I Worked at Kmart With John McCains Director of Strategy
Two weeks ago, while driving, a sharp fact jabbed me through the soft drone of NPR. The story concerned a John McCain campaign memo that was leaked to the press — something about Barack Obama’s likelihood of enjoying a serious post-convention bounce, the kind of “leak” one assumes comes from a campaign trying to manage public expectation.
The memo’s author? Sarah Simmons, the campaign’s director of strategy.
No way, I thought.
This couldn’t be the Sarah Simmons I knew back in 1992. Not the brainy, earnest Shawnee Mission Northwest girl I used to laugh with for hours at the Kmart at 87th Street and Maurer in Lenexa. Not the bright, goofy band geek who used to sit in a shopping cart while I pushed her around women’s wear, distributing that week’s sale signs. Not the tall, pinkish, bookish blond-haired Republican diehard who adored Nancy Kassebaum, could talk politics like a guest on The NewsHour, and once gave me a photo of herself posing with a cardboard cutout of Nancy Reagan.
Of course it was her. The Sarah Simmons I knew had always talked of a political career, and she’d left Kansas in 1992 for American University in Washington, D.C. She majored in political science, went on to get her master’s degree and managed in just 16 years to haul herself up from tending the 99-cent underwear bin to serving as director of strategy for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate.
Google confirmed all of this. She worked with McCain last year, got laid off when he went broke early this year, then came back when he started winning again. She’s quoted in The Boston Globe and lambasted by commentators on the political gossip site Wonkette. She has elected state reps; she organized Wisconsin for the GOP in 2000; and she re-elected Saxby Chambliss, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louisiana Sen. David Vitters, who once famously earmarked $100,000 so the Louisiana Family Forum could challenge the teaching of evolution. In 2007, Campaigns & Elections named her a “rising star.” And as an associate director in the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, she worked for Karl Rove.
I still think she’s awesome.
“Every campaign has its own relentless level of hecticness and stress,” she tells me by phone from her D.C. office, the first contact we’ve had in 15 years. “This is nothing like the corporate environment. There’s always lots of swearing, a good bottle of booze, and by the end everybody comes in every day looking like they just rolled out of bed. But complaining about it would be like a reporter complaining about deadlines. This is the job, and it’s the best job in the world.”
She sounds just like she did years ago. A voice reedy and amused, a polite firmness with her opinions but real respect for everyone else’s. And mostly the kind of in-the-marrow, morning-in-America optimism I always suspect the people she works for are trying to fake.
Before she ran campaigns, she specialized in polling, consulting and “opposition research.”
“That sounds a lot sexier than it was,” she says. “Opposition research taught me the fundamentals of how you build a candidate’s record. You add up all the proposals the candidate supported to reach the $300 million in new spending that might run in an ad.”
Eventually, she landed at Public Opinion Strategies, a research and opinion firm that, among other things, conducts polls for most Republican governors and U.S. House members. She polled for six years and loved it, eventually becoming senior project director. “It’s the key to the puzzle,” she says. “I’d survey city council races or state legislative races and sometimes get in some presidential-level questions. Polling, you see a broad spectrum of how the dynamics of America come together. I learned there how to ask voters the right questions.”
Her bosses eventually suggested that she strike out among the grassroots. “One day, after we’d finished an election cycle, they kicked me out of the nest. They said, ‘Go fly, little bird!'”
She did, to central Virginia, where she helped the GOP collect a statehouse seat. From there, she kept at it, state after state, talking to voters, balancing budgets, organizing volunteers, bagging victories for both local and national candidates. Sometimes, in the smaller races, she’s the only woman with power involved in the campaigns. She says she’s always been confident enough asserting herself that this doesn’t faze her.
She certainly seemed unflappable in our retail days. One afternoon, on our lunch break, we punched out, climbed into my family’s Buick and floored it for a Lenexa Taco Bell. The place was dead, its crew milling aimlessly behind the counter. Soon, a young black man standing near the register made eye contact with me. I smiled and said, “Could I get a tostada and a — “
The young man snapped at me. “You think just because you see a black man standing here that I’m here to serve you?”
I stood there dumbstruck, paralyzed by liberal guilt.
Sarah wasn’t thrown. “No,” she said, with her characteristic poise and humor. “It’s because you’re wearing a Taco Bell uniform.”
At least I think he did. Memory is tricky that way: The brain shapes it to confirm what we feel the world — or a person — is like.
I ask Simmons if she remembers this incident.
“I remember it,” she says. “But not what he did. I mostly remember you telling that story.”
Simmons found herself at parties packed with Shrivers and Kennedys. “Sometimes I feel like people are going to find me out,” she says. “I’m just the same dorky kid who worked at Kmart. What am I doing here? It’s like the old joke — I’m not sure about any club that would have me as a member.”
I try for juicy details, but she doesn’t give. She’s always been careful. The time a cop almost ticketed a gang of us for jumping off a bridge into Lake Olathe, she joked that it would haunt her political career.
The politics come from her parents. At dinner most nights, her mother, a union Democrat who recently caucused for Hillary Clinton, argued politics with her father, a small-business Republican. “My dad understood that government takes more from him on any day than it gives,” she explains.
The youngest of four kids with wildly different opinions, she gathered the confidence that comes from defending your beliefs as well as acquiring a sure sense of how to talk to people who don’t agree with those beliefs. She’s not above tweaking her older siblings, though. “I won the kid battle when I took my dad to the White House Christmas party to meet the president,” she says.
She always spoke highly of her family. Even back when she truly was the dorky kid who worked at Kmart, she never seemed to care about juvenile concerns like dorkiness. She had a matronly wardrobe, hardly bothered with makeup, wasn’t much for going out, and certainly didn’t carry on with sex and drugs as everyone else we knew did. She seemed blissfully un-neurotic, without an ounce of rebellion in her.
“I’m glad I had that Kmart experience,” Simmons says. “What was interesting is that that store was on the edge of a wealthy suburb but also an undeveloped and borderline rural part of Johnson County. A lot of people there were more economically challenged than the people I went to school with.” From this, she says, she gathered an appreciation for the realities of the working poor. “In January, when we [the store] would cut hours back, they would struggle, sometimes even losing their health insurance when they dropped below 40 hours a week. Sometimes people don’t realize that the people who are struggling to get by are struggling. Most people in America work and work hard.”
That’s probably true, but we weren’t really evidence of that. Sure, we untangled purses and stocked the diaper wall. Mostly, though, I remember us holed up in the stockroom arguing about the first Gulf War. Or hashing over our high school romances. Or giggling about “K Notes,” the photocopied fake money that our managers doled out for good work. Or dishing the latest K-gossip — the sweet old greeter who warned us to avoid the music of Fleetwood Mac because she’d heard Stevie Nicks was a witch; the store manager who kept booze in his office and spent his vacations traveling the country in an attempt to visit every single Hooters; the troubled woman who once laid on her back in the stockroom, covered herself with boxes, and pretended to have suffered a fall; the management trainee who gaped down blouses with such ferocious horniness that Jennifer, another teenage worker, wrote, “Hi, Chad!” on a Post-it Note and stuck it between her breasts.
Simmons knew she was going to college, of course. She knew which one, what she would major in, and what she wanted to do afterward.
She was the first person I’d ever met who could articulate the principles behind her Republicanism. Hanging around the fitting rooms at the dawn of the Clinton era, I would bait her with opinions that were half mine and half cribbed from The Nation. She’d counter, sharp but always friendly, always seeming to think her position freshly through, no matter how many times we’d already gone around on an issue. Even when I volunteered for Jerry Brown, she expressed perplexed amusement but never quite gave me hell for it.
That’s what we did much of the night, as we rehung Wrangler jeans that had been left in the fitting rooms or dealt with the heaping carts of merchandise that customers had returned to the store. We argued about politics, neither of us ever coming close to a victory. But I learned to listen, think and argue.
She pauses and then rhapsodizes: “And the people there are more real.”
I remember, from arguing with her way back when, that the time to pounce is when she slips into cliché.
“More real?” I ask. “You’re in D.C., with your degrees and your polls, talking about ‘real’ people. Does that make you an elitist?”
This is more a gentle poke than a serious point to press, but Simmons pauses, considering it.
“I don’t think so. I hope not. I do try to stay grounded. Many of my best friends are from flyover country. My boyfriend’s from Columbus, and Kansas City is my hometown. I’m proud it’s my hometown.”
Then, with one breath, she produces full paragraphs on the topic: how a segment of coastal Americans believe that this country’s innovation and intelligence are housed either in California or between Boston and D.C. How the guy who turns a profit farming a hundred or a million acres of soybeans or winter wheat has to be scientist, businessman, subsidies expert, veterinarian and a dozen other things all at once. How nobody should ever pretend to be smarter than that farmer. How the good sense and good spirits of the Midwesterners she grew up among have given her bedrock beliefs, a positive outlook and the ability to understand how people’s circumstances shape their attitudes — that even people who are mean as the dickens act that way because of the hills they have to climb.
She actually says “mean as the dickens” and “hills they have to climb.”
When I ask her about McCain’s chances in Missouri, she has no doubts.
“We’ll win,” she says. “We’re going to see great strength for McCain in Missouri as voters get their full load of information — and they will, because we’ll be doing our jobs.”
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