Pawlenty staffers point fingers of blame at Nick Ayers for campaign debt

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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As the team on Gov. Pawlenty’s now concluded presidential campaign works to recoup a campaign debt of some half-million dollars, their fingers have begun pointing toward the campaign’s manager, Nick Ayers, as the person to blame for the decisions that put the campaign into debt — and, by many accounts, as simply an unpleasant human being to work with.

“I would blame him 100 percent for racking up the debt,” said one senior staff member of the Pawlenty campaign.

Ayers declined to weigh in on that statement, or any of the others made in this story.

“I believe a campaign manager before, during, and after a campaign should accept responsibility and keep their mouth closed,” Ayers emailed. “So while there are always two sides to a story, mine won’t be one of them.”

Leaving the race with a campaign debt was an unforeseen development on the part of the candidate.

“The governor and Mary were very clear early on in the campaign that they did not, under any circumstances, want to go into debt,” said the senior staff member. “The governor laid out three criteria when announcing to his staff that he was running for president: 1) Run an ethical campaign. 2) Stay out of debt. 3) Win. In that order.”

In fact, sources confirmed on background, the initial plan was to have a fund set aside so that if the worst were to happen, there would be money set aside to help out staffers and pay off the campaign’s debts. That fund, however, was wiped out during Pawlenty’s short-lived campaign.

Pawlenty himself did not know his campaign was in debt when he chose to drop out of the race, according to another senior member of his campaign team. And Ayers, the campaign manager in charge of managing the big picture of the campaign, did not know either.

“It’s stunning that the Governor is in the position he’s in,” said the senior member of the team. “That should not happen … I mean, [Ayers] didn’t know that the debt was there. He wasn’t aware of what the debt level was.”

Pawlenty “didn’t get out of the race because he was in debt,” the senior member said. “I think he got out of the race because he didn’t want to go into debt.”

“He’s the person in charge,” the source said of Ayers. “How could he not know?”

By all accounts, Ayers “kept very close counsel,” making sure that all decisions went through him.

“There was a very clear — I would even call it a goal of his — to keep senior staff at a minimum and to limit the amount of people that were involved in decisions in a way that kind of allowed him to single handedly control everything,” said a third senior member of the campaign.

“In the beginning, you know, he is the campaign manager, so people went along with it,” the source continued. “Everybody said, ‘sure, you’re the campaign manager, let’s see what you have got,’ but then it almost became impossible for people to do their jobs or to be even be helpful in their roles.”

“Our roles were always encroached upon and corrected — sometimes wrongly corrected — by his overriding nature,” the source said.

“I think Gov Pawlenty had one of the most professional teams and experienced teams and people in different positions were not allowed to use their expertise,” the source added.

Staffers had high hopes for Ayers when he was first brought onto the campaign.

“I think all of us went in with really high expectations. None of us knew him real well. We all wanted Gov. Pawlenty to do well, and he had a very good reputation and it was kind of the thought that this was going to be very good for the campaign,” said a fourth Pawlenty campaign staffer.

“In that role at the RGA [Republican Governors Association], he was a hot commodity,” added the third senior staff member. He was a part of a group that raised money very successfully.

But reputations can be deceiving, staffers said.

Ayers is “all fluff and ego, no substance,” said the first senior staffer, calling him the “biggest disappointment I’ve ever worked with in politics,” and adding: “I’ll never work with any political organization he’s associated with again.”

“Nick’s good at being a politician. He can turn it on with the best of them, and he is an appealing guy when he needs to be,” echoed the third source.

A consultant who worked closely with the RGA when Ayers was there called him the “best self promoter that I have ever seen,” but said that his self-promotion was not warranted.

“I’ve never met anyone that knows so little about politics and is in the position that he’s in,” said the consultant. “I don’t know how he got there.”

“The guy thinks a lot of himself. He’s the best there ever was and the best there ever will be, if you talk to him,” the consultant added. “And I think he is a prick. I think he’s dangerous. If he were in the military, he’s the type of person that would get people killed.”

For Pawlenty staffers, the first hints that Ayers might not be quite as advertised came “pretty quickly,” said the fourth staffer: specifically, when Ayers sent out an email announcing that he had accepted the position as the campaign manager for Gov. Pawlenty’s presidential bid. The email walked readers through Ayers thinking process, first about why he had not intended to join a presidential campaign, and then explained that God had “called” him to serve on the Pawlenty campaign.

“Over the past six months, I have prayed deeply about my purpose in life and how best to utilize the talents God has given me,” Ayers wrote. “I wanted my decision to be wholly about how best to serve Him, not what was most politically or financially expedient for my family and me. As He often does in walks of faith, He has called me to a higher purpose … Therefore, I am pleased today to join Governor and Mrs. Pawlenty in their pursuit of the presidency.”

“Starting with the email that he sent out it became very clear that this was not about Tim Pawlenty as much as it was about him,” the fourth staffer said. “That was the first red flag” that “holy cow this guy really likes to write about himself.”

“It’s really not supposed to be about the staff; its supposed to be about the principal,” the fourth staffer said.

“Nick ran the campaign about Nick and forgot that he wasn’t the candidate,” said the first senior staffer.

The perception that Ayers was too much in the spotlight was not limited to staff on the Pawlenty campaign. Shortly after Ayers participated in a New York Times profile piece in July, Jon Huntsman campaign manager Matt David emailed staff the link to a 2010 Ayers profile in the Washington Post, to make the point that:

Working on campaigns should be a very selfless act and we want to make sure that we remain disciplined in communicating the message, rather than the process or personalities behind the candidate.

That Ayers profile was provided as “an example of the type of profile piece that we won’t participate in.”

A second major issue was Ayers’ lack of experience managing a presidential campaign. He had previously served as the Republican Governors Association’s executive director, and as the campaign manager for Gov. Sonny Perdue’s 2006 re-election effort. But he had never worked on a presidential campaign before.

“Running a 527 type organization is very different than running a presidential campaign,” said the second senior member of the Pawlenty team. “I don’t think he had the experience necessary to run a presidential campaign and that became clear pretty immediately.”

The campaign debt that remains is a “testament to Nick’s inability to manage the finances,” said the first senior staffer, who said that it “wasn’t a revenue problem; it was a spending problem” from which the debt resulted.

“He definitely outspent what was budgeted,” the source added, and criticized him for “not having an understanding of the complete financial situation despite inquiries from the governor.”

“I think he was young, inexperienced and it showed,” said the second senior member of the team.

It was “somewhat stunning to me that he didn’t know what the debt was as the candidate’s making a decision to get out of the race,” the source said.

Pawlenty, by most accounts, did have one of the most experienced and impressive campaign teams of any candidate. But Ayers did not tap into that experience. Instead, said the fourth senior staffer, his “lack of experience [was] coupled with the lack of interest in what others with experience had to say.”

“I can count on one hand the number of staff meetings that were held,” said the first senior staffer. Instead, Ayers “[hoarded] information.”

“Our opinions were rarely sought and even more rarely heeded — our opinions were really never taken into account at all,” said the fourth senior staffer. “That honestly was pretty disappointing.”

“He would point the blame for everything going wrong, and take all the credit for everything going right,” said the first senior staffer. “Even though we did have some successes, they weren’t because of Nick.”

Money issues aside, the New Hampshire debate is generally considered to have been the Pawlenty campaign’s death knell. There, Pawlenty declined to attack Romney on the healthcare plan he passed as governor of Massachusetts, although he had slammed it as too similar to Obamacare and labeled it ObamneyCare during high-profile television appearances one day earlier.

But the fourth senior staff member pointed out that “people have bounced back from tough debate performances in the past.” The problem, the source said, was that “the campaign didn’t say anything for a couple days.” There was no messaging provided for any of the staff.

Then, the campaign’s first on-the-record statement was to blame the governor. Nick Ayers was the first person to make that statement in a staff meeting the day before.

The source confessed to having never before seen a candidate “publicly attacked by his own team.”

“It was stunning to me. For a spokesperson to say it was, I thought, really not appropriate,” the source concluded.

Despite the negative professional feelings Ayers engendered, campaign staffers did not universally dislike him on a personal level.

“I enjoyed working with him,” said the second source, calling him “accessible,” “politically smart,” someone who “worked very hard,” and was “fundamentally a good guy.”

But, said the source, “you can be easy to work with and a nice person and still not be” great at your job.

The blame for how Ayers ran the campaign, however, should not fall entirely on Ayers himself, the source said.

“In fairness to Nick … you can only blame the campaign staff so much,” the source said. “Pawlenty created an environment that allowed Nick to control all the information and essentially make all of the decisions. It’s the candidate that set the tone.”

On Monday, Pawlenty announced his endorsement of Mitt Romney; he will serve as national co-chair for the the Romney campaign. On Tuesday a Washington, D.C. fundraiser will be held to help retire Pawlenty’s campaign debt.

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