WASHINGTON — It was early in the 2004 presidential campaign and Bill Burton, the press secretary for Democratic candidate Dick Gephardt, was in Minnesota to visit his friends from college.
He opened the Sunday New York Times and found a note in the Style section feigning intrigue that Burton, a Gephardt spokesman, was dating a spokeswoman for rival John Kerry, a woman named Laura Capps.
“Bill was kind of embarrassed,” Burton’s friend Katie Sieben, now a state senator from Newport, said. Burton said at the time: “‘Jeez, the first time I make the New York Times, you don’t think it’d be about my love life.’”
Just more than a decade after he graduated from the University of Minnesota, Burton (who would later marry Capps) is playing one of the most important roles in the lead-up to November’s presidential election. After working for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and then as an assistant White House press secretary, Burton founded the Priorities USA Action super PAC last spring. It’s become the main super PAC supporting Obama’s campaign, and Burton has helped raise and spend nearly $40 million, all of it directed at attacking Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“We decided early on that there would be a Republican nominee and while there’s a lot of money spent to promote that nominee,” Burton said, “we felt there was a good role for us to make sure voters knew the truth about that person.”
Coming to Minnesota
Burton, a Buffalo, N.Y. native, came to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1990s. He said he was drawn by its political science department, but ended up only taking one class en route to an English literature degree.
Burton stayed near campus after graduating in 1999, volunteering for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, in an office “right across the street from Stub and Herb’s.”
Sieben, who worked for the campaign herself, said Burton became a sort of spokesman for the group, even though he was technically just a volunteer.
“He showed up every day and just said, ‘Whatever I need to do, I’ll do,’” she said. “On campaigns, we always need good volunteers.”
With the help of Sieben’s recommendation, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Luther soon hired Burton to work in his press shop.
“He’s very creative, very industrious,” Luther, who represented Minnesota’s 6th District at the time, said. “He just kept moving up in the political pecking order. He’s very personable, very capable, very committed to the cause.”
From there, Burton jumped between various political and government press offices — he worked for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and for Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign. He signed on with Obama during his 2008 presidential run and became an assistant White House press secretary after Obama’s victory that fall.
Through it all, Burton has played the dual roles many Washington press secretaries find themselves in — that of official spokesman and campaign mouthpiece.
“Working in the White House and actually seeing the president do the things that [Obama] was sent to Washington to do, expanding health-care for kids, or executing tough national security, it’s pretty amazing to watch up close,” he said. “But also the process of going around a state or a country with your candidate can be pretty amazing too to see firsthand to see how folks get involved with the process and what people hope to get from their political leaders and what they expect of them.”
Starting Priorities USA
But last year, Burton dove headfirst into the political side of the game.
Threatened, he said, by the promised wave of unlimited political spending super PACs were afforded by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, Burton left the White House last February and co-founded Priorities USA Action a couple months later.
In an interview, Burton repeated one phrase over and over — he was worried about the “hundreds of millions of dollars” Republican super PACs would raise to support their eventual nominee. Indeed, by February, Restore Our Future, the main pro-Romney super PAC, had more than $16 million on hand, to Priorities’ $1.3 million.
That month, Obama publically encouraged supporters to give to Priorities USA. Despite the endorsement, Obama is a fierce critic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed super PAC’s to florish, and he’s not alone, Burton said: Those running Priorities feel the same.
“There’s not a person here who thinks that super PACs are a good idea,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not there’s going to be an answer to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Republicans are going to spend to defeat, not just the candidate we support, but the ideas and the values that we think are important.”
The group has now raised $35.6 million, making it the largest Obama super PAC, and third largest overall, behind the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads ($56.7 million) and Restore Our Future ($96.6 million).
Priorities focused on swing states
Four years after working directly with Barack Obama to promote the candidate’s campaign, Burton has the same goal but opposite means: candidates are barred from coordinating with their super PACs, meaning Burton has free reign over what to say about the race.
Priorities’ ads are on in a heavy rotation in a select group of swing states (Burton’s top targets: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin) where most political analysts predict the presidential election will be decided.
More than 70 percent of the $323 million super PACs have spent this cycle has gone toward negative advertising, according to the Sunlight Foundation. All of Priorities’ $39.3 million has been directed against Romney, most spent hitting him for his time as CEO of venture capital firm Bain Capital.
Burton said the message is simply about informing the electorate about Romney’s past experience with the middle class. The ads may be harsher — including a controversial spot implying a Bain was to blame for the death of a laid-off worker’s wife — but it’s essentially in line with the Obama campaign, which hasn’t shied away from Bain messaging.
“I don’t think Bill Burton has to call the White House to find out what kind of ads he needs to run to help his candidate,” Sunlight Foundation super PAC researcher Bill Allison said.
To a certain extent, the rise of super PACs has allowed the actual presidential campaigns to leave the most vicious attacks to outsiders, Allison said. While the basic message posited by both Romney and Obama has been “I’m not the other guy,” the candidates’ super PACs are the ones working to drive that message home in the strongest terms.
“That’s really how these things have functioned,” Allison said. “These … are really the mudslinging arms of the campaign.”
And while Burton said he’s OK going after Romney the way Priorities has, the deep-pocketed super PAC approach is not something he wants to encourage going forward.
Democrats have called for curtailing outside political spending and working to override Citizens United, either by legislation passed through Congress or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Burton said that’s what he wants to see happen — but until it does, he’s going to take advantage of the rules in place.
“There’s too much money in politics and we should make every effort to get it out,” he said. “But until we do, until the rules change, there better be a Democratic apparatus to make sure that Republicans aren’t the only ones on the playing field.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry