Teresa Vilmain – democratic campaign manager

Ron Faucheux

You could say that Teresa Vilmain is the Bernto Mussolini of political campaigning. Not because she’s a dictatorial fascist – heaven forbid!- but because she sees her mission, like II Duce saw his, as “keeping the trains running on time.”

But the trains Vilmain keeps on schedule have nothing to do with Italian locomotives. They are the trains of modern electioneering. And they run on a very fast track.

Teresa Vilmain is a professional campaign manager. She works only for “progressive Democrats with a chance to win.” That covers a lot of ground. And for a dozen years, so has she.

Her parents raised her in a devoted Democratic household and often played host to “wayward campaign volunteers” who had come to Iowa to work in the state’s crucial presidential caucuses. Vilmain, who talks in rapid-fire shorthand that only other insiders can readily grasp, fondly remembers her high school days when her home was the site of party caucus meetings. “My mother had Democrats caucusing in bedrooms and bathrooms, all over the house,” she recounts with delight. From then on, she was hooked. Taking seriously Mark Twain’s advice never to let school interfere with your education, she left college three times to work on campaigns. In 1979, she interrupted her tenure at the University of Iowa to work in Ted Kennedy’s ill-fated presidential run. In 1982, she became field director for Lynn Cutler’s congressional race. In 1983, a sabbatical brought her into Tom Harkin’s successful U.S. Senate election.

At 34, she’s compiled a resume that would make even George Bush jealous. She served as Iowa director for Gary Hafts second presidential campaign and, after his departure from the race, she assumed the same role for Michael Dukakis. She consulted in Herb Kohl’s successful 1988 U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin and served as director of training for the Democratic National Committee. Tapped by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as a member of its Strategic Task Force, she assisted candidates in Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Iowa.

She managed Geraldine Ferraro’s losing bid in 1992 to become a U.S. senator from New York. After that heartbreaker, she went to work as political director for EMILY’s List, the highly successful national organization that helps pro-choice Democratic women get elected.

Vilmain is accustomed to picking up and moving. Every two years or so, she’s resettled herself in another campaign. In recent weeks, she completed her latest move, this time to Santa Monica, California, where she’s gearing up to manage an expected gubernatorial campaign for state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (Jerry’s sister, Pat’s daughter) in what promises to be the biggest race of 1994.

Vilmain views the role of campaign manager in a large, modern campaign as similar to that of a chief operating officer who manages a multi-million dollar business. However, Vilmain doesn’t think of herself as a “hired gun” the way many political consultants of her generation now do. “If people are in this business only for the money, they’re in the wrong business,” she reflects.

Despite her immersion in realpolitik she’s still driven by what she calls “progressive ideals.” Explaining why she does what she does, Vilmain poignantly summons the words of close friend Paul Tully, a respected Democratic campaign strategist until his untimely death last year, who always said as he entered a race, “I’m here on the issues.”

One of Vilmain’s issues is the election of more women. This commitment made her recent exit from EMILY’s List difficult, even though she left to run a campaign for a woman who, if successful, will likely be catapulted into the top rank of post-Clinton White House contenders.

Vilmain contends that it’s surprisingly easy for young women to enter politics. “Just pick up the phone and call the local party or get involved with campus grassroots groups,” she advises. “Don’t wait for them to call you. You call them.”

In the volatile world of the gypsy campaign manager, the track always leads to another campaign, another challenge. And on that track, there is never a middle ground, no place between victory or defeat. It is Teresa Vilmain’s world. And it is on the victory wack she travels, running the trains she knows so well.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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