The road that Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to take to the Oval Office begins in a Midtown Manhattan supply closet.
When fully operational, her campaign for president will occupy two floors of office space in a Brooklyn high-rise. But for now, the small band of Democratic operatives that will make up her senior campaign team are conducting a lot of business in a cramped room surrounded by copy paper and cleaning supplies.
That a presidential campaign-in-waiting is operating in such meager conditions is hardly unusual, given the tactical and legal restrictions that come before an official announcement. The wind-up to a presidential launch requires discretion and sacrifice among early staff who often are, as some of Clinton's team is, unpaid volunteers.
“That period of time between the decision to run and the moment you stand up an actual operation is awkward, at best,” said Bill Burton, one of the first staffers hired for then-Sen. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. “There are certain things that have to get done in order to make the announcement work that don’t all fit in to a perfect time frame. You don’t have a fairy godmother who comes and says, ‘Here’s a lease for your campaign office and an agreement on your phone and Internet service and a staff that’s ready to go.’”
In the case of Clinton’s team, though, the ad hoc circumstances are all the more striking given that as a former secretary of State, U.S. senator, presidential candidate and first lady, she is the overwhelming front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, and the group includes some of the top political talent in her party.
For now, Clinton’s communications team is mapping out the early stages of her heavily scrutinized return to politics in the close quarters of a shared 7-by-10 office in the suite that has served as her base of operations since she left the State Department in early 2013. Aides say it's not uncommon to find Robby Mook, the campaign manager, holding conference calls in the privacy of the office's supply closet.
Among the group is Jen Palmieri, until recently the White House director of communications. She traded in an office in the West Wing for a chance, perhaps, to return there. Brian Fallon, expected to be the campaign’s lead public spokesman, left his perch in the same capacity at the Justice Department.
“Anyone who thinks this is glamorous at the start must have walked into the wrong office,” said one future Clinton campaign staffer, who would not be named talking about the as-yet unannounced campaign.
The staff connects with one another through a hodgepodge of personal accounts and Google message groups. Getting any real work done often requires meetings in nearby coffee shops or restaurants.
Clinton doesn’t necessarily have to field a team at this juncture that would prove to prospective donors her seriousness about running, the way a less-established candidate or one facing a more competitive field might. Partly because of that, her team made a key early choice not to form an exploratory committee, which triggers certain legal requirements.
Still, Clinton will have to report any major expenditures incurred during this informal, so-called "testing the waters" phase once she makes her candidacy official.
But skipping an exploratory committee frees her to coordinate with political entities that might support her eventual presidential run, said Bob Biersack, a former longtime Federal Election Commission official now with the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The imperative of fundraising is less important for her than it would be for someone who hadn’t been there and done that,” he said. “She can wait. It’ll come.”
The decision to forego the interim panel to explore a presidential run was also rejected in part, aides said, because they wanted to drop the pretense that she would announce she was exploring the possibility of a campaign, then make a second announcement that she was indeed running.
The slowly growing staff that is spreading into the early primary states is being told to prepare for an official announcement at any time in the next two weeks. It will likely come first on social media, followed by a live declaration. Beyond that, the campaign’s inner circle has given out no details.
One Clinton aide, who requested anonymity to share details of the widely expected campaign, likened it to trying to build an airplane as it takes off.
In February and March, a few of the first campaign team members began contacting prospective Democratic talent to expand the campaign team, setting up one-on-one phone calls to talk about an unspecified “opportunity,” without revealing what was involved.
Not all senior aides have moved to New York, meaning a lot of business is also conducted on Amtrak’s Washington-to-New York route.
Even internal communications have proven complicated without an email system in place.
Burton recalls similar arrangements in the early days of Obama’s first presidential run. A YouTube video the campaign shot to preview his official presidential announcement was filmed in Burton’s own Capitol Hill home, and he recalled noticing after the fact that some personal laundry -- an Iowa State Cyclones T-shirt -- can be spotted resting on a radiator in the background.
FOR THE RECORD
April 9, 11:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that a video for President Obama's first campaign was shot in Obama's home. It was shot in aide Bill Burton's Capitol Hill home.
“You still have to do all the work to build up,” he said. “It happens at coffee shops, in living rooms -- and at the mercy of free WiFi in hotel lobbies.”
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