Profile: Bob Holste (PA ’83), Pew Charitable Trusts

Holste

For
this interview, Bob Holste (PA ’83), Deputy Director of Government Relations
for the Pew Charitable Trusts was interviewed by Bill Rivers (DE ’09).

Bob
Holste
is Deputy Director of Government Relations at The Pew Charitable Trusts,
where he ensures Pew’s program initiatives are understood by state, federal and
international policy makers.

Mr.
Holste was a partner in a political consulting and advertising firm from 2008
until joining Pew in 2009.  Previously, he was the national coalitions
director of the Rudy Giuliani for President Committee and served for over 12
years as the Chief of Staff for U.S. Rep. Phil English (R-PA), a member of the
House Ways & Means Committee.  During this time, Mr. Holste served for
three years as president of the bipartisan House Chiefs of Staff
Association.  He is a veteran of numerous political campaigns across the
U.S. and in his home state of Pennsylvania and headed Incumbent Retention
at the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2002 and 2004.

Before
coming to Washington, D.C., he served as the director of the Office of Policy
and Planning in the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General and as a manager in
the Pennsylvania Treasury Department.

Mr.
Holste serves on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania State Society and
the Capitol Hill Club. He is graduate of the Pennsylvania State University with
a degree in public service.

Bill Rivers is a recent graduate from the University of
Delaware where he studied International Relations and History. A member of Phi
Beta Kappa and a 2010 Simon Fellow, he currently directs marketing and
fundraising for Water Is Life-Kenya, (www.kenyawaterislife.com)
a Delaware-based non-profit dedicated to developing clean, sustainable water
resources in Southern Kenya.

Is there a specific
moment or an event in your life when you first realized you wanted a career in
politics?

There
wasn’t a light switch moment. My junior and senior years in high school I was a
cloakroom page in Congress. It was exciting to work on the House floor. I loved
it. I’ve really been doing this since I was 16.

In 2002 and 2004
you ran the GOP’s Incumbent Retention efforts in the House of Representatives,
coordinating dozens of congressional candidates, with near-perfect records both
times. Given that sitting Congressmen must have some strong opinions about how
to best get themselves re-elected, how do you herd cats so successfully?

By
keeping in mind that the effort is about the members and getting them
reelected, not about you. I used to tell members the only thing I get judged on
is whether or not they get reelected. I wasn’t looking for a job with any of
them. I was always going to leave when the campaign ended and go back to my
Hill job, which was a lot less stressful anyway. I told them frequently, “I’m
just here to get you reelected.”

If
you realize that races are similar but districts are different, and take the
time to learn about each district, then you can be helpful. And if you’re
helpful, they’re willing to listen.

In
the first cycle, I also had “soft money.” That was back before McCain-Feingold.
Then, we spent lots of money and everybody could find out where it came from.
I’ll leave it to others to determine if it was a better system.

Is all politics
local?

It
depends on the cycle. You ignore local preferences at your peril. We do live in
one country. As the last election made pretty clear, it is possible to be in a
cycle where the election is nationalized and voters move together because they
have similar concerns across districts. There is a reason every McDonald’s
looks the same, and every TJ Maxx looks the same. There is value in
consistency. If you’ve got double-digit unemployment in 60 out of 100 districts,
don’t be surprised that every campaign will be talking about jobs and the
economy.

When you know a
candidate is going to lose, and your limited resources would be better spent
elsewhere, how do you say ‘No’?

From
the national party perspective, in a number of cases you can’t say yes or no.
Candidates will get a pretty good clue when you tell them they’re not getting
their coordinated funding that the parties are allowed to spend. You can’t tell
them independent expenditures, but all that information is publicly available.
A smart campaign tracks that. And you’ll see that as soon as a party withdraws
their independent expenditures, it makes national news.

You
just say, “We have deep concerns given the state of polling and what you’ve
done.” You need some version of a very polite, “We told you so.” But there are
consequences to bad decisions. Politics is a very Darwinian process and money
is not unlimited. Candor works. Just tell the truth.

One
time I had a member come in to my office and ask me about where his coordinated
money went. When I told him, he responded by saying ‘I think I’ll start
cleaning out my desk.’

Relating to our
discussion of electoral politics, California is getting attention for its
non-partisan commission to oversee redistricting efforts. One of the guidelines
will be that all districts will be condensed, regardless of whether they
encompass homogenous parts of a region. Does such a thing as a ‘non-partisan
re-districting commission’ really exist? How should re-apportionment be
handled?

I’m
skeptical of nonpartisan redistricting commissions. Theoretically, I suppose
its possible. It depends on how you define “fairness.” Does it mean a district
will be politically competitive? This is not going to be possible in every
case. Does it mean there is a reasonable chance that a district will send
minority representation to Congress? We know there’s a reasonable chance they
won’t if compactness is the standard. Re-districting is not a panacea if what
you want is more challenging, competitive races.

I
think we can look to states like Iowa for a reasonable, successful nonpartisan
redistricting effort. They’ve managed to get a lot of the partisanship out of
their process.  In 2000, Iowa’s 5
congressional seats were all re-districted. They rotated them like a clock. All
the members ended up with 45-60% of their district being new constituents.
Functionally, it turned every one of them into freshmen congressmen and Iowa
into a national target. What followed was a hard fought battle, with a lot of
national media attention. And do you know what happened? Every incumbent was
reelected.

What
would be a more sustainable approach—though this is asking a lot—would be to
generate elected officials who were more sympathetic to alternative political
points of view. You want officials worried about what their general electorate
thinks, not just their primary electorate. On balance, that would be useful for
the country. But recognize there’s no one-stop solution. We have an
increasingly contentious electorate.

Why is that? Is it
because of Gerrymandering? Or is there really some schism in the American soul?

Gerrymandering
definitely makes it worse. That’s all about packing and cracking. If districts
are all packed, then anybody just has to win the primary. Generally speaking,
Gerrymandering is a bad thing. But when 45 percent of the country comes down on
one side of an issue, and 45 percent on the other, that means there’s great
division.  You shouldn’t be surprised
that your Congress is reasonably representative of that.

What
we’re seeing now, I think, is the end of forty-year majorities. The electorate
is comprised of divided, free actors. We’re a three party nation with a two
party system.

Your work with the
GOP didn’t end in 2004. In 2007 the Giuliani Presidential Campaign named you
their National Coalitions Director. What’s the first thing you did when you
took the job?

After
finding a place to live in Jersey City? The campaign had no existing coalition
structure at all. The first thing to do was to get some staff in Iowa and New
Hampshire, and later in Florida. Then it was bringing volunteers into a
coordinated structure. The campaign ended up with over forty different
coalition groups of which Women for Rudy
and Students for Rudy were the
biggest. Once you get organized, you have to task your volunteers. That means
millions of phone calls.

Would you have done
anything differently?

Sure.
How much time do you have?  If we had to
do it over again, I think we would have skipped Iowa. Giuliani was a centrist
candidate and caucus states just aren’t good for that. Iowa is a fundraiser,
not a poll. You’re lucky if you get two percent of the electorate to show up at
the polls. And most of the people who win the caucus go on to lose, both the
nomination and the White House. New Hampshire is much more predictive because
it’s an actual primary. You get higher levels of voter participation and a more
representative electorate. A caucus is easily highjack-able by special
interests.

What do you think
is the driving force behind the two major political parties in the United
States today?

The
Republican Party is more homogenous than the Democrats in terms of membership.
Its policy base is a small businessman in Ohio. The Democratic Party is a
coalition. Its policy base is a union shop steward in Indiana who works for a
public sector labor union. You see these positions playing out in the positions
of each party.

Take
taxes for example. Republicans worry about capital gains, estate taxes, and tax
breaks for the rich because most small business people are sub-chapter S, which
means they pay taxes at the personal rate not the corporate rate.

I
was approached once by a small business owner who made $350,000 a year, out of
which he paid 9 employees. But because he made $350,000, he was considered
‘rich’ and he personally was taxed for it. He told me, “If they raise my tax
rates, I’m firing people.”

You currently serve
as Deputy Director of Government Relations for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Now
that you’re outside the partisan political realm, what do you see as your
greatest challenge?

The
challenge for any downtown group, but especially for Pew, is to get on the
agenda for Congress and then move your issues through. If you look at some of
Pew’s major issues—food safety, antibiotic protection and research, financial
market reforms to protect consumers—everyone’s for that. But there’s a big
difference between everyone being for it and actually getting on the floor of
the House and build a bill that people can get around. Especially if you don’t
have a PAC and aren’t likely to have one.

Pew
has to form coalitions and work with like-minded individuals across party lines
to help convene people who together are loud enough to command the attention of
political leaders in Congress and the Administration to put issues front and
center and get them moved.

I
couldn’t find anybody who was for salmonella in their eggs. That doesn’t mean
there weren’t people opposed to the food safety bill. It’s not that their
objectives are illegitimate. It’s just that in our view, they were too focused
on their concerns and not enough on the public’s concerns.

So you’re still in
politics?

Everything’s
political in that sense. There are legitimate policy differences that have to
be overcome. And in a process that’s designed to be difficult to pass laws (the
Founding Fathers really nailed that), that’s the principal challenge: punching
through and being persuasive enough.

One of the Trust’s
founders, Joseph N. Pew, famously remarked that if elected President of the
United States, he would “Tell the truth and trust the people.” Given the recent
Wikileaks headlines, how do you determine when telling the truth and trusting
the people is harmful?

There
is a place for secrecy in statecraft and there is a place for public discourse
and the free flow of information in a democracy. We’ve managed to find a
balance for 200 years. I’m sure we’ll be able to do it now.

I’d
obviously draw a pretty bright line between Wikileaks and Pew. Pew’s advocacy
is founded on a solid principle of action: When the facts are clear and the
case is compelling and we think that Pew’s intervention would make a
difference, then we will engage in advocacy supported by our nonpartisan
research. I think most people would agree that knowledge is good, but it needs
to come in context. I’m all for making the government tell me what they’re
doing, but not if servicemen and women are going to get killed in Kandahar.

The Pew Research
Center studies, among a host of issues, American civic literacy. How would you
rate the average American in this regard?

If
we’re talking about electoral politics, people can be stupid but voters are
smart.  I am not in the voters are stupid
category. When you get large numbers of them, in the aggregate, they tend to
get it right. You get on thin ice when you assert that it’s dumb voters making
dumb decisions that are to blame. The “voters are stupid speech” starts with
what the question “What other explanation could there be for their failure to
see my point of view?”

There’s
a reason stuff happens. I’ve seen people lose that I thought should have won.
Sometimes you get caught in a wave and it’s not fair. But if voters are going
to change the direction of the country, they’re going to fire a whole bunch of
people. Sometimes voters want to change and the decision is above your pay
grade. And they have lots of opportunities to change their mind. We have
elections every two years.

There’s an old
adage that says “You are what you read.” As someone who’s been highly
successful in electoral politics and in the non-profit world, what are you
reading right now? What are your favorite books?

I
just finished Last Call, a political
history of the rise and fall of prohibition in the United States. It’s an
absolutely terrific book. I really recommend it to students in the process.
It’s history at its finest. It gets back to the previous question of civic
literacy: How could such a colossally dumb idea actually get called into being
in a democratic country? It describes the rise of single-issue politics in the
States and what I think was the most powerful political organization in the
United States, the Anti-Saloon League. The NRA on its best day couldn’t hope to
achieve that kind of influence.

Last question: One
of your Truman classmates, Chris Coons, was just elected to the US Senate from
my home state of Delaware. Can you say you knew him when?

Well,
we didn’t have Truman Leadership Week when Chris and I were selected.  We didn’t get that class consciousness that
recent Trumans are able to have. When we were selected, Scholars flew out to
Missouri for two days. We spent the first at the Presidential Library, and had
our ceremony the following day. The Leadership week is really a great
experience that we didn’t get to have.

Bill Rivers (DE
’09) currently directs marketing and fundraising for Water Is Life-Kenya, (www.kenyawaterislife.com) a
Delaware-based non-profit dedicated to developing clean, sustainable water
resources in Southern Kenya.

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