As Gov. Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of staff for communications, Rob Stutzman has seen the highs and lows of politics in the Republican party - and it's all been the dream of a lifetime.
Rob Stutzman, currently Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of staff for communications, compares himself to Alex P. Keaton, the conservative Republican character played by Michael J. Fox on the '80s sitcom Family Ties.
Stutzman's resonance with politics and the GOP became evident very early in life. He was "scarred" at 8 years old after being forced to go to bed before Gerald Ford's 1976 acceptance speech. He entertained his parents and their friends by imitating Jimmy Carter. And Ronald Reagan would become his hero. "I wasn't a normal kid," he notes.
Today, Stutzman has a front-row seat in politics. He's worked extraordinarily hard for his party, but that work ethic has been severely tested during this difficult year. Schwarzenegger's persona has not held sway in California, as the media has turned on him and he is bitterly opposed by powerful labor unions.
Stutzman took a leave of absence to concentrate on a November special election, which ended in the defeat of all four Schwarzenegger measures. In fact, he will leave his post in January to focus on Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign and pursue other ventures.
Dan Schnur, a political consultant and Stutzman's former business partner at communications firm CommandFocus, calls Stutzman "fiercely" loyal. "You get too much credit when things are good and too much blame when things go bad," Schnur says. "[Rob has] taken a lot of slings and arrows over the past couple of months that belong to others. It would be very easy for him to pass that blame, but he doesn't."
Stutzman notes that he dreaded the "absurdly" high approval ratings in Schwarzenegger's first year, since the only way to go was down. "It was a bit of a Camelot scenario," he says. "I never kidded myself that I had a whole lot to do with [that]. It was a riptide. It's hard to get control when you're fighting the forces that we faced last year. Powerful opponents spent $130 million to deposition and demonize him."
Canonized or demonized, Schwarzenegger gets plenty of coverage. A staggering volume of global media are interested in issues ranging from policy to steroids to movies.
Managing that exposure is challenging for Stutzman and his immediate team of nearly 30. "It's still a significant challenge to create the frame that you want the governor to be seen in," Stutzman says.
"It's not uncommon to have to rely on earned media to try to set a record straight that's characterized by paid media," he continues. "In this past year, that's been my biggest challenge. I don't have a budget for paid media like the unions have had."
Amid this sea of testing times, Stutzman's greatest career challenge came in the final days of the recall campaign. For example, it was just five days before the recall that the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story about allegations of Schwarzenegger's sexual misconduct.
"This is very much a work in progress," Stutzman says of Schwarzenegger's governorship. "Ultimately, we'll be measured by the re-elect. The greatest work you do in this business is in adversity. In PR, how you handle the crisis is how you measure how good you are."
At 18, Stutzman did his first stint in California's capitol building as an intern for Gov. George Deukmejian. "I was interested in the marketing of ideas and the art and craft of persuasion," he says. "You can have the best substance, but if you can't sell it or persuade people to agree, you fail in this arena."
Though no one ever took Stutzman "under their wing," he cites as mentors Schnur, Sean Walsh, who worked in the White House under Marlin Fitzwater, and Larry Thomas, who was Gov. Deukmejian's communications head.
"In Republican politics, very few people gravitate toward media relations," Stutzman says. "I attribute that to the widespread yet wrong-headed notion that the press is evil, and you shouldn't work with them. That's absurd. The press is a means to an end."
"Rob has the best mind for political strategy and messaging I've ever seen," says Schnur. "He's a savvy politico, but he remains committed to his principles."
According to Sandy Silberstein, a Democratic lobbyist and one of Stutzman's high school teachers, Stutzman's temperament is different from what he sometimes displays professionally. "He has to be aggressive and come out with a sound bite that sort of says, 'F you,' but he's an extremely thoughtful, gentle guy," she says. "He's not an ideologue. We don't agree on much, [but] he understands the viewpoints of others."
Stutzman is responsive, gracious, and has a good sense of humor - his best quality, notes Schnur. When working together, they laughed about Stutzman needing to wear a T-shirt that read, "What Dan meant to say was...."
Open-mindedness and respect, regardless of ideology, are important to Stutzman. "I've tried to never let it be personal," he says. "We're always evolving and should always be open to introspection and challenging what we think we know and believe. We all become a little less idealistic as we weather."
Growing up in a conservative Christian household, Stutzman was greatly influenced by his parents. "Cursing was hardly ever heard unless Dad was referring to a Democratic politician," he notes amusingly. "When we asked my brother if he knew what 'SOB' meant, he said, 'It has something to do with Ted Kennedy.' I haven't had a chance to tell Maria [Shriver] that story."
Stutzman opts to spend what precious little free time he has with his wife, 8-year-old son, and 5-year-old daughter. "Time with the kids is sustaining," he says. "They complain about the hours, yet we catch them bragging."
Clearly, Stutzman's job is one of the most difficult in politics today. He loves its strategic aspect and the "small victories" of "mitigated" or unreported issues that go largely unseen. He's proud of the recall election and of his staff. The re-election campaign will certainly be different from the 10-week cyclone that put Schwarzenegger in office. Whatever happens, Stutzman will not likely vacate his front-row seat in Republican politics.
"In his dealings on behalf of this governor and the challenges that have accompanied it, he has emerged as one of the top talents in communications and press relations," says Thomas.
Gov. Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of staff for communications
Schwarzenegger for Governor, co-communications director
CommandFocus, founding partner
CA Attorney General Dan Lundgren, press secretary and communications director
Special assistant to State Sen. Maurice Johannesen and comms director for State Senate Republican leader Rob Hurtt
Comms director for Tom McClintock for state controller