Some love him, others loathe him, but there’s no doubt that political operative Jay McCleskey has a record that’s impressive
Some would call Jay McCleskey brilliant – the Karl Rove of New Mexico, perhaps – while others would say he is notorious and lucky. Whatever the case, he’s currently the most successful political operative in New Mexico, and hugely influential.
He was the mastermind behind the election of Gov. Susana Martinez, the first Hispanic woman to be elected governor of any state in the nation. She describes him as her “top adviser.”
In 2009, he also helped Richard Berry become the first GOP mayor of Albuquerque in more than two decades.
McCleskey is loved by some, loathed by others. But he works behind the scenes, so the average New Mexican has probably never heard of him. McCleskey deserves scrutiny because of his influence within the GOP and beyond. That influence starts at the top, with the governor.
“I could not have won this election without Jay being my political consultant,” Martinez said. “I knew what I wanted to do as governor, but I didn’t know how to get that message out statewide. He did.”
That’s what McCleskey does. He’s a political strategist who gets a candidate’s message out to voters. His firm does things like produce television ads and mailers. He also works with Martinez on a regular basis to help her shape messages and deliver them publicly.
(Disclosure: McCleskey and his wife, Nicole Fink McCleskey, donated money to NMPolitics.net last year.)
A successful career
McCleskey got his start in politics while a student at New Mexico State University. In 1996, he took a government class with professor Jose Z. Garcia (now Martinez’s higher education secretary) and was tasked with doing voter targeting for a legislative campaign.
He worked for Republican Bill Payne, who was running in a three-way primary for an open Senate seat. Payne, who is now the Senate minority whip, won by a coin toss after a tie vote.
Early in his career, McCleskey worked for the state GOP and as a legislative and Department of Finance analyst.
In 2000, he managed the campaign of John Sanchez, who was elected to the House by beating 30-year incumbent Raymond Sanchez, the longest-serving speaker in state history. John Sanchez is now lieutenant governor.
McCleskey managed Sanchez’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2002, then ran the Republican National Committee’s New Mexico victory campaign in 2004. That year, New Mexico was one of two states to flip from blue to red in the presidential race.
For several years McCleskey was the RNC’s regional political director. He was responsible for a number of states including New Mexico through elections in 2006 and 2008 – a year that was a disaster for Republicans. Then he joined Lincoln Strategy Group and worked on Berry’s campaign.
Berry said McCleskey is good at what he does because he doesn’t try to tell candidates who they should be – he takes who they are and sells it to voters.
“Jay took what I wanted to put out there and made it a very genuine message that really came from me, not something that was crafted, not sugar-coated,” Berry said. “I think he was really important to the campaign.”
In addition to working for Martinez in 2010, McCleskey did media for Dianna Duran, the first Republican elected to be secretary of state in decades, and several legislative candidates.
Last month, McCleskey left Lincoln Strategy to start his own firm.
‘I’ve always enjoyed arguing and debating’
McCleskey said he’s always had an interest in public policy and campaigns.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always enjoyed arguing and debating, and that’s essentially what a campaign is,” he said.
He loves pouring over data and studying how messaging moves numbers.
“Jay is tenacious, he is decisive, and most importantly he’s incredibly smart,” said Justine Fox-Young, a former state lawmaker McCleskey helped elect in 2004. At 24, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the state Legislature.
She described McCleskey as fiercely loyal, and said that, combined with his smarts, makes him formidable.
“He can anticipate the moves people are going to make, and it makes some people very uncomfortable,” Fox-Young said. “Jay is unflappable. There is nothing he can’t work his way out of.”
Critics view his competitive nature a different way.
“He has a history of not knowing when to say when. … Some of the negative attacks in the campaigns were unnecessary,” said one Republican who is active in the party and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “There has to be a line drawn somewhere.”
The source mentioned Sanchez’s assault on Walter Bradley in the 2002 GOP gubernatorial primary – an attack that still leaves a bitter taste in some Republicans’ mouths.
Another Republican, who used to work with McCleskey and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said McCleskey has been a “very divisive” force within the Republican Party.
“He will do anything to win, no matter what it takes,” the source said. “He will destroy you as an opponent.”
McCleskey doesn’t apologize for negative attacks.
“My job is to help a candidate make their case to the voters, not to be loved by our opponents, and I don’t believe in ever running the campaign equivalent of a ‘prevent defense,’” he said. “Leads can evaporate very quickly in modern campaigns; just ask Congresswoman Madrid or Governor Denish.”
Fox-Young said McCleskey is “incredibly warm and incredibly loyal. And yeah, he can be as cutthroat as anybody. … But he never breaks a promise and he’ll never let you down.”
No lobbying or government relations work
Political operatives are often controversial. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer has been under scrutiny because of work done by her political advisers. One is a lobbyist for the largest private prison company in the nation. Two others were hired by the payday loan industry to push for legislation that might end up in front of the governor.
Other operatives, such as Rove, work to avoid such potential conflicts. In his book Courage and Consequence, Rove wrote about his relationship with George W. Bush when Bush was Texas governor:
“Texas law requires a governor’s political activity to be run through a private committee and Bush asked me about heading up his. … Bush’s offer came with limitations. I couldn’t cash in, he told me… no lobbying or associating with a lobbying firm.”
McCleskey said he left Lincoln Strategy after Martinez was elected because the firm lobbies. But critics still see a potential conflict of interest. The anonymous Republican who has worked with McCleskey noted that he not only has access to the governor, but also to many of her staffers because they used to work for him.
That Republican asked, what happens if a corporation calls McCleskey and asks for help or wants a message passed on to the governor?
“My business does not lobby or do government relations,” McCleskey said. “People contact us all the time looking for government relations help, and we don’t do that. We decline.”
Martinez: ‘I’m not a figurehead’
The Republican who worked with McCleskey described him as controlling, and said McCleskey disciples working in the administration might be influenced by him. Several Republicans contacted for this article said they fear that McCleskey, not Martinez, is calling the shots in state government – though none would speak for the record.
McCleskey and Martinez both said that isn’t true.
“When I make a decision, it’s because I’m informed,” Martinez said. “I try to get both sides of the issues. I don’t surround myself with ‘yes’ people. I’m very independent. I’m not a figurehead.”
“He’s never, ever, told me what to believe in,” Martinez said. “He understands where I stand on the issues. That’s why he is a top adviser for me, and that’s why I trust him.”
McCleskey and Martinez got to know each other in 2001 when he was the state party’s executive director. On the agenda for one meeting was the election of a chairman, and McCleskey’s boss at the time, John Dendahl, was under fire from some for supporting then-Gov. Gary Johnson’s controversial stance on decriminalizing drugs.
McCleskey asked Martinez, then Doña Ana County’s district attorney, to give a speech about attracting Hispanic voters. She told the group that the way to do that was to focus on issues – and took a pointed shot by saying changing drug laws would alienate Hispanics.
“She did it in a way that got a standing ovation and almost got me fired for inviting her to attack my boss,” McCleskey recalled. “…She was just very dynamic. It was just very clear that she had the ability to connect with people.”
After that, McCleskey talked with Martinez about running for higher office “every time there was an election.” She rejected requests to consider running for other offices, including attorney general and Congress.
When it came time to enter the governor’s race in July 2009, Martinez brought McCleskey on board first.
“We’d known each other for about 10 years, and he knew where I stood on the issues,” she said. “He didn’t try to take me down a path that wasn’t me or try to get me to accept any policies that I wouldn’t be able to fight for and stand for.”
“That was real important to me. I didn’t want someone who would try to change who I was,” she said.
McCleskey: Martinez can be ‘a transformational leader’
Asked to describe his day-to-day interaction with the governor, McCleskey pointed out that he runs her political committee. He said he also advises her on political and other issues, including messaging.
Some in the party say McCleskey and his wife Nicole, a national GOP pollster, are all about money, and that he uses his influence with clients like Martinez to get more work.
McCleskey said such an assertion is laughable, pointing out that he chose to work for Martinez in last-year’s primary instead of Allen Weh.
“If I was driven by trying to make money, I would not have chosen to work for Susana Martinez, who at the time she got in the race had never raised money, had no personal money, and was looking at a five-way primary that included a self-funding businessman from Albuquerque who was going to spend over $1 million of his own money,” he said.
He added that he donated some of his services to Martinez. Finance reports include in-kind contributions from Lincoln Strategy to the campaign.
McCleskey said he chose to work for Martinez not only because he believed she could win, but also because “I truly believe that she can be a transformational leader for the state.” He said her intelligence, sincerity and courage make Martinez “exceptionally persuasive with both the public at large, as well as in one-on-one meetings.”
That, McCleskey said, gives Martinez “the ability to drive a positive agenda and not just be a ‘no’ governor.”
“In doing campaigns all over the country, I’ve found that it’s extremely rare to find all of those qualities in a public official, and that’s why it was well worth taking the risk in doing what many saw as a long-shot campaign,” he said.
‘If you don’t have enemies, then you’re no good at the job’
Is McCleskey really as good as some think he is? One of the two GOP sources – the active Republican – said there’s another way to look at things.
“Anyone who is in his field will have wins and losses, and sometimes having a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either,” the Republican said. “I think the Albuquerque mayoral race had more to do with how great a candidate Mayor Richard Berry was than it did anyone doing his campaign literature. Having two Democrats in the race didn’t hurt either.”
Still, the Republican said, “That was a big win for McCleskey, either real or perceived. I think the same thing can be said for the 2010 gubernatorial race. Was it the growth of candidate, the campaign management of Ryan Cangiolosi, McCleskey’s mail and commercials, or the horrible race Diane Denish ran? I guess that depends on who you ask.”
Steve Kush, who ran Janice Arnold-Jones’ unsuccessful primary for governor last year, said he’s never met McCleskey, but the fact that McCleskey has enemies in the GOP proves that he’s good at what he does.
“Having done this for as many years as I have, I know for a fact that if you don’t have enemies, then you’re no good at the job,” Kush said.
He said Martinez’s victory is huge for McCleskey.
“Having worked for (N.J.) Governor (Chris) Christie, I do know how hard it is to win in what is perceived to be a blue state,” Kush said. “He did, and he certainly deserves kudos for that. It was a hard-fought win.”