I didn’t exactly raise my hand and shout “I want to work for the devil!” but I ended up doing his bidding anyway. Ironically, more than a few people told me I was doing the Lord’s work. I knew better than that. I wasn’t saving anyone’s soul or leading them to Jesus. But, I did believe I was saving the country.
Saving the country was a goal that I thought I could achieve by putting good people in office. So, I started a political consulting firm in Texas called the Magnolia Group, a “special forces team” for political campaigns and causes. We rooted for the underdog. We made the impossible happen. I could do all of these things because I believed that politics represented the greatest ideals of our society.
Most of my efforts were with people running for the United States Congress. But I also worked with those vying for judge, sheriff, senator, governor, and even those trying to be president of the United States.
One of the best ways to get someone elected is to raise a bunch of money. So, that’s what I did. President Bill Clinton’s finance director wrestled an alligator for a $15,000 contribution, a stunt that made him famous overnight and he is now the Governor of Virginia. But my climb as a fundraiser was not as death defying as his. Instead of wrestling gators, I could be found doing less sexy tasks like sitting in front of a computer, studying contributor data into the early morning hours.
How did I raise millions of dollars? I became the girl who believed there wasn’t enough money in the system. Seriously. It’s common to hear people say “I hate asking for money.” But, I didn’t hate asking for money. I loved it. I would say “Not enough people participate. There’s too little money. There needs to be more money. More investors—not less.” I believed every word that I was saying. No one doubted my sincerity. People gave me obscene amounts of money. My talk. Their money. Together we were saving our country.
At one meeting of potential donors, I not only defended Governor Mitt Romney’s remarks about “corporations are people,” I defended him because I thought he was right. By the time I was done elaborating everyone in the room agreed and concluded their business couldn’t afford not to get involved--which meant they gave me large sums of both personal and corporate money.
My clients almost always had large campaign chests because of our efforts. And if they didn’t have the ability to raise money, we didn’t want them. An underperforming client simply consumed too much time without benefiting our bottom line - or theirs. Our hard work paid off. In the first six months of my firm’s operations, our bonus checks were larger than my previous year’s salary when I’d been a congressional campaign staffer.
Here’s the fatal paradox: it was my success in growing the Magnolia Group from a start-up to a successful and influential national political consulting firm that transformed my understanding of the real world of politics. I’d been in that world for years, making one little compromise after another before I realized that I was in a world that no one tells you about and that the media fails to cover. It’s a world none of us want to want to believe in – me least of all.
Magnolia Group’s typical client was successful in business and wanted to serve the country through elected office. They dreamed of giving back and making a difference…this was our honeymoon phase. Over the years, I watched my clients slowly transform from those awkward candidates I fervently believed in to slick politicians. I envisioned them becoming great statesmen, but not one of them went that direction. Instead as time passed, they moved closer and closer to the line between right and wrong, until working on the edge became routine and the line itself began to fade.
As I began to question whether any of my work made a difference, I was filled with an unexplained restless energy. Maybe this true-believer was worn out with her do-gooder ways and I began to strongly consider converting to cynicism. If it hadn’t been for Congressman Kenny Marchant, a Republican from Texas, I might have buried my energy underneath a couple of piles of cash and become just another hack socking away the dough.
But Kenny Marchant, a man I helped put into office, saved me. Sort of. Marchant was so arrogant, so self-serving and so greedy that even my hyped-up idealism couldn’t stand up against him. He doubled his net worth to $50 million during the economic collapse. He did plenty of other things I didn’t approve of, but hadn’t every congressman? I’m not convinced that Marchant deserves the credit. Maybe it was Grant Stinchfield, a brash young newscaster who thought he could defeat an incumbent.
The first time I met Grant Stinchfield was over a cup of coffee in a noisy café in Dallas. He was running late and came dressed in a grey North Face pullover. Most of my clients hadn’t ventured past dark suits and ties. “Hey, sorry for being late. If we work together, I’ll value your time. Promise,” Grant said before sitting down. Apologizing for making me wait was a new line that hadn’t been used on me before.
Grant dove right in as he was eager to talk about his plans of taking his investigative skills to Washington to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse. Never quick to encourage someone to run for office, I spent the next couple of hours quizzing Grant as I usually try to talk them out of it.
I wasn’t the only one with questions though. Grant sounded just like the reporter he was—grilling me too. We were interviewing each other for several hours. We agreed more than we disagreed, both believing Washington is broken and in the need of fundamental changes in the way our elected officials thought about the way they worked.
I came at Grant like a typical insider and shot down just about everything he had to say. “How would you get things done? Legislation passed? Secure good committee assignments? Get other Members of Congress on your side?”
Grant said he wanted to be accountable to his constituents and not worry about his colleagues. He would like to be on a good committee but thought that should take a back seat to “exposing Washington” and “informing and motivating the public to take action.” I thought he was naive and maybe a bit crazy but I continued our meeting because I was intrigued.
“Exposing Washington, particularly as a congressman, is not going to be popular,” I told Grant. “In fact, they may hate you.” And as I listened to Grant, I realized he would be true to his mission given that he wasn’t going into this to be “liked” by those in Washington.
I wanted to learn more about Grant. “So, how did you get into the news business?” I asked, testing his bio to see if I could sell it to voters. He told me that after college he returned home to New York to join his father in working for the family construction business. After a physically and mentally draining work day, Grant came home and crashed on the couch. “All I could think is I can’t keep doing this. I turned on the TV, the news was on, and thought but I could do that!”
“A news anchor?” I asked him, thinking his younger self must have been a bit arrogant—but bold too. I liked it. “Investigative reporter” he said with a bit of a laugh, reading my thoughts as I summed up his ego.
The thing that especially impressed me about the story was that Grant didn’t listen to the outsiders and detractors who doubted the possibility that he could be a TV reporter. He made a video and sent it out to over 300 new stations across the country, and the folks in Missoula, Montana believed in him and offered him his dream job. He packed his bags and never looked back.
Over the years, Grant climbed the ladder. “I was proud to be a part of the news business,” he told me. And I didn’t doubt him when he said “Investigative reporting made me feel like I was making a difference.”
Before Grant knew it, he had made it to the number four media market in the country working for NBC5 in Dallas. I learned he became a four-time Emmy award-winning journalist for his investigative pieces. Because of his work, Texas laws were changed regarding the protection of people from identity theft, long before it became a “hot” topic. I was impressed and thought voters would be too.
Grant shared the infectious enthusiasm of a fellow true-believer. We imagined transforming the political world. And boy, did we imagine big. We dreamed and spoke of a world where Republicans no longer lost the PR battle; they would lead it. It would be a world where Republicans could make their point without being angry… a world where Republicans would focus more on energy and immigration plans than on abortion and birth control. No doubt, we were getting carried away.
“I’d go straight to the American public. Empower them and demand meaningful change,” Grant said enthusiastically. We were excited and ideas kept flowing.
“I’ll go on Rachel Maddow and light her up!” he declared, embracing the opportunity to share his conservative message instead of running from reporters. Drawing on his experience as a reporter, he believed that as a politician he would be able to tell his story to so many people that meaningful reform and legislative accomplishments would follow.
Taking Grant Stinchfield as a client would not only mean professionally pitting my firm against a former client Congressman Kenny Marchant, but worse, challenging a Republican congressman in a Republican primary. Ronald Reagan declared “thou shall not talk ill of a fellow Republican” and somewhere along the way this became known as “the 11th commandment.” Yet, here I was, possibly about to commit the very sin that would result in ex-communication from the Church of the Republican Party and its members.
As I painstakingly premeditated going against the old guard, I reached the same conclusion each and every time: if I believed in our political system, I had to protect it. If I believed the person in office was not doing a good job, I should work to elect someone better.
They tried to keep me a part of their faithful flock. Congressman Marchant’s Chief of Staff, Brian, called. I knew him well from my days on the hill and worked with him years afterward. Although we had a long conversation, the message was simple and concise. He warned me in no uncertain terms that we insiders don’t go against each other. Period.
Wanting to make sure I understood his counsel, Brian, who in addition to being a chief of staff, owned a high-end beauty salon, reiterated his advice in an email:
“You have worked very hard to build your firm the Magnolia Group. You have come a long way and I have always been shocked and impressed with you. You have built a good, solid business. You have a great reputation. You know national politics, local politics, and state politics.
It’s different going against a well-liked incumbent- you know that. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is. It's a very risky venture. Could he or anyone beat Kenny in the primary? The honest and truthful answer is no.
I know you well. If I didn't care about you, I promise I would have slept better last night.
If you want to talk, I will keep my Kenny hat off and talk to you as a makeup store owner who does have a little knowledge of politics left in him. If you choose to help him, you still have my respect and friendship. Brian”
Re-reading the email, quite a bit was missing. Brian didn’t once say “Kenny Marchant is the best darn Congressman! We need to keep him up here!” Brian didn’t give me a laundry list of the Congressman’s accomplishments. He didn’t argue with me about the Congressman losing his way. None of that was in his email or our phone conversations. Instead, Brian put his energy into telling me how the deck was stacked against me for daring to take on “one of our own” in a primary. What we believed was best for our country was never brought into the conversation.
Excited about someone wanting to do things differently, Grant wooed me into wanting to be a part of his campaign for Congress. Brian was right. I really did know better. But Marchant’s sleaze and Stinchfield’s fresh-faced idealism somehow tipped me over. So, when Stinchfield came to the Magnolia Group and asked us to manage his campaign against Marchant, I did the unthinkable and committed the sin. I said yes. I said I’d break the 11th commandment and take on an incumbent United States congressman. I knew I was violating the political insider code. I knew my political friends would be horrified. I knew I was in for a rough ride. But I didn’t know the half of how bad it was going to get. Before that campaign ended, I’d find myself stripped of every ideal I’d ever had about politics. I’d be forced to realize that the real losers in American politics are the American people.
As a courtesy, I called Brian and got voice mail. He simply responded with another email.
“I was disappointed in your decision. After a discussion with my wife, I informed Kenny that I was returning to work full-time and putting my personal goals and plans aside. I have the greatest respect for him as a Christian, a friend, and as a Congressman. It's a small sacrifice on my part to help him win this campaign. Brian”
When politicians and their groupies begin sharing how Christian someone is and how God is on their side, ironically, that’s the moment when I know they’ve begun operating on the wrong side of things. Hopefully, God is too busy to hear about all these good Christian politicians ripping off His people. On Election Day, the tax-payers may not be as forgiving, I hoped.
What did the taxpayers think about Congressman Marchant paying his Chief of Staff a big fat salary when Brian owned and focused his time on his beauty business? By keeping Brian on the payroll, even though he worked part time, the congressman allowed his top aide to continue to earn tenure for his federal pension plan. Ultimately, Brian will retire with an annual pension providing him more than six figures for the rest of his life. Even more, what kind of logic was at work that allowed Brian to suggest that by doing his job, one that the Congressman hired him for was a small sacrifice?
Congressman Marchant and his team pulled back the curtain and revealed to me that being a bully pays off and that there's not much elected officials won't do to hold on to their power. I am sharing my story to expose what's behind the politicians' curtains from an insider's perspective. Let me be clear though, Congressman Marchant is not unique among Congressmen. This could have easily been any race where a fresh, energetic challenger took on an incumbent.
It's becoming more common and accepted that incumbents prioritize seniority over merit, and secrecy over transparency and their paychecks over ours. And the biggest lie tells us that there is nothing we can do about the way our elected officials operate. I am here to tell you otherwise. My goal is to arm Americans with insider knowledge and to shed light on the political world in Washington D.C. that isn't talked about - the one where congressmen quietly increase their power while decreasing the peoples' power.
The media told me they can't cover such a story because they weren't willing to go against a Congressman - Kenny Marchant - a Congressman that they thought would end up winning anyway. They thought it was too much to risk. I didn't. But then again, I lost that bet.
Who would the voters choose if they had the full story on those representing them? Grant? Only 60,000 people voted in that election. If more Americans thought they could change the ways things are going, would they decide to vote instead of stay home? I am telling my story to hear what you think.