Brexton Isaacs (second from left) on the 2022 election night while serving as Gov. Dan McKee’s campaign manager. (Courtesy Brexton Isaacs)
Brexton Isaacs’ resume reads like an ambitious travel itinerary.
Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, New York: The 31-year-old has worked in 10 states on at least as many local, state and national Democratic campaigns over the last decade. Rhode Island holds the distinct honor of being the first state he’s stayed in for two election cycles — first on Gov. Dan McKee’s 2022 reelection campaign, and now, running Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ bid for the 1st Congressional District seat.
Another “first” in his campaign career: speaking to reporters at a press conference, as he did at Matos’ Providence campaign office on July 21. His tone was serious, but voice steadfast as he cut through the cacophony of reporters shouting questions to explain his role in hiring — and later firing — the vendor alleged to have forged signatures on Matos’ campaign nomination papers.
“There have certainly been more fun weeks than that one,” Isaacs said in a later interview. “It was a new experience, at least.”
It was an equally new experience for most voters, who don’t typically see or hear directly from political campaign managers (aside from the few notables like Kellyane Conway and Karl Rove whose transitions to government jobs helped them become household names). Yet Isaacs’ role in the press conference highlighted the power wielded by these behind-the-scenes puppet masters, whose decisions around hiring and firing, political strategy and communications can determine a candidate’s success. It’s a grueling job, filled with high stakes and high stress, and for career campaign operatives, one that means picking up and moving to a completely new place every election cycle.
All of which is exactly what Isaacs, and other campaign managers, say keeps them coming back, race after race.
“It is stressful, and it is thankless,” said Emily Crowell, who was named chief of staff for Providence Mayor Brett Smiley after serving as a senior adviser to his 2022 campaign. “I loved the pace, how fast it moved, how much it mattered, how you could convince someone to vote or just tell them about an election they might not have even known about otherwise.”
Also key for Crowell is her conviction in the candidate. Her laptop background during Smiley’s campaign was a picture of him.
“When I went to close my laptop at night, I would see his face, and think ‘I’ve got two more hours left in me,’” she said
Two more hours after what would often be a 12-plus hour day. It’s not unusual for Isaacs to still be fielding calls at 9 or 10 at night, he said. Weekends or days off are rare, and attempts to make personal plans can quickly go awry.
Even a rare trip to the movie theater during McKee’s 2022 campaign was cut short because of persistent calls to his cell phone during the film, Isaacs said.
That paled in comparison with the demands of last week, when a signature scandal spanning multiple towns and paid canvassers enveloped Matos’ campaign.
Those tough moments can also serve as launching pads for campaign managers’ careers.
‘A young person’s sport’
Just ask Eric Hyers, a campaign consultant who got his first campaign manager gig at age 26 on David Cicciline’s first congressional campaign.
Hyers helped the then Providence mayor through what news reports described as a “bloody four-way primary” that included ad hominem attacks by his Democratic rivals. Even more difficult was Cicilline’s reelection campaign two years later, in which one opponent, Anthony Gemma, accused Cicciline of voter fraud.
“Reporters were calling it Gemma-palooza,” Hyers recalled.
Hyers’ strategy was to have Cicilline address the accusations immediately, offering the candidate up for an in-depth interview with WPRI investigative reporter Tim White. And it worked, launching Hyers into a series of prominent roles in high stakes Democratic campaigns nationwide, including Gina Raimondo’s 2014 gubernatorial election.
As much as he loved the work, it was not easy, he said.
“There are two positions, campaign manager and college football coach, where everyone else thinks they can do your job better than you can,” Hyers said. “You’ve got to be tough enough to take that criticism, steady enough, confident enough, to handle it.”
Which might be why most campaign managers don’t make it a lifelong career. Some, like Crowell, opt for a government job with the person they helped get elected (though Crowell is clear that becoming Smiley’s chief of staff was never an expectation). Others, like Hyers, start their own consulting firms, which allows him to keep his hand in campaigning while staying in one place.
“Campaigns are a young person’s sport,” said Zachary Hall, who is the campaign manager for Councilman John Goncalves. “It’s so grueling, so taxing I am starting to feel like I am aging out of it.”
Hall is 30, but like Isaacs, his career has taken him across the country, working on campaigns in 11 states since 2014. Those have included several stopovers in Rhode Island: in 2014, working to oppose a ballot referendum that would have let Newport Grand expand to table gaming, and again in 2018 on Aaron Regunberg’s lieutenant governor campaign — noteworthy since Regunberg is now running against Goncalves in the congressional race.
Unlike many other career campaign workers whose political careers began as teenagers, Hall initially envisioned a very different future. The grandson of two military veterans — his grandparents were also his primary caretakers — he joined the U.S. Military Academy after high school. His dream of serving his country quickly dissolved as he encountered what he described as discrimination because of his sexual orientation
He was kicked out of the academy, or “separated,” as the academy puts it, because the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy had not yet been repealed.
Which is how he ended up in politics, which he saw as another way to serve his country while trying to fight back against the discriminatory policies he had faced.
Winding down with ‘The Great British Bake Off’
Another campaign manager whose first career seems like an unlikely predecessor to political campaigns: Erich Haslehurst. The 44-year-old campaign manager for Sen. Sandra Cano spent the first 12 years of his professional career working in event design and luxury retail, including for Providence-based Rustigian Rugs.
He was always interested in politics, which he joked “started as a hobby but turned into a jobby.” The turning point for Haslehurst came in 2012, when he volunteered on his partner’s (now husband’s) campaign for Bristol Town Council.
Since then, he’s been working in candidate and issue-based campaigns every year, opening a consulting firm, Statecraft Strategies, in 2020. As a veteran campaign operative, he stressed the importance of work-life balance, even amid the grueling pace of a campaign.
For Haslehurst, that means boot camp classes and walks through his Bristol hometown (often while taking a call for the campaign). Matt DaSilva, assistant campaign manager for Regunberg’s campaign, likes to end each night by watching an episode of “The Sopranos.”
Nick Marroletti, campaign manager for Don Carlson, does the same, but with “The Great British Bake Off.” He enjoys baking too — he boasted of a great chocolate cake recipe — but said the kitchen time doesn’t happen until the “off season” from campaigning.
Marroletti describes himself as a serial organizer — though Carlson’s is the first campaign he’s managed. He too, has limits when it comes to the job. Namely, he will only work on campaigns in the northeast, to stay close to family and friends in his Philadelphia hometown.
The nomadic lifestyle can be isolating, and lonely at times, acknowledged Lauren Garrett, who’s running Gabe Amo’s campaign. Especially, she said, as a woman of color, in an industry that continues to be dominated by white, cisgender men.
Garrett, who managed Kansas Democrat’s Sharice David’s 2022 re-election campaign to the U.S. House of Representatives, said she was one of only two women of color managing a “frontline” congressional race nationwide that election cycle, and the only Black woman.
“There are definitely challenges being women of color,” she said. “It’s hard but it’s also extremely motivating. The only way to change that is if people like me keep doing this job.”
Her experiences as a Black woman have also helped her connect more strongly to the candidates she works for, all of whom have been people of color, she said.
‘A lot of things can go wrong’
Another advantage for campaign managers, at least in insular Rhode Island, is being from the Ocean State. Jason Roias, campaign manager for state Sen. Ana Quezada, is constantly drawing upon his expansive local contact list to help boost Quezada’s reach and support.
As a Providence native who graduated from Providence Public Schools and whose younger brother serves on the Providence City Council, Roias’ interest in the outcome of the race is personal. Which is what fuels him through a regular 9-to-5 job doing customer support for a fintech firm, running Quezada’s campaign, and planning for his upcoming wedding this fall.
“I thought this was going to be the summer I took a break from campaigning,” Roias said. But after Quezada, who he knew from Providence politics, asked him for help, he couldn’t refuse.
Roias’ deep connections to Rhode Island politics mean he also knew, and had previously hired, one of the field organizers accused of forging signatures on Matos’ nomination papers.
While reporters grilled Isaacs about the lack of background checks or basic vetting before he hired Holly McClaren for Matos’ campaign, Roias said it’s not unusual to bring on someone who has worked for previous campaigns without a thorough resume check.
McClaren, who has denied the accusations, had also worked for McKee’s reelection campaign, which is how Isaacs knew her.
And in the fast-paced world of elections — especially this one — mistakes are inevitable.
“It’s not a reflection of the person themselves, it’s just the world of campaigns,” said Kate Cantwell, who is managing Walter Berbrick’s campaign. “A lot of things can go wrong.”
Indeed, most campaign managers had made their fair share of mistakes, even if they didn’t end up attracting the attention — and potential criminal consequences — now facing Matos’ campaign.
Crowell recalled staying up at night thinking about “missed moments” — opportunities when her candidate could have waded into a hot-button issue or controversy, but she had opted against it in the interest of caution.
Marroletti remains haunted by a “blowout fight” between two staffers on a campaign he worked on in North Carolina, which was prompted by his decision over where to place a volunteer one of the staffers had recruited for the campaign.
“I was 22, and I had to shut the whole thing down,” he said.
From then on, Marroletti kept a fastidious written record of decisions and discussions, which he said has helped diffuse emotional moments.
For Haslehurst, the biggest lesson learned is the importance of training volunteers and staff.
“When I first started, there was a belief that everyone kind of got it right away,” he said. “That was on me. You need to make sure you have the proper tools and information to achieve this goal or else they won’t be able to achieve the goal.”
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