PROFILE: Ragone blazes new trails as a 'campaign cowboy'

Presently comms head for San Francisco's new mayor, Peter Ragone's talent and loyalty have made him a key Democratic operative sought by everyone from the Clintons to the Cuomos.

Presently comms head for San Francisco's new mayor, Peter Ragone's talent and loyalty have made him a key Democratic operative sought by everyone from the Clintons to the Cuomos.

"I was supposed to be in the White House before 30," says Peter Ragone, communications director for San Francisco's new mayor, Gavin Newsom (D), referring to what would have been had Al Gore become President. The comment isn't a boast. It's a matter-of-fact response made with an affable, relaxed candor that typifies Ragone, 33. As primary spokesman for Gore's campaign, he likely would have taken a White House post. Instead, he signed on with former California Gov. Gray Davis, and ended up in another political storm before joining Newsom's comparatively low-key administration. "I'm like the Zelig of the Democratic Party," says Ragone. "Every time something ridiculous happens, I'm somewhere in the picture. I look forward to that not happening for a few years." Indeed, the fantastic pervades Ragone's story. It would seem unlikely that a Merrick, NY mechanic's son would land on the front lines of an historical Presidential election or find himself huddled in a broom closet with Gray Davis, praying for victory over a bodybuilder-turned-politician. Perhaps the only thing more remarkable is that none of it has gone to his head. "This is a man of principle over politics who doesn't take himself too seriously," says former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo. "You're so comfortable with him. I think that's one reason he gets invited into these situations." The recount episode wasn't easy. "Florida was total mayhem," Ragone recalls. "We were making decisions about things in which we had no experience. Normally you [think], 'In a similar situation I've done this, and this was the outcome.' There it was: 'Who knows?' I was so emotionally drained by the time the US Supreme Court decided the election, the outcome almost didn't matter." The election also impacted Ragone's personal life. He married headhunter and Berkeley MBA candidate Janine O'Neill on November 19 - well after the election should have been decided - and essentially spent his honeymoon at the Broward County Courthouse. "I was a campaign cowboy," he says. "I didn't even have a bank account. I'd go to the check-cashing place, and they would yell, 'The guy who works for the President is here!' because [the checks] read Gore 2000. Janine saved my life." Just as normalcy seemed to prevail, along came Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California recall. Media calls crashed the capitol's phone system, and Ragone became the principal mouthpiece in another crazy campaign. "Every day was like living in a Picasso," he says. "It was surreal. Arnold, Maria Shriver, Warren Beatty ... Larry Flynt in his gold wheelchair. Since I'd been in Florida, they thought I'd be prepared to deal with a media frenzy. It was everything I had experienced, just exponentially more - more media interest, harder questions, a bigger press gaggle." Ragone got his start working as a bartender while studying at SUNY-Albany. He thought he would become "some kind of global economist," but a regular in his bar, Alderman Jerry Jennings, changed his career trajectory. Jennings, who ran for mayor and won, was having trouble reaching young people. Ragone, who had been "obsessed" with youth enfranchisement, penned a design for an outreach program on a cocktail napkin. Jennings hired him the next day. "It felt so good to be part of a fight for things you believe in," Ragone says. "Back then, I was really deep in the ideological tank, and I never cashed any of the checks because I shouldn't take money for something so important." Ragone has often lived on little more than ideology. The Democratic Party was bankrupt when Mario Cuomo lost his 1994 gubernatorial bid, and Ragone stayed on for free to help keep it alive. The incoming chairs eventually moved him to New York City, where he ended up handling efforts for the 1996 Clinton campaign. The Cuomos taught him that public service is the "most honorable" profession. "If you spend any time with the Cuomos, you know it," says Ragone. He acts like a true believer, and he is deeply committed. "Peter is very loyal, and he's not afraid to do windows," says John Marino, managing partner for Dan Klores Communications. "I talked to him post-Davis, and he was still firmly committed to the guy." "Sometimes pros in politics become part of a business and lose the advocation," adds Andrew Cuomo. "Peter is principle first. Anyone would be lucky to have him." Washington taught Ragone a lot. He admits to "faking it" in the beginning and feels fortunate to have learned from "legends," such as Marino, Bill Lynch, Ken Sunshine, and Bill DeBlasio. "Schwarzenegger's election was the ultimate triumph of celebrity over substance," he says. "The recall was the worst of the American political process. PR for politics has [moved] to resemble crisis communications for celebrities, only the 'crisis' part is much more sustained and grueling. You know there will be press coverage every day, and you must have a well-thought-out plan and message to be successful." Marino says Ragone relates well to political reporters and is well-equipped to handle such maelstroms. "Peter knows how to be proactive," Marino proclaims, "and that is more important than anything in talking to the press." The campaign cowboy planned to hang up his spurs and consult after Davis lost - for "probably triple" the money - but his heart wasn't in it. San Francisco's mayoral race was at full-throttle, and Ragone volunteered to stuff envelopes for Newsom. When his press secretary left, Ragone took the job (and a $20,000 pay cut). Ragone enjoys San Francisco and is extremely enthusiastic about City Hall, specifically the impressive view. Still, he admits one can't help but notice the crowd of homeless people on the lawn. "We have a lot of work to do there," Ragone says. "And we will do it." It's a fantastic proclamation. It seems more plausible that Ragone will be enjoying the view from a White House balcony long before San Francisco's homeless problem is solved, but he is undaunted by the unlikely. ----- Peter Ragone January 2004 - present Comms director, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom July - October 2003 Comms director, 'No on Recall' campaign January - July 2003 Comms director, Office of Gov. Gray Davis October 2001 - September 2002 Cuomo campaign consultant/comms head January - October 2001 DKC, primarily as adviser to Andrew Cuomo September - November 2000 CA comms director, Gore-Lieberman 2000 May - August 2000 Director of media relations, Democratic National Convention in LA September 1999 - 2000 Press secretary, Gore 2000 November 1998 - August 1999 HUD, Director of the National Press Office 1993 - 1998 Assisted with Alderman Jerry Jennings' Albany mayoral bid (1993); Mario Cuomo's gubernatorial bid (1994); assistant to NYS Democratic committee chair (1995); Bill Clinton and Democratic campaigns in New York state (1996); comms director for NYS Democratic Party (1997); senior adviser to the NYC council speaker (1998)

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