Scott MacKay Commentary: The Rhode Islander Pushing Bernie Sanders Message

Feb 19, 2016

Rhode Islander Tad Devine is the chief messenger for insurgent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay caught up with Devine recently to talk about Sanders surprising success.

Lincoln Chafee remembers  the first time he met Bernie Sanders . It was last year at an obligatory presidential campaign stop:  The annual South Carolina fish fry thrown by Congressman Jim Clayburn, the most powerful African-American Democrat in that state.

At the time, both Chafee and Sanders were stumping for support for the Democratic presidential nomination.

``The first thing Bernie says to me is, we’ve got a mutual friend,’’ Chafee recalled last week. He asked who?

``Tad Devine,’’ shot back a smiling Sanders.

Now, Devine, a Providence city sidewalk inspector’s son whose first home was in the Roger Williams housing project on Thurbers Avenue, is the top media message maven for the Vermont senator’s White House quest.

Devine’s the guy spinning Sanders liberal message on cable TV. He’s the guy who translates Sanders ideas into sound bites. And he makes the campaign television spots that have drawn national praise as Sanders has emerged from long-shot dreamer to serious competitor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as Democrats vote in South Carolina this weekend.

Chafee’s own presidential campaign didn’t go so well; he dropped out before the first primary. But the former Rhode Island senator and governor knows Devine well.  

During his successful 2010 campaign for governor, Chafee relied on Devine for advice.

He says Devine is an expert at taking ideas and turning them into television spots that connected with voters. One of those ads portrayed Chafee as a candidate voters could trust and invoked the legacy of Chafee’s beloved father, the late Rhode Island governor and senator John Chafee.

It was widely credited as the most potent of the television commercials in that governor’s race, which Chafee won narrowly. ``Tad is very passionate and very competitive. What he’s done for Bernie is unbelievable.’’

Devine, 60, has been deeply involved in almost every Democratic presidential campaign since 1980 helping Democrats win their party’s nomination but never helming a winning White House campaign.

Devine was a star basketball player at La Salle Academy, where he teamed with Joe Hassett, who would play at Providence College and win an NBA championship with the Seattle Supersonics. Devine studied history at Brown and got a law degree at Suffolk University. He has maintained his strong ties to the Ocean State – after living in Washington, D.C. for years, he and his wife Ellen make their home on Block Island.

Devine keeps up with his many friends from La Salle, Brown and Rhode Island politics. He usually turns up in Providence just before Christmas for a night of dinner and drinks at a slew of taverns and restaurants. A couple of years back he even turned down an invitation at that year’s hottest Washington holiday party, a bash at Vice-President Joe Biden’s residence. His wife stood in for him while he partied with Providence friends.

For decades, Devine was part of a powerhouse Democratic consulting firm, where his partners were his boyhood pal Mike Donilon, brother of President Obama's formr national security director, Tom Donilon,  and superstar speechwriter Bob Shrum. The firm worked for many winning blue-state Democrats, including Ted Kennedy and Jack Reed.

Along the way he carved a reputation as a consultant who piloted successful races across the nation, but was criticized by some Rhode Island Democrats after he failed as manager of then-Providence mayor  Joseph Paolino Jr.‘s 1990 campaign for governor. The Chafee win bucked up Devine’s Ocean State reputation.

Sanders has been a Devine client since 1996, when he held Vermont’s  lone U.S. House seat. Unlike some of his other clients, with whom he had a mostly professional   relationship, Sanders and Devine clicked on a personal level and became friends.

The Sanders campaign has been notable for its lack of internal dissension, which Devine attributes to the senator’s long-time relationships with top aides. ``There aren’t a bunch of egos here, we’re all rowing with the same oar.’’

The senator's high campaign command has been with him for years. It includes longtime staffer Phil Fiermonte, a former labor union organizer, business owner Jeff Weaver, press spokesman Mike Briggs and Jane Sanders, the candidate's wife of nearly 30 years. Devine jokes that he's the newcomer in this circle.

``I've only been with Bernie for 20 years,'' says Devine. The group is loyal to Sanders, don't talk out of school to reporters and pundits and resembles the no-drama Obama campaign of 2008 much more than the leaks and turf battles of Clintonland.

That doesn't mean there is agreement on everything. For example, Sanders doesn't like pollsters; he always thinks he doesn't need polls to tell him what to think or say. But, as is the case with every reputable media consultant, Devine needs polling data to take the electorate's temperature. After an internal joust, Sanders acceded to Devine's wishes; the campaign now has two pollsters on retainer.

Sanders was once viewed as an improbable candidate, a view that has changed since he crushed Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. Now, Devine says, the Vermonter will be in the fight to the end.

The campaign has been fueled by record small donor fund-raising over the internet and huge rallies thronged by thousands of energetic young voters.  Sanders authenticity and his message of curbing economic inequality has resonated with voters, Devine says.

The other crucial factor, has been a nimble digital campaign that has communicated though the Internet and smart phones.

Sanders has shattered expectations, but the crucial primaries in such delegate-rich states as Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, New York, California, Texas and Florida have yet to be held. March is make-or-break time, with more than 50 percent of delegates chosen that month.

While Sanders had done very well with white liberal voters similar to his Vermont constituents, a big test comes this weekend in South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic voters are minorities.

``We’re seeing younger African-American voters turning to Bernie,’’ says Devine, which would mirror the voting patterns of whites in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

However, it ends, Devine says, he isn’t angling for a West Wing job. ``I’m going back to Block Island.’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary airs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at  5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org