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Strategist has her feet on the ground in Iowa
Tom Vilsack was taken aback the first time he met Teresa Vilmain in 1997. He was running for governor of Iowa, his campaign was in trouble and a friend recommended he get help. The woman who turned up did not look anything like the brash political consultant he expected.
"I met with this woman with long, braided hair," said Vilsack, now a national co-chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. "If you get too close to her when she snaps her head, you get hit with her braid. . . . I thought, 'This woman is crazy.' "
But he followed her advice and went on to be Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years, burnishing Vilmain's legend as a top-flight organizer.
"We turned the state around politically," said Vilsack the day after Christmas. "She has an extraordinary capacity to demand high quality, to work ungodly hours until you are just bone tired, but she does every step of it with you."
Vilmain is Clinton's Iowa director, running an operation that will help make or break the New York senator's candidacy. Every candidate making a stand this week in Iowa employs some version of Vilmain -- a seasoned political hand with deep knowledge of how the state works, and more important, how its voters like to be wooed. (Short answer: in person and often.)
A state director has a hand in nearly every aspect of the campaign -- organizing precincts and volunteers, overseeing phone canvassing, scheduling regular visits with supporters to keep them in the fold, creating a get-out-the-vote strategy and, most important, implementing it. With polls showing the Democratic race a three-way contest in Iowa among Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, there is precious little room for error. For state directors, it's all on the line Thursday on caucus night.
If that means shoveling a path through the snow on a few thousand front walks, so be it. (Vilmain's staff has overseen the purchase and distribution of thousands of snow shovels.)
If it means picking up seniors (older women are the backbone of Clinton's support here) in sedans because it's too hard for them to climb into vans, so be it. "In the Kerry campaign," said Clinton caucus director Dave Barnhart, who works for Vilmain, "we may have picked up a couple hundred voters. This time we will pick up thousands, which is just unheard of."
This attention to detail is one reason that Vilmain, who lives on 11 acres in Wisconsin, is at the top of her profession. A single, 49-year-old, self-admitted control freak and college dropout who grew up in Cedar Rapids, Vilmain has worked on political campaigns for nearly 30 years, starting with Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential bid.
When asked to describe her biggest challenge on caucus night, Vilmain answered without hesitation: "the weather."
Which, alas, is outside her purview.
She rises most days about 5 a.m. and has five conference calls before 9:30 a.m. This week, Vilmain has been on the road with Clinton, briefing her on the people she'll meet, making sure the candidate knows a little something about Keokuk or Muscatine or Waterloo. When she is not traveling, she spends her time in meetings, conference calls, reading clips and e-mailing. She sweeps through the office, cleaning up, taking sensitive documents off fax machines. She abhors the unhealthy behavior that campaigns engender and eats three square meals a day, plus a snack at 3 p.m.
"We affectionately called it 'Vilmainia,' " said political consultant John Lapp, who managed Vilsack's reelection campaign in 2002. "She has got one speed and that's fifth gear. She is devastated if she loses, but she wins a lot more than she loses."
(She worked for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000. Both won their party's nomination but lost the general election. She ran Wisconsin successfully for President Clinton in 1996. In 1992, she managed Geraldine Ferraro's failed bid for the Senate. She has also worked as political director for EMILY's List and as political strategist for the Democratic National Committee.)
On Thursday night, when caucus doors open at 6:30, Vilmain's goal is to make sure that every Democrat in Iowa who says he or she supports Clinton makes it to the library, church, living room or school where voting takes place.
Her fascination with politics began at home, when her parents allowed her to sit on the staircase watching voters caucus in their living room. "She was mesmerized by the process," said her older sister, Judy Vilmain.
Vilmain signed on with Clinton last June, after Vilsack's incipient presidential campaign imploded in February.
What Clinton got -- and needed because she had not set foot in Iowa in six years -- were Vilmain's near-robotic organizational skills, learned at the feet of her mother, who raised eight children and imbued Teresa with a practical edge. This manifests itself in quirks like alphabetizing the spice drawer (which she does in Wisconsin but not in Des Moines).
"She is overly organized to the point of being anal," said Vilmain's older brother, Steve, who owns the Drake Diner, a popular stop for candidates seeking photo ops here.
Roy Behr, a California media consultant, worked with Vilmain on Kathleen Brown's campaign for governor in 1994, and again in 2002 for Vilsack's reelection. "I had forgotten that she keeps this legal pad -- a to-do list, pages and pages long -- and the secret to her success is that she gets every single thing on the to-do list done. It's similar to a military approach: If you keep people doing the small stuff right, they'll also do the big stuff right."
Although her fans are legion, she has also left bruised bodies in her wake. At least one top Iowa Democrat said he would never work on a campaign with her because she was "intimidating" and "vindictive." He would not allow his name to be used because he has felt the sting of Vilmain's displeasure in the past, he said.
"If you say a bad word against her, she can make sure you never get to Vilsack or never work in [Iowa Gov.] Chet Culver's office." However, he added, "she is smart and has a good sense of what makes voters tick."
Most of the staff Vilmain supervises is less than half her age, and part of her challenge has been to keep them on track and motivated as they work 80-hour weeks in the lead-up to Thursday night. "That's everything but sleeping," she said. "I am pretty big on time management."
She assigns daily chores that include wiping down phones and doorknobs with antiseptic. She makes them empty their wastebaskets. "It's a cesspool of germs here," Vilmain said. "I'm working with 22-year-olds who don't know what clean is." Over the months, she sent dozens of ailing staffers home, against their will, until they got the point: Don't come to work sick.
"One thing I learned the hard way, from my former partner Paul Tully's funeral," she said, "was that the work we do is important, but not as important as we are." Tully, a political consultant who was her boyfriend, died at 48 of a heart attack in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room in 1992. He was working on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.
When she fell ill for the first time last year on Dec. 19, Vilmain said, "I about freaked out. I was beyond angry and depressed." She rebounded a day later.
That gave her time to organize a party Dec. 23 for staffers from all the Democratic presidential campaigns. "It's a good lesson," Vilsack said. "You fight hard and you fight fair, and you never forget that at some point these people will be your allies and friends. She is a great mentor for these young people." (No one from the Obama campaign showed up, he said.)
On Friday, Des Moines will empty out. The political armies will decamp to New Hampshire, where the nation's first primary will take place Tuesday. Vilmain will be here. She is not worried about where she will land. Instead, she will spend some time helping her staffers secure new jobs -- in other states for Clinton, or perhaps here in Iowa, if they want to stay.
"Part of the reason I do this work is so people are treated fairly and with respect," she said. "The exits are as important as the entrances."