Commentary

Christensen: Charlie Black is GOP's ultimate insider

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2012 

— Charlie Black, the polished, polite, soft-spoken North Carolinian, may have seen the inside of more presidential campaigns than any man alive.

Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1976 was his first. Mitt Romney’s is his 10th.

At age 64, Black now occupies a gray area of “informal adviser,” someone with no official title and no official responsibilities. But with his been-there-done-that knowledge of national campaigns and his broad network of ties to official Washington, no GOP presidential campaign has wanted to hit the campaign trail without him.

“He is the Rock of Gibraltar of Republican politics,” said Alex Castellanos, another veteran Republican political consultant with Tar Heel roots.

At this week’s Republican National Convention, Black is playing a more modest role than usual, helping prepare some of the speakers, most notably Sen. John McCain, for his address to the convention Wednesday night.

In some ways, Black inhabits a Washington that is the stuff of political thrillers – big-time politics, corporate lobbying and even foreign dictators.

Black, a native of Charlotte who grew up in Wilmington, came to Washington to do good. And like many who stayed, he ended up doing well.

He rose in politics as part of the conservative, anti-Washington movement – inspired by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. He was part of a group of conservative Young Turks who were active in such groups as the Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans – who began making their mark in the 1970s and 1980s. His contemporaries included the likes of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater.

Black cut his teeth on Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1972 Senate campaign, which later gave him entree to California Gov. Ronald Reagan. He was the second field staffer that Reagan hired in 1976 for his first presidential run.

Black’s first hire in the 1980 Reagan campaign was Atwater, giving the South Carolinian his first big break. While Atwater and some of Black’s other associates nurtured their bad boy images, Black preferred to play the role of the courtly behind-the-scenes guy, although colleagues said he was no less tough.

“Charlie’s the kind of guy who if he came home and found somebody making out with his wife on a rainy day, he’d break the guy’s umbrella and ask him to leave, then have him killed a year later,” Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, once told The New York Times. “Lee would blow up the house.”

Black, who started his own consulting and lobbying firm in 1984, has worked as a consultant or adviser for Reagan, Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush, Phil Gramm, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and now Romney.

“He is the guy who never lets you take your eye off the ball, always keeps you focused on the big things,” said Castellanos, who is working the conventions as a commentator for CNN.

“More campaigns are lost than won because it is so easy for people to lose focus because the news focus is just minutes long,” Castellanos said. “Charlie is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-and-make-another-first-down-and-get-you-over-the-finish-line guy. … You just never go wrong listening to Charlie Black.”

‘The best nominee’

Black downplayed his role, attributing successes to luck or timing.

“Having made every mistake in the world,” Black said, he can at least point out potential sand traps to campaigns.

Black swears he keeps trying to hang up his political hat.

He thought the 2004 George W. Bush re-election campaign would be his last. But then McCain’s campaign nearly went belly-up and Black stepped in to help his long-time friend and played a lead role in one of the storied political comebacks in presidential politics.

“He sticks with his friends, whether they are political candidates or not, through thick and thin,” said Marc Rotterman, a Raleigh political consultant and an old Reagan hand. “He stuck with McCain when virtually the entire political class had written him off.”

Black said he was certain he wasn’t going to get involved this time either.

“I didn’t get involved in this one until November,” he said. “The week that Newt Gingrich went to first place in the national polls, Judy (Black’s wife) and I called the Romneys and said, ‘OK, sign us up.’ We thought he was the best nominee.”

“This time,” Black added, “I am just giving advice and taking on a few assignments. Not heavy lifting by any means.”

Which might be just as well since Black’s role as a major Washington lobbyist has made his role as campaign adviser a bit awkward.

That was particularly true for McCain because the Arizona senator had cultivated the image as a maverick willing to take on the Washington establishment. So that year, Black announced he was retiring from lobbying – a retirement that lasted until the end of the campaign.

Controversial clients

Black started his lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, in 1984. In 1996, it was merged to form BKSH & Associates with Black as chairman.

In its early years, the firm was criticized for representing controversial foreign clients such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan insurgent. Black said his firm cleared his clients with the Reagan State Department.

More recently the firm represented Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi government official and head of an Iraqi exile group that provided false information to the United States about weapons of mass destruction.

The latest reincarnation of Black’s firm, Prime Policy Group, formed in 2009, lists such blue-chip corporate clients as AT&T, Chrysler, General Dynamics, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, IBM, Progress Energy and Wal-Mart. The firm had $10.9 million in lobbying income in 2011, according to the Open Secrets website.

Black, who is chairman of Prime Policy, still lobbies, going to Capitol Hill a couple of times a week.

But there are a number of big-time lobbying shops on Capitol Hill.

What makes Black unique is how much political history he has not only seen, but how much he has helped make.

“I don’t think there is anybody in America of either party who has been in the inner circle of so many presidential campaigns for as long as Charlie Black,” former state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer said.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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