Credit: Peter Ryan

In 1987, a young campaign consultant to Mayor Harold Washington urged him to hold off on attacking his challenger, Jane Byrne, until late in the race. Washington edged Byrne, and the consultant, David Axelrod, went on to advise candidates across the nation before becoming the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s campaign.

Candidates for public office once relied almost exclusively on volunteers in their campaigns. But Axelrod’s work more than 20 years ago underscores the benefit that professional help can bring a candidate for mayor. Strategists and consultants often operate behind the curtain, arranging photo ops and appearances, drafting policy papers, and creating and placing ads while the boss gets the headlines. 

Here, we take you behind the scenes with profiles of the campaign managers and strategists working the mayoral race. Like Axelrod in 1987, they aren’t grizzled veterans: All of those we talked with are younger than 45 except for Miguel del Valle’s campaign manager, Bruce Embrey, who’s 52. The youngest, Scott Fairchild, who’s managing Rahm Emanuel’s campaign, is only 32. Most of these campaign pros are from the Chicago area, but del Valle, Emanuel, and Danny Davis plucked their campaign managers from out of state. 

Six of the seven campaign pros we spoke with are men. “Even though there are female candidates, there aren’t always female [strategists] to hire,” says Terrie Pickerill, a strategist for Gery Chico and the lone woman in our story. “It’s a male dominated world, and . . . it’s hard to break through that. But I do think we’re making progress. Women are coming up through the ranks now and learning the trade.” She pointed to Anita Dunn, a key strategist in the Obama campaign (and White House communications director in 2009). “She’s paving the way for other women, and there are a handful of others I can think of.”

Though these are sketches of the campaign workers themselves, you’ll note them succumbing on occasion to the temptation to sneak in a few words about their clients—all of whom happen to be way above average. —Steve Bogira

Mike Noonan scored his first campaign wins as a political strategist during his undergraduate days at American University in Washington, D.C., when he ran his fraternity brother’s successful bids for student body vice president and president. Noonan, now 42, has helped guide many others to victory since then—including former Cook County Board president Todd Stroger, Cook County commissioner Jeff Tobolski, and state representative-elect Ann Williams, who was Noonan’s ex-wife when he ran her campaign last year. Now he’s managing the mayoral campaign of former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun.

“I’m just a regular political hack,” he says. “I like the competition, the feeling of victory, the battle we can engage in, and that at the end of the day there’s a clear winner. People can say you won because of this factor or that, but you either win or you lose, and I enjoy that—putting my best effort out there and knowing on Election Day if it worked or not.”

Noonan grew up in the southern suburb of Glenwood in an Irish Catholic family. He had four athletic brothers, which he says helped inspire his competitive streak. (Noonan himself played soccer but “not so good.”) After graduating from American in 1991, he worked in Mississippi with Habitat for Humanity, then returned to Illinois in 1993 to run the congressional campaign of Democratic state represenative Clem Balanoff. Balanoff lost in the primary, but he helped Noonan get a job in Springfield—until 2001, he was the legislative coordinator for the House Democratic caucus. He was Lisa Madigan’s campaign manager for her successful bid for Illinois attorney general in 2002. Then he took a job in the government relations department at the Chicago office of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig. Eager to be his own boss, in 2005 he created the Roosevelt Group, a lobbying firm, and its spin-off, Roosevelt Media, which handles newsletters and mailings for companies and political campaigns. The media side of the business is handling the Braun campaign.

Noonan met Braun once in the 1990s, but he didn’t really know her before becoming her campaign manager. He relies on word-of-mouth for business: “I don’t go out there and hawk my wares so people will come and hire us.” He wasn’t searching for a mayoral campaign to keep himself busy; he says he’d hoped to spend the winter watching Bears football and working with the Roosevelt Group’s lobbying clients. In September, Braun campaign chair and treasurer Billie Paige, whom he’d known since his Springfield days, invited him to meet with Braun. Paige says of Noonan, “He’s as intense a human being—when running a campaign or lobbying—as I’ve ever known, which is probably why he wins.”

Noonan says he was impressed with Braun’s charisma. Braun has a “natural talent” for politics, he says. “She connects with regular people by the way she communicates. She makes people feel welcome and interested in what they have to say.”

Noonan also looks for candidates who share his philosophy of campaign strategy and tactics. He doesn’t want to get bogged down in disputes or worry about multiple points of view leading to stalemates. He believes collaboration is essential, and that a strong campaign requires a group of advisers representing different constituencies to develop policy recommendations. But if the group can’t reach agreement, the campaign manager has to step in and make a decision, he says. “I don’t see it as everybody needs to meet in the middle, but we have to resolve the question. I want to resolve the question, and then I want to hold everyone accountable to executing.”

For Braun, Noonan insisted on being more than a manager who executes someone else’s plan—he also wanted to play a major role in developing strategy. “That’s what was most appealing about this opportunity—the chance to come in and shape the whole enchilada,” he says.

A core group of seven or eight advisers regularly meets to discuss policy and make key decisions, but Noonan keeps them all on the same page, and also makes sure rank-and-file staffers finish their assignments. “I see my main job as making sure all the parts of the campaign are moving us closer to victory—making sure people get their jobs done, are accountable, are sticking to the plan,” he says. “And then also keeping a level head so as bombs get thrown, or issues arise, people stay focused on doing their tasks.” Ultimately, Braun signs off on every policy position and major decision.

Noonan’s finding his first Chicago mayoral campaign to be “a slow and steady grind.” He’s helping Braun position herself as the people’s candidate and the alternative to what he calls “the same old insiders who have been at the trough.” With front-runner Emanuel attracting the bulk of media attention, Noonan’s not counting on the press to deliver Braun’s victory. “We’re going to earn this victory in the streets of Chicago.”

—Lauri Apple

In 2009 Bruce Embrey, a carpenter and veteran Chicago campaign worker, moved back to his home town, Los Angeles, for personal reasons. Last autumn he got a call from a friend, Chicago city clerk Miguel del Valle.

“He said, ‘Where are you?'” Embrey recalls. “I said, ‘LA.’ He said, ‘Are you coming back?’ I said, ‘If you’re running for mayor.'”

Del Valle was, and so Embrey returned to Chicago in October, crashed in a friend’s apartment in Logan Square, and started working seven days a week as del Valle’s campaign manager.

“I am your classic do-gooder,” says Embrey, 52. “I realized long ago that the most effective way to bring about change is getting good people elected to office. It’s the most effective way I can contribute to the community. I do it out of a sense of social justice. I don’t do it for money or fame or glory.”

That’s fortunate, because not much money or fame or glory has come from his efforts. Political work has never been a major source of his income. He’s self-employed as a carpenter, making ends meet by doing home repair and renovations. Since he first moved to Chicago 30 years ago, he’s worked for many underfunded, underdog politicians who generally can’t afford to pay him. Del Valle’s paying him in this campaign, but Embrey says it’s not much. “Miguel believes in a living-wage ordinance,” Embrey says with a laugh.

Embrey says he got his sense of social justice from his mother, a union activist for the United Teachers Los Angeles and the United Farm Workers. After a year or two of college, he worked in various labor campaigns in California and knocked around the country before settling in Chicago in 1980.

In 1983 he was a precinct coordinator in Uptown for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign. It was his first major campaign in Chicago and he loved it—especially because Washington won. The election, and his work on it, showed him that “the average joe” had political power, he says. Three years later he oversaw door-to-door precinct operations in Little Village in Jesus Garcia’s successful aldermanic campaign. He also worked that year for Luis Gutierrez in the fabled 26th ward aldermanic special against Manny Torres in Humboldt Park and Logan Square. That’s the one where control of the city council hinged on the outcome and forces loyal to Mayor Washington backed Gutierrez (now a congressman) while Alderman Ed Vrdolyak sent in his troops to support Torres. Gutierrez won.

Embrey was a precinct coordinator for Rey Colon in 2003, lining up the volunteers who went door-to-door throughout the ward in Colon’s upset win over 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom. The following year he coordinated 11 northwest-side wards for Barack Obama’s U.S. senate campaigns in the Democratic primary and the general election. He also volunteered for Obama in Hammond, Indiana, in the 2008 presidential race.

In his campaign work, Embrey has opposed some of the most powerful political bosses in Chicago, including former aldermen Richard Mell and the late Vito Marzullo, and 31st Ward Democratic committeeman Joe Berrios. He sees himself, and del Valle, as reformers who believe that government should help people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Del Valle was a state senator until 2006 when Mayor Daley appointed him city clerk to fill a vacancy after the previous clerk, Jim Laski, went to federal prison for bribery. In 2007 del Valle was elected to a full term. Embrey says he wasn’t troubled that del Valle took the appointment from Daley: “He wanted a change in his career and I think he did a great job cleaning up the clerk’s office.”

Embrey says his specialty is finding other like-minded reformers and talking them into volunteering for whatever campaign he’s working on. His main role within the campaign is a traditional one: organizing volunteers into teams that go door-to-door with polling sheets, trying to identify supporters and win converts. On Election Day the canvassers return to make sure their supporters turn out to vote. In any campaign, Embrey says, “The key is wearing out shoe leather.”

This campaign may be one of his greatest challenges. It’s not clear that del Valle has much support beyond Humboldt Park and Logan Square; a poll last week conducted for the Chicago Teamsters by the Anzalone Liszt research firm placed him fourth in the race, with just 7 percent. Emanuel, the front-runner, had 42 percent. Embrey says he still believes he can bring out enough del Valle voters to get him into the runoff. He says del Valle will do well with progressive whites and Hispanics, and with black voters old enough to remember that del Valle was a strong ally of Mayor Washington.

“I know it’s a long shot,” he says. “But we’re going to outwork them.”

What will he do if del Valle doesn’t win? “My guy’s not losing. I’m just thinking about one thing—winning this election.”

But losing wouldn’t crush him. “When you lose,” he says, “you dust yourself off and you move on.”

Ben Joravsky

“Building a campaign is an enthralling thing,” says strategist Ken Snyder. “You start it with nothing, and all of a sudden you’ve got a campaign headquarters, and a bunch of desks, and a bunch of high-energy people, and thousands of volunteers, and you’re raising hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, and it’s operating all at once. And it’s like this big giant business that you’re growing, and growing, and growing—and you crash it all into the ground in one day. And the only way you can be successful is if you capture 51 percent of the market. That’s an incredibly exciting, almost addictive thing.”

Snyder and Terrie Pickerill, the two partners in the Snyder Pickerill Media Group, are hoping to capture the majority of the “market” for Gery Chico—after they get him into a runoff. Chico has a long resumé in government: He worked his way up from a planning department internship to Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and also served as president of the board of the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District, and chair of the City Colleges board. But he’s run for office only once—for U.S. Senate in 2004, an election Barack Obama won. Chico finished fifth in the Democratic primary.

Snyder, 44, and Pickerill, 38, on the other hand, are electoral politics lifers. They run a “full-service political media firm specializing in designing and delivering the best message to meet your campaign’s goals,” as their website says.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Snyder worked as a volunteer on the 1988 campaigns of Jesse Jackson for president and Herb Kohl for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. (Kohl won.) He took his first paid political job on Illinois Senator Paul Simon’s successful reelection campaign in 1990, and then joined the Clinton campaign in 1992, first as an organizer in Winnebago County and later traveling with the campaign’s advance team. Snyder followed Clinton to D.C. for a position in the Education Department’s Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, but left to serve as the communications director for Kohl’s successful 1994 reelection campaign. He went on to government jobs with Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and with mayors in Philadelphia and D.C. He also managed the late John Stroger’s reelection as Cook County Board president in 1998.

“You get caught up in the emotion of winning,” Snyder says about campaign work. “You believe in a guy, you sweat and you bleed and you dream about the guy at night. My DNA is campaigns.”

Pickerill interned for Dawn Clark Netsch in the state comptroller’s office, and her first job out of college was as a volunteer coordinator on Netsch’s unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial campaign. “It’s about electing good people to office,” Pickerill says about her work. “Netsch would have been a great governor. That was a horrible loss.” Later Pickerill worked for David Axelrod’s political consulting group for 13 years. She’s worked on mayoral campaigns in Houston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, mostly developing TV and radio ads. She says there’s a “personal” dynamic in mayor’s races that appeals to her. For voters, mayoral elections, even more than most elections, are “about getting to know who a candidate is,” and the job of strategists is “introducing” their candidates to voters. “You want to give people an idea of what their values are.”

Pickerill and Snyder met while working for Axelrod on John Schmidt’s unsuccessful 1997 gubernatorial campaign, and both cite him as a mentor. Pickerill says Axelrod taught her how to tell a story in a 30-second ad, and the importance of “not being too slick” with ads. Snyder’s commercials for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez were deemed “brilliant” by the Reader‘s Mick Dumke, and a reason Alvarez, a political unknown, was able to win her race in 2008. One commercial showed her dressing her kids for the cold while a voice-over described her as “a little overprotective”—a segue into her career as a prosecutor. “We did a good job enabling her to make a connection with voters,” Snyder says. “Every time you win an upset, you start with the candidate.”

Snyder sees Alvarez’s victory as a good omen for Chico. She trailed in early polls and ended up with only 25 percent in the Democratic primary, but with six candidates running, that was enough for the nomination, and then she cruised in the general election. Snyder says the crowded field in the mayor’s race makes a runoff likely, and that Chico will be in it.

He and Pickerill acknowledge they have an uphill battle, given Emanuel’s name recognition and the media attention he gets, but they argue that his campaign has little room for growth. “He’s sitting at 99 percent name ID,” Snyder says. “He’s as well known as Mayor Daley is. What else can he possibly tell about himself that’s going to be so interesting and so new that voters are going to say, en masse, ‘We have to leave our traditional voting bases and go with that guy’?”

It reminds Snyder of the opponent that his mentor Axelrod—and Emanuel’s White House boss—faced in the 2008 Democratic primary. Emanuel, Snyder says, is “the most inevitable [winning] candidate since Hillary Clinton.”

Whet Moser

Like many professional campaign workers, Scott Fairchild is used to staying in the background. “I’m not very comfortable talking about myself,” he says. But he agreed to do so briefly.

Fairchild, 32, grew up in a New York City suburb on Long Island. He was a high school track star, with a 4:15 mile to his credit. In 2000 he graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a double major in government and history and plans to do something in Democratic politics. Two years later he worked for Matt Dunne, a friend of a friend who was running for state senate in Vermont. “It was a tough neck of the woods for a Democrat,” Fairchild says, but Dunne won. Fairchild did “a little bit of everything” in the campaign and loved the race’s “intensity.”

His work for Dunne attracted the attention of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who was exploring a run for the presidency. Kerry asked Fairchild to direct a mayor’s race in New Hampshire, and after that candidate won, Fairchild stayed in New Hampshire to work on Kerry’s primary campaign. He headed the Kerry campaign in Toledo against George W. Bush.

In 2005 Fairchild worked for Timothy Kaine, who was running for governor of Virginia. Kaine won. In 2006 he managed the campaign of Patrick Murphy, who was seeking a congressional seat in a largely Republican district just outside of Philadelphia. As with most of the candidates Fairchild works for, Murphy was a centrist Democratic who was looking to find common ground with independents and moderate Republicans. Aided by a large get-out-the-vote effort orchestrated by Fairchild, Murphy squeaked by incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick. Fairchild stayed on to work as Murphy’s chief of staff.

It was during Murphy’s campaign that Fairchild met Emanuel, who was overseeing congressional campaigns throughout the country as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Fairchild found Emanuel to be “very hardworking and focused.”

In 2008 Fairchild took a leave of absence from Murphy’s staff to manage Bill Foster’s successful congressional run in the special election to fill out the term of Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert, who’d retired.

Fairchild then returned to work as Murphy’s chief of staff. That’s what he was doing in September, when Emanuel asked him to manage his mayoral campaign.

“I was happy to get involved,” he says. “I love Rahm. He’s tough and he’s hard-nosed. But he’s got people around him who are very loyal.” Congressman Murphy, in the middle of his own campaign for reelection when Fairchild left for Chicago, was defeated in November.

Fairchild doesn’t see Emanuel as a centrist. “I think more than anything he’s somebody who can get the job done. I don’t think he fits any easy label.”

Like Emanuel, Fairchild only has nine full fingers. He’s missing his right thumb—it was amputated when he was young due to an infection. Emanuel lost half of the middle finger of his right hand at age 17 to a meat slicer and a subsequent infection.

Fairchild says he’s not the master strategist in the campaign so much as the coordinator who implements the strategy and makes sure everybody is doing their jobs. He says Emanuel is his own chief strategist. But Emanuel has also retained the services of Axelrod’s old firm, AKPD Message and Media. Buffy Wicks, a vice president of the firm and a major grassroots organizer in the Obama campaign, is a key strategist for Emanuel. She also worked as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Obama. The spokesperson for the Emanuel campaign is Ben Labolt, nicknamed “lightning bolt” for his fast responses to questions from reporters and attacks from the opposition.

Emanuel is expected to raise more money than any of his opponents, which will enable him to spend heavily on TV and radio commercials and Internet ads. Most of the field staff will be set up in conjunction with Emanuel’s local supporters, who include Aldermen Richard Mell (33rd) and Patrick O’Connor (40th) and former alderman William Banks (36th).

In other words, the bosses will send out the campaign workers on Emanuel’s behalf and Emanuel will blanket TV and radio with commercials as Election Day nears.

Fairchild says he loves the competition of a campaign—and the winning. The hard part is being on the road. His home is in Washington, D.C. “The special challenge here is that the campaign is shorter,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

Speaking of which—”I’ve got a meeting to get to.”

Ben Joravsky

Bryan Zises was looking for an opening. I was watching him instruct in a dojo in Ravenswood, as he’d suggested. He fought patiently, waiting for the momentary advantage needed to flip an opponent. It happened repeatedly. He’s clearly proud of the black belt around his waist.

“The whole point of judo,” he told me during a break, “is to use your opponent’s weight and energy and effort against them. If they’re pushing you, let them push. You pull. You don’t push back.” He said it was the approach he brought to his work; he runs a public relations firm, Zises Strategic Communications, that was handling communications for the mayoral campaign of state senator James Meeks.

I first met Zises in early December, in the former Roseland Mental Health Clinic at State and 112th Place, not far from the church that Meeks has led since 1985. It was being transformed into Meeks’s campaign headquarters. The rooms were sparse but construction was under way, and volunteers were already working the phones.

“Being driven by profit doesn’t make much sense to me,” Zises, 42, told me. He was born in Brooklyn, and came here to attend the University of Chicago. He captained the swim team, chaired the DOC Films club, and wrote columns for the Maroon, the student paper, often attacking the national press for its soft coverage of the Reagan administration.

Zises linked his passion for politics to his family history. His grandfather, a government official in the 1950s, was accused by Joseph McCarthy of being a Soviet spy, which Zises says was “preposterous.” The ensuing persecution wounded his mother, and a lesson was passed along to him, he says: “Politics can really impact people’s lives.”

After graduating in 1990, he worked on several Illinois campaigns, including the failed 1994 gubernatorial bid of Richard Phelan. Then his love of movies led him to USC’s film school for a master’s degree, followed by a brief stint as a Hollywood producer. But he didn’t like the industry’s culture. “There were people there who had worked for seven, eight, nine years and had never made a film,” he said. (He himself made “a couple of bad features.”) He returned to Chicago in the late 90s.

Since then, Zises has worked mainly in public relations, including a tour as communications director for the Chicago Housing Authority. He managed communications for Danny Solis’s 2007 reelection as 25th Ward alderman, Cesar Santoy’s successful run for alderman in Berwyn in 2009, and, most recently, state representative Art Turner’s campaign last year for lieutenant governor. (Though Turner lost, he is “now a household name,” according to the website for Zises’s firm, and “positioned to be a significant influencer of future elections for years to come. It is an important example of how losing can actually be a winning move.”)

Zises says he didn’t know Meeks before “a friend of a friend” put him in touch with the state senator shortly after he announced his candidacy. He says he found a kindred spirit in Meeks, a person dedicated to addressing the roots of social problems. “Nobody else is talking about architecture,” Zises told me in December; the other candidates were merely “talking about rearranging the drapes.” He also said Meeks’s career showed him to be a person of action. “I prefer action to rhetoric,” Zises said. “Which is weird, because I’m in the rhetoric business.”

But in mid-December, with the campaign already flagging, the state senator was tripped up by his own rhetoric when he suggested on a radio show that only African-Americans should benefit from minority contract set-aside programs. The comment generated much criticism, and on December 23, Meeks announced he was dropping out of the race.

Zises declined to say how he felt personally about Meeks’s withdrawal. But he said it didn’t mean the campaign was for naught. The issues Meeks raised would continue to be discussed, he said: “Candidacies and campaigns are vehicles for issues, and the issues are bigger than the campaign.”

Would he rule out working for somebody else in the mayor’s race? “No, I wouldn’t rule that out at all.”

John Santore

Last fall, Jason Perkey managed two campaigns in his home town, Louisville, and got a split decision. He helped one candidate win a seat on the Louisville metro council, but his candidate for state senate came up short. The week of Thanksgiving, Perkey packed his bags, drove to Chicago, and moved into a West Loop studio apartment just steps from the Lake Street offices of Congressman Danny Davis, whose mayoral campaign he’d agreed to manage.

Perkey, 36, has a mild southern accent, an expansive demeanor, and only two years’ experience in electoral politics. In a wide-ranging career, he’s taught English, Spanish, and political science in Spain, started an environmental justice nonprofit at his Vermont law school, and worked for the National Whistleblowers Center, representing FBI agents and other government workers who spoke out about government wrongdoing related to national security matters.

In 2008 a friend asked him to join the Obama campaign in Virginia. He worked as a field organizer, a paid position in which he registered voters and recruited and trained volunteers for canvassing. When he talked to voters he was registering, at first “I learned to tell my story. Then what I learned was to shut up. A lot of politicians and people in campaigns like to tell people what they think [they] want to hear—and then they just keep talking. What I learned was that in order for me to understand what was going on in the life of the individual I was talking with, I had to listen.”

Soon he realized that campaign work “was a calling for me”—he felt he was good at it, and he wanted to keep doing it. He organized a club for college Democrats on the Lynchburg campus of Liberty University—the school founded by Jerry Falwell. He got the chance to introduce Obama at a rally.

He likes working with “smart people” who “all have the same sort of vision and goal in mind. If it’s the right kind of campaign, it’s about something bigger than just the candidate.” The transition from practicing law was natural, he says. “You’ve got to be able to spot the issues that are facing the group of people that you’re around” and “do your research on those issues and on the community.”

Perkey met veteran Chicago activist Eddie Read, chairman of Chicago Black United Communities and the Black Independent Political Organization, when Read was in Virginia working on the Obama campaign. Read watched Perkey lead a training session for volunteers and came away impressed with Perkey’s grasp of technology—particularly his understanding of an electronic database system called VoteBuilder—and his “easiness with people.” The two became friends, and Read later recommended Perkey to Congressman Davis. Read thought Perkey’s tech prowess and youthfulness would be an asset for the 69-year-old Davis.

In mid-November, at Read’s invitation, Perkey flew to Washington to meet Davis. Perkey found Davis to be “stoic, deliberate, and one of the few people who thinks before he speaks that I’ve met in my life.” Perkey got a call from the congressman a few days later. Recounting that call, Perkey drops his voice to its lowest register, mimicking Davis’s slow, grandfatherly baritone: “‘We would like to engage with you.'”

It was a shorter engagement than Perkey had hoped. On New Year’s Eve, Davis withdrew from the race, throwing his support to Braun. Last week Perkey was still scrambling to help some Davis staffers shift into jobs with Braun’s campaign. He wasn’t interested in working for her campaign himself, but he was looking for a job here, because he’d decided he’d like to stay in Chicago. “Chicago is what Louisville wants to be,” he said.

The abrupt ending to his biggest political job yet “caught me off guard,” he said, “but that’s something I’ve got to be prepared for from time to time in campaigns. I’m going to move forward and do what’s next.” He hopes it’s campaign work. “If you hear about any jobs, let me know.”

Sam Worley