Confessions of a Political Swashbuckler

Lis Smith is not your grandfather’s political consultant.

She’s unafraid to throw elbows, even at her own party, but she’s also introspective — and unapologetic about what she believes Democrats need to do to win.

As a political gun for hire, Smith has worked in communications for a series of high-profile names in Democratic politics: Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Pete Buttigieg, Claire McCaskill, Terry McAuliffe, Jon Corzine.

And in her new memoir, an examination of what she calls her “itinerant lifestyle” in politics, she doesn’t hesitate to speak frankly about them.

For example, as detailed in an excerpt published by Politico, she chronicles her experience helping defend Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York as sexual misconduct allegations mounted against him, and how she and other aides ended up feeling “betrayed and misled” by him.

Smith says she started the book — “Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story” — when she found herself with time on her hands during the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, when many people were stuck in their homes.

As someone who entered politics at age 20 without a handbook or manual, Smith also wrote the book, she said, for her younger self.

“It felt like jumping off a cliff,” recalled Smith, 39, who grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., and now lives in Manhattan’s West Village. “No one I knew had ever been a political operative.”

Smith, who has become something of a minor celebrity in political circles since then, said that she had been “forced into being more public” during her time dating Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York.

Manhattan’s voracious tabloid press dug into their relationship, hounding the two of them on vacation together and splashing photographs across the front pages. Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor for whom she was then working as a campaign spokeswoman, fired her as she became the story.

That searing experience, she said, while reinforcing that “it would drive me nuts, frankly, if I were in a more public-facing role,” helped her become a better consultant. She developed “a little more empathy” for the kinds of petty slights and media scrutiny candidates must endure on the modern campaign trail, she said.

In a chapter shared in advance of publication with The New York Times, Smith writes glowingly about the 2020 presidential run of Pete Buttigieg, who is now President Biden’s secretary of transportation.

Smith had barely heard of Buttigieg at first, and was initially wary. She describes texting an ex-boyfriend, a former state senator in Missouri named Jeff Smith, to ask him for a read on whether Buttigieg was, essentially, a jerk.

In a chapter called “The One,” she writes: “To my jaded political mind, no one could be 34 years old, floated in The New York Times as the first gay president, named as one of four future voices of the Democratic Party by Barack Obama, and not be” a pompous windbag. (She used stronger language.)

Smith’s observations about the now-40-year-old Buttigieg are especially interesting because they describe someone who may still be at the dawn of his national political career: Buttigieg is widely seen as in the mix for future White House or statewide bids.

His every move is watched carefully by the permanent is-he-running crowd in Washington, which is bored by the mundane reality of his day job and is constantly on the lookout for any sign of daylight between Buttigieg and once and possibly future campaign rivals, especially Vice President Kamala Harris.

Months after Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, moved to Michigan last year, for reasons Smith insists are personal rather than political, it attracted the notice of Politico’s West Wing Playbook, a tipsheet aimed at Beltway insiders.

Before his failed presidential run, Buttigieg was the mayor of South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana — a preposterously thin base from which to kick off a presidential run. Swing-state Michigan, Playbook noted, is a much better base from which to run as a Democrat than deep-red Indiana.

Still, Smith argued that “there’s no 4-D chess involved here.”

The Biden campaign made light of the problems Buttigieg tackled in South Bend, running a commercial mocking his work to improve sidewalks and traffic lights. Meanwhile, operatives with ties to Harris highlighted Buttigieg’s struggles with overhauling the police in South Bend, which became a far more serious problem for his candidacy.

But the fact that they took notice of Buttigieg at all speaks to his political talent, as well as Smith’s skill in helping position him to make a plausible run at winning the Iowa caucuses and perhaps — with better traction among Black voters, who mostly shunned him — the nomination itself.

Smith had Buttigieg flood the zone with interviews, to the point where one could hardly press play on a podcast even vaguely related to politics without hearing him discuss his time as an intelligence officer in the Navy or explain how he became fluent in Norwegian, all in his affectless, nice-guy Midwestern accent.

She acknowledges offering him bad advice in handling his work for the consulting giant McKinsey, which became fodder for opposition researchers who dug into the firm’s work for a company embroiled in a price-fixing scandal in Canada and other projects.

But even this self-deprecating anecdote functions as praise of Buttigieg. Smith recounts counseling him to break his nondisclosure agreement with McKinsey, but says he overruled her, saying he had given his word.

Smith’s most pointed observations on Buttigieg come in discussing how, in her view, the political press bobbled the coverage of his sexuality. As the first major presidential candidate who was openly gay, and also married, he was a historic figure, and Smith sought to present him as such.

But the campaign contended with two strains of coverage: magazine articles that treated him as if he “wasn’t gay enough,” including an essay in The New Republic that was pulled after an outcry over its prurient speculation about his sexual habits, and articles by elite newspaper reporters, who often ignored Buttigieg’s identity and treated him much like any other candidate.

I managed to stump Smith, albeit only briefly, when I asked her what Buttigieg had taught her — the seen-it-all operative who has been through dozens of P.R. battles large and small — about politics, rather than the other way around.

She recalled how he would talk to even the most die-hard Trump supporters on the campaign trail, even though there was scant chance he would earn their vote.

“What I think I learned from Pete,” she reflected, “was the importance of not making snap judgments about people.”

One common Buttigieg observation that always stuck with her, she added, was that “so much about politics is how you make people feel about themselves.” That, in an age when people are at once angry and disengaged, she said, “you do need to listen to them” and “make them feel like they matter.”

  • Democrats are navigating nuanced views on abortion among Black Americans, a vital constituency for President Biden, Zolan Kanno-Youngs writes.

— Blake

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