Senior Obama adviser has Alaska roots

February 21, 2009 

He once helped run state government in Juneau, played shortstop in a local softball league, and he still votes as an Alaska resident.

But these days, Pete Rouse works in the White House, two doors from his close friend, President Barack Obama.

For 25 years as the consummate Democratic insider in the U.S. Senate, Rouse played a quiet role as the backdoor connection for Alaska's all-Republican delegation to the other side of the aisle in Congress. He was the longtime chief of staff for Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the one-time Senate majority leader, and starting in 2004 Rouse took on the same job for a promising young freshman senator from Illinois.

Today, as special adviser to Obama, Rouse is in the innermost circle of the West Wing. His office sits between chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod.

"It's only been four years here, this trip from freshman senator," the 62-year-old Rouse said in an telephone interview earlier this month , breaking from his usual low-profile to talk about his Alaska ties. "It has been an interesting ride. I feel pretty invested in it."

His Alaska roots run deeper than those of almost anyone reading these words. His mother, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, grew up in Anchorage starting in World War I, when it was a railroad construction town. His cousin was the longtime municipal attorney for the City of Palmer.

But Rouse himself was born on the East Coast and had never been west of Denver when he flew to Alaska in late 1978 to visit a friend, Alaska's newly elected Republican lieutenant governor, Terry Miller.

Rouse ended up working as Miller's chief of staff for the final four years of Gov. Jay Hammond's administration. It was a great experience, Rouse said, a time when Juneau was filled with young idealists eager to grapple with the state's new oil money, infrastructure need and unformed social policies.

"Juneau at the time was 19,000 people, but it was really a town on the move in terms of young, well-educated people excited by these policy issues," he recalled.

The ambitious young staffer returned to Washington, D.C., in 1983 and worked for Democrats in the Senate ever since. For a while, he imagined returning to Alaska if Miller ever managed to win a race for governor. The dream faded; Miller died of bone cancer in 1989, at age 46. Rouse's last visit to Juneau was to attend his old friend's memorial.

Rouse continued to keep many personal ties in Alaska -- along with his voter registration. In last November's presidential race, records show, the man who would co-lead Obama's transition team voted absentee in Juneau.

Rouse declined to discuss his voter registration.

Legally he appears to be on fairly secure footing. Voters are allowed to maintain registration here if they don't vote elsewhere and intend to return someday. They are also excused if they are working somewhere in civil service of the United States -- a description that pretty much encapsulates Rouse's career. (He does not show up on Alaska Permanent Fund dividend records.)

"Residency for voting purposes is very broad in Alaska law," said Shelley Growden, a supervisor with the state Division of Elections.

ALASKA CONNECTION

The story of Alaska's connection to Obama's inner circle begins in 1915 with the arrival of Goro (George) and Mine Mikami in Seward, where construction of the Alaska Railroad was under way. Three years later the immigrants from Japan moved to Anchorage. Their daughter, Mary, entered school speaking only Japanese and went on to become valedictorian at Anchorage High School. In 1934, Mary graduated with honors from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks (the year before it became the University of Alaska), then moved on to Yale , where she earned a Ph.D. and met her husband, Irving Rouse.

(George and Mine Mikami retired and moved to Los Angeles just before World War II, and were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during the war. A scholarship in their name, endowed by their four children, is given at the university in Fairbanks today.)

Irving and Mary Rouse raised their son, Pete, in Connecticut. He spent a few years working on Capitol Hill for Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D., answering constituent mail alongside Daschle, another young aide. But when Daschle decided to run for Congress in 1978, Rouse took time off to get a master's degree in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. There he met Miller, who had recently served as Alaska's youngest-ever Senate president. Miller came home to run for lieutenant governor with Hammond for the governor's second term.

Miller persuaded Rouse to return to his mother's home state to work in Alaska politics. Part of the appeal was that Miller would be heir to Hammond's moderate Republican mantle and had a good shot at becoming governor in four years.

"He was a very intelligent guy and a progressive Republican," Rouse said of Miller, the only Republican he ever worked for. "On balance I felt he had the right vision for Alaska and the right philosophical approach."

Rouse's reach extended well beyond the lieutenant governor's office. He was involved in all the governor's major meetings on budgets and appointments, said Jerry Reinwand, who was Hammond's chief of staff at the time.

The Alaska years ended in disappointment, when Miller lost the 1982 Republican gubernatorial primary to conservative Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink. (Democrat Bill Sheffield went on to win the general election that year.) Rouse headed back to Washington.

LOW-PROFILE APPROACH

As a workaholic senior staffer in the U.S. Senate, Rouse liked to stay quietly in the background. Media sightings of Rouse have been rare. The few stories of past years invariably note two things: his affection for cats (he has Maine coon cats at home, where he lives alone) and his nickname of "The 101st Senator," owing to his reputation for results-oriented strategy and working across party lines.

"One of the things you will find about Pete, he keeps one of the lowest profiles going," said McKie Campbell, a former state Fish and Game Commissioner now working for the Senate Energy Committee in Washington, who stayed friends from the Juneau days. "He's the quiet guy who everybody listens to when he talks."

In 2004 Daschle lost a re-election bid and Rouse got ready to retire. Daschle and other democratic leaders pressed him to stay on and help Obama, who wanted Rouse as his Senate chief of staff.

The Illinois freshman finally persuaded him after saying three things, Rouse recalled: 1, Obama knew he was good at giving speeches but needed help organizing an office; 2, Obama needed a strategy for building respect as a new senator, avoiding the showboat traps; and 3, Rouse could ignore the speculation that he would run for president in 2008.

"There's no way in the world I'm going to do that," the young senator said, according to Rouse.

"So I thought, here's a guy who's important to the future of the Democratic Party, let's help him get set up and pointed in the right direction; how hard can this be?"

Rouse helped prepare the strategy that guided the young senator through his first couple of years, then in 2006 drew up the key memo outlining the pros and cons of running for president.

"Pete's very good at looking around the corners of decisions and playing out the implications of them," Obama told the Washington Post in 2007. "He's been around long enough that he can recognize problems and pitfalls a lot quicker than others can."

Rouse also brought a team of political veterans, many from the Daschle camp, into the Obama campaign.

"When Pete went to work for Barack, what Barack got -- and I don't think he realized it -- was the only network in Democratic circles that from both a policy and political perspective came close to the Clinton network," political consultant Anita Dunn told the Post recently.

By last August, Rouse had shifted to working full-time for the campaign. An Obama campaign trip to Alaska was almost a certainty, he said, until Gov. Sarah Palin was tapped for the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Pre-Palin, he said, the campaign felt it had a chance to win the heavily Republican state, based on the enthusiasm shown in caucuses for Obama.

PROBLEM SOLVER

It seems unlikely that Rouse will play the same role on Alaska issues he once did in the Senate. He's just too high up the ladder, with the White House operations and policy branches both reporting through him.

"I fix problems," he said, explaining his new role.

Still Alaska veterans in Washington are glad to have him there. A big fan was former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who praised Rouse on the Senate floor in 1999. Others interviewed in recent weeks, including John Katz, the longtime head of the state's Washington office, spoke about his long value to Alaska.

It was because of Rouse that Obama was the only presidential candidate to speak about Alaska's natural gas pipeline before the primaries began, said former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, who got help from Rouse during his unsuccessful 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

"Pete's very smart, highly skilled, and has always been totally square in our dealings," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in January. "I expect we will agree on some issues and disagree on others, but having him at that level in the White House has to be good for our state."

One of Rouse's best friends in Alaska is state Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. Rouse was the one who recruited Elton, a former journalist, into politics to work for Miller. Elton said Rouse is always eager for e-mailed photos of Romeo, the black wolf often photographed around Juneau.

Elton said he followed the presidential race through Rouse, backing Obama early on the strength of his friend's endorsement. But he told Rouse he couldn't talk about Palin once she was named to the Republican ticket. As chairman of the Legislative Council, Elton played a central role in the Legislature's "Troopergate" investigation of the governor, which Republicans complained was being run by Obama supporters.

"It was awkward, because I usually love to talk about things like that," Elton said.

When Elton and his wife traveled east for the inauguration, they stayed with Rouse. Now Elton is under consideration for a high-level appointment as a special assistant on Alaska issues in the Interior Secretary's office.

Rouse said keeping up with Alaska friends has helped keep his affection for the place strong.

"The other thing I always say about Alaskans is, once you make a friend in Alaska, you make a friend for life," he said.


Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 1-907-235-4244.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service