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THE CAMPAIGN THAT NEVER WAS : A Pat Schroeder Strategist Tells the Inside Story of the Colorado Congresswoman’s Try for the Presidency

Kathy Bonk, media director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, was part of the team that engineered Pat Schroeder's exploratory campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination

WASHINGTON: Jump-Starting a Presidential Campaign

“SO, WHAT DO you think?” Pat Schroeder asks us. “Should I think about running for President?”

It’s June 5. A month ago, Gary Hart withdrew suddenly from the 1988 race, and today a small group has gathered in Schroeder’s Washington congressional office. It’s as comfortable as a living room, with well-tended plants and family photos scattered about. Cheerful posters--there’s one of a bear on a bicycle, another of Eleanor Roosevelt--dominate the walls.

Friends and supporters have been calling to urge her to run in Hart’s place, and Schroeder is clearly tempted. Until now, the Denver congresswoman’s closest brush with presidential politics had been as national co-chair of Hart’s campaign. But with her friend and fellow Coloradan out of the race, the political world has shifted. If Hart could have nearly won the nomination in 1984 with a campaign that was essentially started with rubber bands and paper clips, shouldn’t she, Schroeder, at least launch an exploratory campaign?

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Her question, though, wasn’t at all what I’d been expecting earlier that morning when I got a routine call from Andrea Camp, Schroeder’s press secretary and an old friend, looking for help on a bill. I’m media director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, and I’d been working with Schroeder and Camp on women’s issues for almost a decade. “Pat’s leaving town, so you better get up here as soon as you can,” Camp had said, excitement creeping into a voice that is usually all crisp efficiency. “And by the way--she may ask you what you think of her running for President.”

And now Camp, the congresswoman’s administrative assistant, Dan Buck, and I are consumed by curiosity. None of us quite realizes that we are stepping into a summer-long political marathon across the country that will bring Schroeder achingly close to declaring her candidacy for the nation’s highest office.

Eagerly, we tick off reasons why Schroeder should explore a possible candidacy. Her political resume is sound: She’s a Harvard lawyer and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. She has support from women’s activists and environmentalists. And, I argue, a presidential race is the next step for women in politics. This could well be a symbolic race, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign, because Schroeder would be starting very late. Still, it might be worth it if she could bring women’s issues to the forefront.

The argument doesn’t sway Schroeder. “I know I don’t want to run as a symbol. No suicide missions,” she says calmly, taking precise notes on a legal pad. “I’m not out for a forum. I’ve got a perfectly good one in Congress. I really don’t want to be perceived as being only a women’s candidate.” Nor does she want to run for vice president. “It’s not worth it to me to lose the seniority (in Congress),” she says. “If I do this, if I really run, it has got to be to win.”

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The discussion turns to the risks of running. Schroeder wouldn’t have to file for her congressional seat until well after the first wave of primaries, so she wouldn’t be jeopardizing her chance to stay in the House. If she kept the initial explorations small and didn’t spend any more than she raised, she wouldn’t have to pay off a mountain of debt. But somehow in our excitement we never discuss what will later become some of the toughest problems of the Schroeder organization: the difficulty of raising money and the complex technical rules that determine how to get convention delegates on ballots so late in the campaign season. Instead, we convince ourselves that with the support Schroeder has among politically skilled feminists, peace activists and environmentalists, she will be starting with resources that other candidates would take months to earn.

We agree to think about doing some kind of public announcement in a week or so, and I head for my office. Then, as Schroeder scrambles to leave for a flight to Denver, she picks up a call from an Associated Press reporter. “I understand you’re thinking about running,” he says. Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, she replies nonchalantly. After a brief chat, she leaves for the airport.

But in a little more than an hour, the story appears on the wires and Cable News Network. Calls start to pour into Schroeder’s office--and mine is one of the first. “Come on,” I say when Dan Buck answers. “What’s the deal? I thought Pat was going to think about this for a couple of weeks.”

Buck laughs wearily. “I don’t know what Schroeder said,” he replies, “but I’ve got 50 press calls on my desk.”

The next day I’m amazed when I drive by a newsstand and see The New York Times: There’s a photo of Schroeder at the top of the front page.

In Schroeder’s office, the phones ring steadily. I spend all day trying to calm down the women’s groups in town. Leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus are upset because they hadn’t heard about her plans in advance. “Nobody knew this would happen,” I say over and over. This isn’t quite the game plan we proposed for the year, they tell me.

We spend the next days making hundreds of phone calls to friends and friends of friends, testing support for Pat. We’re all trying to work around full-time jobs, something that becomes more difficult as the exploratory campaign intensifies. Camp and I begin taking more and more time off from work to staff the office, which soon is to become Schroeder 1988? Buck and other congressional staffers help out on evenings and weekends. Schroeder has, to use a phrase she would often employ in the following months, jump-started a presidential campaign.

RENDEZVOUS WITH REALITY: Schroeder’s Surprising Early Success

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A WEEK LATER,Pat walks into Buck’s office and tosses him a handwritten note: “Andrea/Dan--My old friend, now a teacher, will meet me and drive me around, Susan Coggeshall, D.M. IA (meaning Des Moines, Iowa).” It was signed with a big P, decorated with the happy face that Schroeder often used in her signature. So the advance team for Schroeder’s first trip to Iowa is Schroeder! After she leaves the room, we look at one another in amazement. Does she really intend to do the whole thing herself?

It sure looks as though that may be the case. She’s always liked doing things her own way. That smiley face, for instance, has jarred a lot of people--especially women’s leaders around Washington who think it’s inappropriate--but there’s nothing to do about it. It’s just Pat, the real Pat. And there’s the bunny suit. On an Easter trip to China a decade ago, she took the costume along and wore it as she distributed jellybeans to Embassy children. Some people still make jokes about the ponytailed congresswoman in the bunny suit. We think it’s harmless--after all, if a bunny suit was the worst thing she had in her closet in this post-Hart era, it was no big deal. But others fret that it might make her seem frivolous even now. Still, the independent spirit in Schroeder is what makes voters take a second look. She has an uncanny gift for packaging her political messages into witty one-liners that get people’s attention. Reagan, she will tell people through the summer, using a phrase she coined, is the “Teflon-coated” President. In foreign policy, he “roars like Rambo and acts like Bambi"; his economic policy is reminiscent of Imelda Marcos’ favorite saying: “If the shoe fits, charge it.” The nation, she will keep saying, needs a “rendezvous with reality--I’m not going to be the Tinker Bell of this campaign, bring out the magic poofle dust and say everything’s going to be OK.”

But that’s not what I find most appealing about a Schroeder candidacy. Pat Schroeder, for me, is the champion of women and families, a co-sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment. I watched her fight for a comprehensive test-ban treaty in the last Congress. I’ve heard her campaign for better health care, telling audiences that America (like South Africa) is among the only five industrialized nations that don’t have family-leave programs so parents can take care of sick children. She has a 95% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and yet somehow the National Taxpayers Union ranks her more fiscally conservative than Republican Jack Kemp. She’s a fiscally conservative liberal.

After Schroeder deposits her note on Buck’s desk, Buck, Camp and I sit around the small table in his office. She can’t go alone. In the end, we persuade her that she could use some seasoned help at her next two stops--Iowa and New Hampshire. Sally Brown, her best friend and a member of her full-time staff in Denver, will meet her in Des Moines. Pam Solo will drive her in New Hampshire. Calm, decisive and bright, Solo has managed all of Schroeder’s tough campaigns and will manage this one through the summer. Susan Coggeshall drives Schroeder and Brown around in her station wagon, ferrying them from the downtown offices of the Des Moines Register to meetings she’s set up with schoolteachers and party leaders. At every turn people are eager to meet Schroeder, and an encouraging pattern develops: The turnout at each of her stops is double what we’d expected. Then checks start to trickle in. The first are often stapled to copies of newspaper articles in which people have circled Schroeder’s quote: “No dough, no go.” The contributions add up to about $1,000 a day--nothing to write home about but enough to keep her flying, one coach-class plane ticket at a time.

It’s time for Schroeder’s own rendezvous with reality: She’s starting too late to make a smash showing in either Iowa or New Hampshire. But Democratic pollsters say her appeal to women is so strong that she’ll be among the top four candidates in those states. And that’s all she needs to make it through to the next stage.

We figure that if we each put in a couple hundred dollars of our own money and pinch pennies, we can hold out until the real fund-raising begins.

CALIFORNIA GOLD: Dinner With Norman Lear and Friends

JULY 9: Schroeder’s first campaign trip to Los Angeles since establishing her exploratory committee starts with an uncontrollable disaster. After working a full day in Congress, Schroeder catches an L.A.-bound flight only to find herself circling Chicago for two hours in a violent rainstorm. When the plane is forced to land in Indianapolis, Schroeder rents a car and drives to Chicago, arriving at 2 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight. Still, she reaches Los Angeles in an upbeat mood, a smile masking her fatigue through a day of interviews, a press conference, and private meetings with potential contributors.

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Los Angeles soon becomes a cornerstone of Schroeder’s campaign strategy. It’s a wealthy mecca for unconventional, creative people who might be attracted by her fresh approach to politics--people such as Gary David Goldberg, executive producer of the popular TV series “Family Ties,” who later supports her campaign symbolically by lending his name as finance chairman. That night, Goldberg and other Hollywood glitterati gather at the art-filled Brentwood home of entertainment executive Norman Lear to hear Schroeder. She impresses the group with her command of the issues. The Hollywood crowd applauds enthusiastically, but they’re skeptical of her ability to go the distance. “Personally, I think she’s the most exciting,” one participant says later. “Too bad she can’t get elected.” Some of the participants say they’ll give her some money, but it’s clear that the big bucks will go elsewhere--to a more “electable” candidate.

AT THE NOW CONVENTION: Starring Snow White

CLEVELAND, July 17: Schroeder’s first appearance with the other candidates will come at an annual conference of Democratic Party chairs in Cleveland, and Camp is nervous. All the other candidates will have entourages, and they’ve all been through this before. But Camp will be Schroeder’s only assistant, and she worries that she won’t be able to keep up. “What should I do first?” she asks me. “Is there anything special I should know?” But the best advice I can give is: follow your gut. “If we stopped to think about the enormity of what we’re doing,” I tell her, “we’d go nuts.”

But Camp’s worrying is needless. Reporters follow Schroeder everywhere, and columnists describe the candidates as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She’s set herself apart from the pack, Camp and I tell each other jubilantly; we couldn’t have planned it better if we’d tried. But the Snow White joke carries a thinly veiled insult to the other Democratic candidates, and soon Republican congressional interns start wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Disney characters. “Let’s drop this Snow White business,” Schroeder tells us. “It trivializes the party.”

Late on the day following the Cleveland conference, the national NOW convention in Philadelphia adjourns after giving Schroeder a tumultuous ovation. Pam Solo and I huddle in a small, windowless room off the convention floor, dodging the reporters who keep asking us how much money Schroeder has raised here. Nobody wants to know the answer to that more than we do--the Schroeder organization has been running on adrenaline and not much else for weeks now, and there’s no doubt that we need money, lots of it, if we are to go on.

Taking a break in this quiet room, the excitement of the morning gives way to introspection. There have been deaths in both our families in the year since we’ve seen each other, and we talk about our fathers: how proud they would have been to see this woman running for President, how proud they would be of us. We’re both lost in memory when a NOW official sticks her head in the room to tell us they’ve counted up $250,000 in checks and pledges, and they’re still counting. The number brings us up short. All of a sudden, it seems that this might be a real presidential campaign after all. Are we prepared? Can we do it? “If you do it, I’ll do it,” we tell each other, and wander into the lobby.

A NOW vice president meets us there, carrying a large bag. “This is too large for the hotel safe, and I don’t want to be responsible,” she says. There is $25,000 in cash, and more than $325,000 in pledges. We take the bag up to my room and stare at it for a long time.

Now that we have money, we start assembling a staff. But with the kind of money we can afford to pay--between $800 and $1,700 a month--it’s a relatively young, unseasoned group. Practically everyone’s under 30. We’re afraid to offer big salaries because we don’t know how long the campaign will last; at the same time, we’re besieged by people who want to get on the campaign, paid or volunteer, and there just isn’t time to screen everyone. I’m thoroughly shaken to find that one potential state coordinator who had come highly recommended to us had been accused of raping a worker in another campaign.

THE TURNING POINT: ‘What Have We Started?’

AUGUST 11: After weeks of eating junk food and living out of suitcases, I’m relieved to arrive in the Minneapolis airport a little bit before Schroeder so I can pamper myself with a manicure. Then it’s off to a fund-raiser arranged by Minnesota’s secretary of state, Joan Growe.

By now we’re used to crowds, but the one at the University Club is like nothing we’ve seen yet. Growe was expecting 250 people. Twelve hundred have shown up. There’s no way to speak to all of them at once, so Schroeder pushes to the microphone at the front of the room and delivers her speech. We make our way through the throng to the next room, carrying the podium, and she gives it again. Then we go through the whole routine twice more.

And at last, she’s sounding like a candidate. No more lame jokes, no waffling, no ums and ers. “If there’s dough, I go,” she says emphatically. We raise $30,000 this trip. Schroeder appeals to a mixed group of men and women, longtime party activists, people with a range of experience that we can draw on--if we can build an organization. Maybe a Minnesota strategy will work. While the other candidates are fighting over Iowa and New Hampshire, Schroeder might be able to take Minnesota, an early-caucus state, and keep building. Still, it’s chancy. We’re far from the $2 million that Schroeder has said we need by the end of September to keep her in the race. And Minnesota, we keep reminding one another, was after all the only state to go Democratic in 1984.

Away from the crowd, Schroeder is curiously pensive. We go back to our hotel room between meetings, soaked with sweat, our feet swollen in the hot weather. “What have we started?” she asks, the ambivalence clear on her face. “I never dreamed there would be this kind of a showing.”

She falls silent. For the first time, it’s apparent to her that she might be able to go all the way, that people will truly respond to her. She can’t be tentative on the stump if she wants to win support, but she can’t mislead these enthusiastic people, either. “I just want to go to my room and sleep,” she says. But the next morning she tells me she hardly slept at all. The big decision is still ahead.

FLYING EAST: Fatigue and Doubts

SEPTEMBER 6: Schroeder and her husband, Jim, are flying back from a brief vacation--the only time they’ve had alone together in months--when she sees her campaign schedule in the newspaper. The next day, Labor Day, she’ll be doing fund-raisers in three Florida cities, all across the state. “Oh no, I’m off again at dawn,” she moans. It’s back to the grueling routine of airports, bad food and up to a half-dozen events a day as she hustles to test the political winds in as many states as possible. “I’m turning my body into a chemical waste dump during this campaign,” she grumbled a few weeks ago, gulping down a hot fudge sundae. “Sugar, caffeine, sugar, caffeine, sugar, sugar, salt, sugar. I use the salt to break it up.”

There’s never a moment to rest. On planes, where she might catch a nap, she never turns away people who recognize her. After articles appear in Time and People magazines, it seems that everyone knows who she is and wants to talk. When business executives and parents with children stop in the aisle to introduce themselves, I offer to trade seats for a while so they can sit down and chat.

September 20: The crowds in Minnesota are large and enthusiastic, and our meetings have run long. Pat and Jim Schroeder and I sprint to the gate at the airport. We’re the last to board, and we take the three empty seats that remain, a row in the stuffy tail of the plane. Our flight pulls away from the gate on time, but we’re stuck on the runway for two hours with no food, nothing to drink and air conditioning that switches on and off.

Rain begins pouring through the bright sun outside, and as we watch, two rainbows appear in the sky. “It’s a sign that you should run,” Jim tells Pat. They reminisce about how people said she couldn’t win her congressional seat in 1972, yet she managed to pull off the one upset of the Nixon landslide.

“So, what do you think?” Pat asks. “Is it do-able?” It’s Jim’s cue to renew the debate that’s been going on all week. They sit close, holding hands, their voices rising above the din of the plane. He reviews the list of pluses: There have been great crowds; there’s nothing to lose; we’ve got enough money to qualify for federal matching funds.

“But what about the money?” Pat reiterates. “We don’t have $2 million. I don’t know about the money--I just don’t know if it’ll be there.” Then, just when it seems she’s talked herself out of running, she reverses. “What the heck. Look at what a great day it was. Maybe we can pull it out.”

I don’t say anything, but I keep hoping there are no reporters around. And I’m glad the woman in front of us is speaking German; maybe she won’t understand what the two of them are saying.

I get up to pace the aisle. They’re still talking when I get back. “The money’s not there,” Jim is saying, this time focusing on the negatives. Then he relents: “But we know we’ve got enough money now to get federal matching, and we can borrow to keep going until we get it in January.”

Pat is adamant. “We said we wouldn’t go into debt, and I don’t want to borrow.”

Face it, she says: “The bottom line is, the money’s not there.”

Still, you can run a different type of campaign, Jim says, one that’s less costly, more manageable. We don’t need to continue the unbearable schedule, rushing from one state to another.

“I need some time to think, time to reflect on all this,” Pat insists. But there isn’t any time.

HOME TO DENVER: Stepping Off the High Wire

SEPTEMBER 25: In the past month, staff discussions have focused on money, time and organization, the three crucial factors we didn’t talk about at the beginning. We’ve studied the requirements for getting delegates onto the ballots in all the states, and it’s grim. There’s a maze of rules and technicalities that only a handful of lawyers understand. Had we started earlier, we might have been able to marshal an army of volunteer lawyers and accountants. But now the expertise will cost millions.

Until now, we’ve all stayed as neutral as we could, telling ourselves and Schroeder that the decision to run was hers to make and that we’d support her no matter what. But in the final hours, as Pat’s self-imposed deadline for a decision closes in, Jim Schroeder and I realize that this is our last chance to keep it going. Over a glass of wine, we resolve to write long memos urging that she run. Gary Goldberg and Betty Friedan both urge her to keep going. But except for her family, most of those around her--especially her congressional staffers--lean heavily against continuing. The organization is thin, they say; there’s not enough money; what about delegate slates. Don’t embarrass yourself with a failure. “You don’t have to be ashamed of not running,” one tells her. “You’d be in distinguished company--(New York Gov. Mario) Cuomo, (Arkansas Gov. Bill) Clinton, (New Jersey Sen. Bill) Bradley. . . . " Money is tight--we’ve raised less than $1 million--and everyone is weary.

Schroeder spends the weekend with family members who’ve flown in from around the country to cheer her on, and I hole up in a hotel room to decompress. By now all those conversations about money, time and organization are echoing in my head, and I know Schroeder will decide not to run. We started with too little too late. September 28: Schroeder comes into the office to meet with the Denver staff about 10:30. The walls are covered with the awards she’s assembled over the years, symbols of victories and recognition. I slip in late and join the staff members gathered around her in a circle. Quietly she tells us she’s decided not to run. There are no tears, no hugs. I find myself tuning out, thinking about familiar details like setting up a sound system for broadcast reporters at the announcement rally. I’ve already exhausted my emotions over the past week, in the moments I almost believed she’d run.

At noon, supporters and the press jam the Civic Park rally site. When she says she’s not running, a loud groan comes from the crowd. Then comes the part we’ll see over and over again on the television news. Choked with emotion, Schroeder says, “I can’t figure out how to run,” and stops for a few moments to wipe at her tears. “There must be a way, but I haven’t figured it out.” One summer wasn’t enough time to devise a different kind of campaign.

Later, Pat Schroeder will say she felt all summer that she was walking the high wire without a net.

LOS ANGELES: Back to the Future

OCTOBER 16: Betty Friedan is the first person I recognize in the crowd at the opening of USC’s Institute on the Study of Women and Men in Society, and she’s shaking her finger at me. “Schroeder should have run,” she scolds me as she draws near. “It was a big mistake. You didn’t push hard enough.” I do my best to persuade her that Schroeder made the right decision. It’s something I’ve come to believe in the weeks since she pulled out.

Friedan’s words sting, but Marion Reese, a Hollywood producer, comes to the rescue. “Tell Pat I was touched by her last statement,” she says. “She was so human, she touched my soul.” If Schroeder runs again, Reese says, she’ll be there--perhaps even full-time.

Later that afternoon, Schroeder has been invited to address Democratic activists who have jammed the elegant living room of philanthropists Betty and Stanley Sheinbaum. The room’s artwork give it the opulent feel of a museum. But the message Schroeder delivers beside the Sheinbaum’s fireplace will be heard again and again in more modest living rooms in Minnesota and Iowa and New Hampshire and all the other states over the next few years. “Like all of us in this room,” she says, “I want the Democrats to win in 1988.

“There may not be an opening in 1992. But then"--and a broad smile crosses her face--"there’s always 1996.”


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