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Thanks to manager, Franken campaign was all poised for massive recount effort even before Election Day

Macalester College rally
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Senate candidate Al Franken meets with supporters at a March 2008 campaign rally at Macalester College in St. Paul.

You’ve got to have a plan, Stephanie Schriock believes. Then you’ve got to be able to execute the plan.

And so even before Election Day, Al Franken’s U.S. Senate campaign was already prepared for a recount contest that continues to this day.

Who’s Schriock? And how was it that the Franken campaign could be prepared for a historic recount, which on Tuesday brought the Democrat more good news on the vote-counting front?

Schriock, 36, a graduate of Mankato State University, is one of the political operatives most in demand in the country. Since late last spring, she’s been the Franken campaign manager and has helped direct the campaign’s massive — and detailed — recount effort.

“She’s just a rock,” said Franken. He paused. He couldn’t contain himself. “A Sch-riock.”

“She comes to this with a unique background,” said Marc Elias, lead Franken attorney on the recount. “She has superb political skills but she comes from a fundraising background. She’s just a tremendous manager. We’re dealing with the largest recount in history. There’s no blueprint for something like this. … There are two reasons Al won the recount: He had more lawful votes and because of the organization that Stephanie has overseen.”

Perfect fit for Franken campaign
As it turns out, there could not have been a more perfect person for the Franken campaign.

Though she grew up in Montana, she knows Minnesota. Born in Mankato, she returned to the state after graduating from high school in Butte, Mont., to attend Mankato State, where her parents had met and married and where she earned a degree in public administration with a minor in business.

Stephanie Schriock
Courtesy of Al Franken for Senate
Stephanie Schriock

“That was very fortunate,” she said of the business courses she took. “I can’t imagine doing this job without accounting classes and managing courses.”

While at Mankato State, she became deeply involved in DFL politics, working as a volunteer for the likes of former state Sen. John Hottinger. Her first political job came as the finance director of DFLer Mary Rieder’s long-shot bid to defeat incumbent U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht for the 1st District Congressional seat in 1996. Rieder, an economics prof at Winona State, was a political unknown but came surprisingly close to knocking off the conservative Gutknecht at the height of the Gingrich Revolution.

The success of the Rieder campaign led to Schriock becoming campaign manager for incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Luther in 1998. Luther defeated John Kline in what was then the 6th Congressional District. (Luther later would lose to Kline in a re-mapped 6th.)

So, she understood Minnesota and its politics when she took over Franken’s campaign.

An even bigger plus for Franken turned out to be her understanding of razor-thin U.S. Senate races and the real possibility that a race could end in a virtual tie.

A rising behind-the-scenes Democratic star
But first, back up a bit to understand how it was that Schriock ended up being a prize catch for Franken.

Following Luther’s 1998 win, Schriock’s star was rising. She moved into national Democratic Party politics, her big opportunity coming when she became treasurer of the stunning Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2003. Outside of his home state of Vermont, Dean was an unknown. But his early opposition to the war in Iraq and his campaign’s ability to raise money — with Schriock as treasurer — turned Dean from an unknown into a front runner heading into the Iowa caucuses in 2004.

“When I got a call from Howard Dean, I figured, ‘Hell, there’s no going down. He had no money,” said Schriock. “He allowed his staff room to build the campaign. He gave me a chance to go out and find jewels [cash] out there.”

One tactic that set the Dean campaign apart from all the others was its use of the Internet as a fund-raising tool.

“We tapped into an energy that was growing,” said Schriock.  

After Dean’s quick rise to the top, Iowa turned out to be a double disaster for him. Not only did he finish third in the caucuses — after being favored to win — but he let loose with the infamous Dean scream during his wrap-up speech on the night of his defeat. The media latched onto the scream and Dean was done.

“The week between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary is still a blur,” she said.

Out of the blur, though, Schriock was moving ever higher. What made her a national player — and, as it turned out, an ideal campaign manager for the Franken campaign — was the 2006 Montana Senate race.

With Schriock as his manager, Jon Tester not only defeated a better-known Democrat in the primary but went on to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in the general election — by just 3,000 votes, a difference of less than 1 percent of the votes cast.

Knowing that race was going to be close, Schriock started having meetings with Tester, the campaign staff and the national Democratic Party over what would need to be done in the event of a recount. Included in those meetings was Elias, who worked for the Democratic National Campaign Committee.  

A plan was created on how they would deal with a recount, a plan that turned out not to be needed when Burns simply conceded defeat on Election Night.

But it turned out that the Montana plan didn’t go to waste. Two years later, it would become valuable in Minnesota.

Schriock was Franken’s early choice
Again, back up.

Franken had spoken with Schriock in 2004, when he first started seriously getting involved in Minnesota politics. Franken was the host of a nationally syndicated talk radio show and wanted to move back to Minnesota and set up a political action committee as a way of becoming more involved in state politics.

He called Schriock. She had other plans.

Franken moved on. When he did announce his plans to run for the Senate against incumbent Norm Coleman, two young men, Andy Barr and David Benson, handled the job as managers of the campaign that yielded a first-ballot endorsement at the DFL convention last spring.

“Andy and David and everybody else on the staff did a terrific job,” said Franken, “but all along we all knew we needed to bring in an ‘adult’ to manage the campaign.”

One problem in finding that experienced campaign manager, according to Jess McIntosh, Franken’s press secretary, was the long presidential contest between Clinton and Obama. Those two campaigns sucked up incredible amounts of talented people who, in normal circumstances, might have been free to run a Senate campaign.

Before the DFL convention, Franken said he received a call from the DNCC, which was watching the Franken-Coleman race with concern. Would Franken be interested in having Schriock manage his campaign?

“Absolutely,” said Franken.

Schriock took what she thought would be a short leave of absence from her job as head of Tester’s Senate office and came back to Minnesota. (She is eager to return to work in the Tester office, because she wants to work on policy instead of campaigns and recounts.)

Partnership ‘clicked’
She and Franken clicked.

“You have to trust the judgment of your campaign manager,” said Franken, “and it helps to like them. In the past, when I was in comedy, I’ve worked with people I don’t like. You can do it because there’s no substitute for talent. But I like working with Stephanie.”

And Schriock says she very much enjoys working with Franken. But, she also said, a campaign manager doesn’t need to be a true believer in whatever candidate she is working for.

“I believe in the principles of the Democratic Party” said Schriock. “I believe Democrats are better at governing than Republicans. Is there only one person in the world who can do that? Of course not.”

She does know that there’s a universal trait good candidates share.

“You have to be a hard worker,” she said. “Al’s an amazingly hard worker. I think in the end, we wanted it (victory) more. Tester is the same way.”

Jeff Blodgett, campaign director for all three of the late Paul Wellstone’s Senate campaigns, questions whether Franken could have overcome the large lead Coleman once enjoyed in the polls without Schriock.

“Al had talented people,” said Blodgett, “but they had never been through a race from beginning to end before — certainly not a race this tough. She laid down an organization and a discipline that you need to get decisions made. A lot of times, you see campaigns veering from side to side. That shows there’s no plan. She brought discipline, focus and organization to the task.”

Her strength?

“She’s a campaign manager,” said Franken. “She can manage.”

Tough decisions, no bruises
And she seems to have the ability to manage toughly, without bruising sensitivities.

Remember, Schriock came in to run the campaign just as it was coming off its endorsement victory. There could have been resentment among staffers about the new person coming in from D.C. “to save the day.”

There wasn’t.  She quickly did little things — like moving various people in the campaign from their private cubicles into one big “war room” — and, according to McIntosh, that helped everyone become more productive.

It didn’t hurt, she said, that from the time she arrived to run the campaign until now, Schriock “is the first person in and the last person to leave every day.”

Schriock seems like such a nice person. She’s pleasant to visit with, laughs easily and calls her father her hero and No. 1 consultant.

So how did such a nice person sit at the top of such a mean-spirited campaign?

“I believe it was tough before I got here,” she said, then, laughed.

The tone of the race was predictable, she said because “there was so much at stake.”  

“We had to focus on what he (Coleman) had done for six years. It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s what people need to see.”

Was the style decision correct?

Franken once trailed by as many as 18 points in the polls. It appears more and more likely he’ll end up in the Senate.

Well positioned for recount effort
Many not only give Schriock credit for the success Franken had in closing the gap during the campaign but in being so well positioned to succeed in the recount process. The first recount plans were being drawn up as soon as September. The day after the election, Schriock and the entire Franken staff had put the plan in place.

Elias, the top legal adviser for team Franken on the recount, was involved before the polls were even closed. Schriock also had set in motion her plan that, at its peak, had 2,000 people working as either volunteers or in paid positions, to be in the field to observe recounting at polling places across the state. All were trained.

There was never — not for a second — a letdown between the campaign and the recount.

The one thing that neither campaign was prepared for was the expense.

“Double what we had estimated it would be,” said Schriock, without saying at this time just how much that amounts to.

She brushes off credit for her role in the recount, instead crediting other campaign workers and DFL staff.

It’s only now that the judges have the fate of the contest — or at least this phase of the contest — in their hands that Schriock and the rest of the staff has stepped back and almost relaxed.

“In some ways, this waiting is the hardest thing we’ve had to do for months,” she said. “The biggest thing I have to understand is that for now, there’s nothing I can do.”

Through all of this, through the ugliest, most expensive campaign in Minnesota history, through the long and costly recount, Schriock has stayed deep in the background, typically making herself unavailable for media interviews.

Why the media shyness?

“It’s not my job,” she said. “That’s the job of people in communications.”

She can point that out right in her plan.  

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Keith Ford on 04/08/2009 - 01:08 pm.

    terrific piece; fascinatig backgrounder. And why hasn’t this been done before by other media. More and more, MinnPost is the most interesting and most thoughtful sourceof this kind of stuff.

    Great job, Doug and great job, MinnPost.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/08/2009 - 02:37 pm.

    I second Keith’s comment. Great bit of digging.

    And let’s give credit to Franken’s staff for being willing to add someone good and not let egos get in the way. Likewise to having better trained volunteers (or at least more reasonable volunteers) that showed in Franken’s shockingly greater success during the challenges.

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