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GOP's New Man In Charge

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the Republican Party's new leader, Ed Gillsepie.

"There's an old Irish expression. 'If you want to get someone's attention, start a fight,'" said the incoming Republican National Committee chair, Ed Gillespie, on his way to the group's summer meeting in New York on Tuesday.

On Friday morning, Gillespie was voted unanimously to chair the party he joined in 1984 after growing up in an Irish Catholic (mostly) Democratic home in New Jersey. (His mom was a Democrat; his father an independent.) He follows in the footsteps of such Republican luminaries as Mark Hanna (1896-1904), George Herbert Walker Bush (1973-1974), Bob Dole (1971-1973) and Lee Atwater (1988-90), and he seems a little awed by his title.

Gillespie, 41, says he actually started out to become a journalist. He went to Catholic University as a political science and communications major, graduating in 1983, four years after Democratic Party chair Terry McAuliffe. "I studied journalism because I thought that was a way to get close to politics. Growing up in New Jersey, Washington seemed to be such a distant place. Then I found out it wasn't so alien and distant after all."

Gillespie's rise from New Jersey kid to mega-power broker in Washington began when he worked as a parking lot attendant at the U.S. Senate and then as an assistant to Rep. Andy Ireland, a former Democrat from Florida who switched to the Republicans and got reelected in the 1984 Reagan landslide. Gillespie says he became a Republican "when Ireland did," but his big break was taking a job with Rep. Dick Armey in 1985 and orchestrating his rise to power, especially his takeover of the House Republican conference in 1992.

Gillespie was one of the architects of the famous "Contract with America" – his official bio calls him its "principal drafter" – which paved the way for the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. In 1996, he became RNC Chair Haley Barbour's communications director, and then went with Barbour into a political consulting firm, Policy Impact Communications, in 1997.

In 2000, Gillespie partnered with Democrat Jack Quinn, former Clinton White House counsel, in the hot lobbying firm Quinn and Gillespie. The firm was extremely successful wooing big-paying clients like Enron, GE, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and the Stand Up for Steel coalition.

Microsoft's Ginny Terzano, a former Democratic press secretary, describes Gillespie as "extremely courteous and thoughtful. As a consultant, he was efficient, pro-active, and willing to make phone calls without hesitation." She compares him, in a very positive way, to her late boss, DNC Chair Ron Brown.

Gillespie is used to wearing a number of hats, and along with (some would say in conflict with) his lobbying work he took on several Bush campaign assignments including chairing the program committee for the 2000 Republican Convention. One of his accomplishments was keeping a number of his best friends, Republican members of Congress, off the stage so the focus could be on "real people." While some resented this, many members turned out for one of the convention week's most prized parties, Gillespie's 39th birthday bash in an Irish bar in Philadelphia.

In the 2000 general election, Gillespie went to Austin to help with some of the more, shall we say, negative stories. His good relationship with the press allows him to peddle stories in ways that reporters appreciate, rather than resent. Adam Clymer, the former New York Times reporter not particularly beloved by the Bush-Cheney crowd, says he likes Gillespie. "He returns phone calls and he told me once that actually he learned something from reporters," Clymer said.

Gillespie laughed when he heard that. "I hate the media but I like reporters," he said. As a former communications chief, he'll run a particularly aggressive press shop; the number and tone of RNC press releases has escalated since he took over for the mild-mannered Montanan Marc Racicot a month ago,

The best thing about the new job, he says, is that he'll be able help reelect George W. Bush, something he says is particularly important for the future of American kids, including his three. He says the president "honors family commitments," and that he negotiated a deal which will minimize his travel and enable him to keep on coaching his 12-year-old son's basketball team.

The worst thing about the job? "Raising money under the new campaign finance laws," Gillespie says. "It pains me that I can't raise money for my good friend Haley Barbour," who is running for governor of Mississippi. He did admit that he can transfer some of the $55 million in federal dollars the RNC has raised this year to Barbour's campaign if he really needs it.

So the kid who parked the big shots' cars is now at the helm of the Republican Party and Republicans seem enthusiastic about the having a master spinner and fixer as their leader. "Ed will be a great chair," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall. "He's campaign savvy and enjoys mixing it up. But he's genial as well as combative, which makes him particularly effective."

The friendly fight-picker from New Jersey is expected to get quite a bit of notice in the next year and a half.

By Dotty Lynch
By Dotty Lynch

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