“People together have power,” says University of Montana graduate and longtime Montana political operative Jim Messina, who was tapped by presidential candidate Barack Obama last week to be the campaign’s chief of staff.
You know you’ve arrived in politics when people start dropping your name in casual conversation. And you’ve definitely arrived when your new job hits the national news wires. That’s what happened last week when longtime Montana Democratic political operative and University of Montana alum Jim Messina was named chief of staff for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s national campaign.
The promotion adds to a distinguished political career that’s already vaulted Messina from staging community organization efforts in Missoula’s Westview Park trailer court to the U.S. Senate as part of Max Baucus’ office. For those who know Messina, there was little surprise over his latest appointment.
“He has a keen mind for policy, as well as politics, which is rare in this business,” says Barrett Kaiser, communications director for Sen. Baucus and a colleague of Messina’s since the two met in 1998. “He could do any job, anywhere, and he’ll surely be missed here.”
Messina, 38, grew up in Idaho and graduated from Boise High School, but he launched his political career in Missoula. As soon as he arrived at UM in 1988, Messina became involved in campus politics, coordinating voter turnout operations for the College Democrats, acting as a Democratic campus organizer and serving on the board of the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG). During this time he also got involved in community issues, such as when he took a job with Montana People’s Action and helped rally attention to the plights of Westview Park trailer court residents. He organized protests at the county courthouse to draw attention to their poor living conditions and engaged police officials to help improve emergency response time to the neighborhood.
“People who were mistreated could come together and rise to power,” Messina recalls in a phone interview with the Independent. “It taught me that people together have power…You could see that people were listened to.”
Messina’s work in the community and on UM’s campus led to the Cooke Presidential Appointment, in which he was invited to serve in the Montana Legislature by assisting Democrats in both houses.
“The 1991 Legislature was where I realized that a staff person can really make a big difference,” says Messina. “I was this 20-year-old skinny kid and these people actually listened to me.”
Messina stepped up to bigger statewide races—and briefly left UM—to work during the 1992 governor’s primary, as well as run legislative campaigns for Democrats in eastern Montana during the general election. A year later, Messina returned to Missoula for what he still refers to as one of his most challenging races ever. Then-incumbent Mayor Dan Kemmis faced a tough re-election after his controversial first-term decision to annex thousands of South Hills’ households into the City of Missoula.
“That’s never a popular thing to do. Necessary, yes, but never popular,” says Kemmis of the decision, which left him in a vulnerable political position. “I had several thousand voters who had that one chance to express their discontent with that decision…So we needed some highly skilled assistance.”
That assistance included Messina, who was coming off a successful six-way primary race where he organized Craig Sweet’s bid for City Council.
“My first impression of Jim was how young he was,” Kemmis says. “My second impression was how focused he was on what needed to be done to make this an effective campaign. His focus is phenomenal.”
An organized political machine thrives off three primary sources of fuel: volunteers, time and money. And when Kemmis’ campaign ran short on volunteers, Messina was tasked with fixing the problem. He recruited dozens of volunteers himself, but, more importantly, he smoothed over a difficult relationship with the New Democrats, a nascent group that would only give muscle to candidates who joined their party, which Kemmis says he wouldn’t do. Nonetheless, Kemmis says Messina was able to “bring some attention and finesse to the issue and bring them into the campaign.”
In addition to overseeing the volunteer effort, Messina also helped seek out high-profile endorsements from respected local community members to help support Kemmis in the face of searing criticism over the South Hills annexation.
“We were running against negative ads early-on,” Messina says. “It became a fairly interesting bar room fight–one I’m proud we ended up winning.”
Kemmis earned 7,176 votes to Republican Mark Helean’s 5,639.
Since that 1993 Kemmis race, Messina’s developed an expansive network of political contacts and developed lasting relationships working as both a staffer and campaigner. Roll Call has ranked him in its “Fabulous Fifty” list of movers and shakers on Capitol Hill every year since 2005.
It’s experience he’ll need as he plans to take his new position alongside Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. Although both Messina and the Obama campaign remain tight-lipped on the specifics of Messina’s new role, reports indicate he will help oversee a broad political, policy and field operation. Messina is on a leave of absence from Baucus’ office and will be stationed in Chicago, where much of the Obama campaign is based.
Regardless of his specific position, the national press portrays the Obama campaign’s senior team as preferring calm leadership with an emphasis on teamwork and consensus. According to Messina’s former colleagues, he’ll fit in perfectly.
“He makes people feel like their work is important,” says Kaiser. “He’s the single best boss I’ve ever had, and ever will have… People are honored to be in the trenches with him and do war with him.”