Jul 31 2014

The new press secretary

Published by at 8:23 am under First Take

malloy CHUCK
MALLOY

 
In Idaho

“WHAT? Dan Popkey is going to work for Raul Labrador?”

That was the typical reaction when Popkey, the face of the Idaho Statesman, announced that he was leaving to accept the position as Labrador’s press secretary. Popkey, the most talented political writer in the state, will now be in charge of defending Labrador’s tea party positions and organizing photo-ops with the likes of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

The move seems strange, given the fact that Labrador seemingly has gone through more press secretaries than toilet paper in his four years in office. But I can understand Popkey’s thinking. At 55, he was stuck in a high-stress job that was going nowhere.

I’ve seen him tied up in knots, and that’s hell on a person’s blood pressure over time. I’ve seen him at meaningless governor’s photo-op ceremonies, just so he could ask Otter one question without going through the spin doctors. He’s working in an environment that it common to so many newspapers, where layoffs and unpaid furloughs are a way of life. Just about everybody who works for a newspaper these days – any newspaper – is being asked to do more with fewer resources, and Popkey was no exception.

With Labrador, Popkey can work at a more manageable pace and have a better sense of job security. There’s always a chance that Labrador will run for the Senate, or governor’s office, but my guess is he won’t go for those unless he’s sure he can win. In the meantime, Labrador has a safe seat and the national media loves him. He could stay in Congress for as long as Popkey wants to work.

“It’s bittersweet to leave journalism, my first love, but I’m thrilled with the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned to help advance our state’s priorities in Washington,” Popkey said in a statement.

Actually, it won’t work that way at all. Popkey’s job – in fact, his only job – is to serve a congressman who has a strong will, even stronger convictions and an ego the size of Texas. This is no criticism of Labrador. From the beginning, he has known where he is going and how to get there.

Popkey will become a “real” press secretary the first time he has to write a news release, or commentary, that defends a position contrary to Popkey’s personal views. In this case, it could be a monthly occurrence.

The hiring of Popkey provides some adjustments for Labrador. Listening to advice is not one of Labrador’s strong points, but in this case it will pay for him to listen to somebody who has been around as long as Popkey.

But Popkey’s success will not be determined by how much Labrador accepts advice. It will be how he helps improves accessibility with the media. Labrador is treated like a king with the national media, but often is trashed by the Idaho media – and not just the editorial writers. Reporters can attest that getting interview time with Labrador is next to impossible.

Labrador and Popkey would do well to follow the lead of former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a former longtime chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When I was covering Hamilton with the small-town New Albany Tribune (across the bridge from Louisville), he was swamped with interview requests from the national media. But as I was told that my interview requests managed to find their way to the top of the pile.

Labrador will continue to get national media coverage, but he needs to remember who elected him. And he would do well never to let a negative editorial pass without comment. There are always at least two sides to political debates and Labrador-Popkey should not allow themselves to be defined by liberal editorial writers and moderate-leaning editorial boards.

If Popkey thinks he’s the guy who could tame Labrador’s inflated ego, then he’s sadly mistaken. But if Labrador listens, he could end up being a more open and better congressman with Popkey at his side.

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