” Buttigieg says when I see him after the Brooklyn fundraiser, where he at least pretends to recall our earlier meeting and what we talked about. He’s on his way into a black car to do Maddow. “It’s a local-politics mentality to find the people that are going to be telling this story, and if nothing else, making sure they have a real understanding of who you are. There is only so much you can do to bare your soul over a beer, but hopefully people get to know you on some level and more than they would one gaggle at a time.”
Before they get in the car, I ask Buttigieg if Smith is being helpful in his campaign. He shoots her a look and gives a mock shrug, as if it’s an inside joke between the three of us, now old chums: “I mean, a little … I guess.”
As voters look for someone who can beat Trump, the fact that the press corps appears to vouch for this curious character, a young liberal red-state mayor, means that voters can give him a second look too. And the fact that he’s everywhere, from cable TV to Ebony to your local NPR show to your favorite sports podcast, means that a guy with no name recognition is suddenly hard to avoid.
“Lis knew that she had to build wide to build up,” said Stephanie Cutter, who also worked on Obama’s 2012 effort. “Pete’s hitting at this moment in part because of the legwork they did. Regular voters and the media were primed for it.”
Buttigieg makes an appearance on “The View.” | Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images
Now that they have achieved liftoff, as it were, Smith is preparing for the next part of the campaign. Her plan is to emulate maybe the best-known and most successful insurgent move of recent campaign history: John McCain’s 2000 Straight Talk Express. Smith has been exploring the idea of renting a bus, and just as McCain did, inviting reporters aboard to travel and fire away at Buttigieg with any question they want, all day, day after day. Smith has been studying the effort, reaching out to reporters who were there, and has been in regular contact with John Weaver, who helped engineer it.
“I am a liberal Democrat, but I was so into the McCain thing. I romanticize it. I have talked to all the guys who see in the shots. I fucking love John McCain. Why do I fucking love John McCain? Because he was a badass. He was out there. He was going up against George Bush, who had $50 million and he had $4 million, and so he just decides to tear up the playbook and put himself out there. And if people like it they like it, and if they don’t they were probably never going to vote for you anyway.”
Weaver says that recreating that atmosphere in the days of Twitter, and in the days when the national political press corps has metastasized into a constantly hungry and multiheaded beast equipped with cell phones, is 10 times harder than when his team tried it in 1999. But it has a clear parallel to Smith’s relentless scheduling of meetings between Buttigieg and reporters—an audaciously direct way to connect with reporters that bouth the campaign pretty good press.
“It’s really hard to do a hit piece on a guy who you are going to see the next morning over coffee and donuts,” says Weaver. “It takes the edge off a bit. Maybe a story that would be 80-20 bad you can get down to 60-40 bad, and that little bit is worth it.”
Smith says that’s worth it. That even in the age of Twitter, that especially in the age of Twitter, people don’t really care about gaffes. They just get swallowed up by the next news cycle, and never reach the voters who matter anyway. “Politics has a bias toward the status quo,” she says. “People get stuck in a rut because something worked last cycle, and so they think it will work this cycle and it doesn’t. You have to know the social media ecosystem, how people are sharing and consuming their news. It’s why in one day we do CBS Sunday Morning, The View, Teen Vogue and the New Yorker. It’s about hustling for opportunities. Pete has no battle scars.
“It pisses me off,” she adds, “When candidates think they are too good for some of these outlets, or that it cheapens them to do TMZ or do a more entertainment-focused thing. No, actually, it shows a fundamental disrespect for the people who consume their news on this platform if you aren’t willing to go where they are.”
After the fundraiser, Smith and Buttigieg climb into an SUV and head to 30 Rock. Smith starts texting me, wanting to know if I’d seen the celebrities in the audience, including George Takei, Kal Penn and Kate McKinnon. She wants to know if I’d seen Buttigieg answer a question about the Notre Dame fire from a French TV station, in French.
“Can I tell you something very off the record,” she texts.
Of course, I reply.
She never texts back.
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