Q&A with Pete Rouse, former Alaskan and adviser to President Obama

February 21, 2009 

Pete Rouse, special adviser to President Obama, has roots that run deep in Alaska. His mother moved to Anchorage with her family in 1918, graduating from high school and college here in territorial days. But Rouse had never been west of the Rockies before he came to Alaska to work for Lt. Gov. Terry Miller in 1979. It was the start of a long road to his office today in the West Wing of the White House.

ADN: You worked on Capitol Hill before you came up to Alaska in 1979–

Rouse: The way it started, I had worked on the Hill, started in 1971, and in 1976 I went back to the Kennedy School at Harvard in a master’s program in public administration and Terry Miller was in that program. I was probably 30 and he was probably 33 at the time. He had run for the U.S. Senate, (the seat of) Sen. (Mike) Gravel in 1974, and lost the Republican primary by percentage points to state Sen. C.R. Lewis. We were in the same classes together and he became a good friend of mine.

Did he pick up on the fact that you had these Alaska roots?

I don’t think it was the Alaska roots so much, I think it more Congress. He was a political animal and was interested in having a political career – he was elected to the (state) House at 22, to the state Senate at 25, president of the state Senate at 28, almost to the United States Senate at 31.

He ended up running for lieutenant governor in ‘78 and won. After he was sworn in he called me up. He was lieutenant governor for Gov. Hammond, who couldn’t succeed himself - he was in his second term. So from day one Terry was looking at probably running for governor, in ‘82. He had a very good relationship with Gov Hammond, they had served in the state Senate together, so he was a very active lieutenant governor. He talked me into coming up to Alaska, which I did in July of 1979.

How did he manage to persuade you to take such a detour?

They won in the fall of ‘78, he initially convinced me to come up over the Christmas break. Just to come out and take a look at Juneau. I don’t think I’d ever been west of Denver before that. I flew out there and it was a gorgeous Alaska winter day, not a cloud in the sky, no turbulence, I remember the pilot did a turn around the glacier just to show everybody, landed, Terry picked me up in his father-in-law’s Porsche, drove around, I was there for two or three days, it was just beautiful. Initially I said I couldn’t do it, but he talked me into it eventually. I came out on July 31, 1979, and the plane, instead of coming up non-stop from Seattle, stopped in Ketchikan and Sitka, in heavy fog and rain, we show up in Juneau, the plane’s wobbling back and forth as it lands, it was sheeting down rain. So it was false advertising.

"What have I done?"

What have I done to myself? But it turned out to be a great experience.

What did you make of the politics in Alaska, especially looking back now?

What I remember about Alaska was the quality of the people in government. I think they started getting the money from the Prudhoe Bay lease sales around that time, government finally had money to start doing some infrastructure investments and programs and so forth and so on, and they attracted a number of very highly educated, very imaginative people from the Lower 48 in their late 20s, late 30s, to work on these resource issues and policy challenges. 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.

The other thing I always say about Alaskans is, once you make a friend in Alaska, you make a friend for life . . . I have a lot of good, long-lasting friendships up there.

Have you come back much?

I was back in Anchorage during the Knowles (Senate) campaign a couple of times, I was working for Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader at the time, because of my knowledge of Alaska and I knew Tony. I came back two or three times on the DSCC (Democratic Senate Campaign Committee) payroll to do that. I haven’t been back to Juneau since (1989), when Terry Miller died of cancer. I came back for the memorial service. It’s a long way to go out there.

Terry Miller was the only time you worked for a Republican.

That’s right. But he was a very intelligent guy and a progressive Republican. And Alaska at the time, there were different philosophies up there. I shared his basic world view, I didn’t agree with everything, but on balance I felt he had the right vision for Alaska and the right philosophical approach.

You have relatives here too, don’t you?

My aunt is in Palmer. And my cousin. He just retired a year or two ago, I believe as the city attorney in Palmer.

You never ran for office. How did you sort out what you wanted to do in politics when you began?

I was in graduate school here in D.C. in the early seventies, at Georgetown, which was when I started getting really interested in Congress. Fortuitiously I got a job in Congress and one thing led to another. I wasn’t a political junkie before I got my first job.

Then in 2004 you were ready to retire after Sen. Daschle lost. How did Barack Obama convince you to stay and work for him?

(Daschle) was leader for ten years and when he was defeated in 2004 I had 20 years in the federal retirement system, I was over retirement age, I figured maybe it was time to go do something else. And I had gotten to know Sen. Obama at the time, because he was running for Senate in 2004 and Daschle was in charge of the Senate Democratic Campaign Commitee. He had checked in with me a couple of times about advice, should he win what should he do. When Daschle lost, Obama called me up and asked if I’d meet with him and talk about what he should do. One thing led to another and he asked if I would be interested in being his chief of staff. I said probably not . . . I remember when he eventually convinced me to do it, he said three things:

One, he said I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not good at. I can give a good speech, I’m good on policy, I know retail politics, but I don’t know anything about building an organization, the budget for a senator is $3 million, that kind of thing.

Second, he says I know I’m coming to D.C. with some notoriety, the only African-American senator, the (2004) convention speech and so on. I know some people are going to be skeptical and want to see if I’m going to do the work or if I’m going to be a showboat here. I want to get ahead but I want to get ahead in a way that builds respect.

And then his third point, which is a key point, he says I can tell you there’s been a lot of speculation that I might be interested in running for President in 2008. He says, there’s no way in the world I’m going to do that.

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? Then I can go off and do what I want to do. But it didn’t work out.

It sounds like the sunny weather in Juneau.

(laughs) Exactly! But the other thing I’ll say, all kidding aside, is that he’s an incredibly impressive guy. You can tell right away he’s very smart, he’s very engaging, very charismatic, he’s a quality guy. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been that interested.

You ended up being involved in guiding him into running, from what I’ve heard.

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. We developed a process whereby he and his wife were able to evaluate whether they wanted to run.

Can you describe your role now in the White House? Most of what we know comes from watching "The West Wing" on NBC and I’m not sure which guy you are.

I’m not sure we have the exact same combination. The way I put it is, we have four people here. Rahm Emanuel, former congressman from Illinois, is the chief of staff. A very good speaker, very well-versed in politics in Washington, Illinois politics, very strategic. We have three senior advisers: David Axelrod, in charge of communications, message strategy, for the campaign and now the White House; Valerie Jarrett, who is an African-American woman, lawyer, who has the non-Washington perspective, very close friends with the Obamas, she’s handling public liaison, government relations; and then myself as the third one, who basically does the inside, organizational stuff and strategic stuff internally here.

Rahm and I were friends back when he worked for Clinton and I worked for Daschle. So it’s a nice mix. . . I don’t want to be the outside person. The deputy chiefs of staff report to me, one for policy and one for operations, who run the place from day to day.

So you don’t really have a portfolio. You handle everything.

Well – I fix problems. There’s a number of us who fix problems – execution, anticipate things. I know a lot of the senators, Rahm knows the House very well.

The thing about both the campaign and the office here, it’s very collaborative. You have a loosely enforced hierarchy where people are responsible for certain things, but people get along very well and there’s no turf. People help each other and not compete with each other. That’s the Obama style, and that was the Daschle style too when he was leader.

It’s been a little wilder first few weeks than many expected, for a problem fixer.

Well, the economy is even worse than people anticipated. We were talking about this today, you know, it’s the legislative process, it’s not a pretty process in Alaska, it’s not a pretty process here. But I think we’re going to end up getting a stimulus bill here, I think it will be a good one. If we do get that and it’s signed into law, people will not remember how we got here. But it’s been tough to navigate, a lot of people working on it, including the President.

To get provincial again, has the President ever expressed any curiosity about Alaska, other than about our governor?

There was a lot of serious talk about him coming to Alaska. In fact we did very well as you know there in the caucuses. Had Gov. Palin not been selected as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, I think Obama probably would have come to Alaska,

because we had a real shot at doing very well there, and maybe even winning there. And when she was picked, it just didn’t make any sense, because she is obviously so well known there and popular, local pride and so forth. We pulled a number of our campaign people out and put them elsewhere.

This would be a sign of our commitment to a broader coalition than Democrats have generally run in presidential elections, a), and b), a recognition of Alaska’s place in our energy future. We all know that President Obama is not for drilling in ANWR, but he is an enthusiastic supporter of trying to get North Slope gas to market, and I think a trip to Alaska would have been a statement of what the campaign was all about.

What do you think the Obama presidency is going to mean for Alaska?

I think it means we are going to pay more attention to Alaska, or a different kind of attention, than maybe previous Democratic administrations have paid. I think the fact that you have Sen. Salazar now as Secretary of the Interior from the west - who has a lot of interest in energy issues - you’ll see him engaging. You’ve probably heard rumors about people who we may or may not be hiring from Alaska to come down here and work in the Secretary’s office.

A friend of yours?

Possibly. I don’t want to get ahead of him. I’m going to have to let him speak to that. But I think you’re going to have a different kind of interest paid to Alaska than in the past. We’ll see, but that’s my hope.

Is there talk of reorganizing that Alaska special assistant job in Interior?

I haven’t talked to Secretary Salazar specifically about it, but I know they’re going to have somebody in Alaska, I think they’re going to have somebody pretty senior here in D.C., and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them reorganizing responsibilities and maybe even putting more resources into it. But that’s the Secretary’s decision. But I do know he (Salazar) has talked about Alaska a lot.

People probably come to you and ask you to explain Alaska, as they do to all of us here with connections Outside. How have perceptions of Alaska changed in the past year, among the people you know and work with?

I think people don’t understand Alaska, to be honest with you, as you probably know from out here. They think of oil. I think the perception of natural gas wasn’t that great until the last couple of years. I’ll give Gov. Murkowski credit, even when he was a senator, for starting to raise that debate. Because for years it’s been all about ANWR, Sen. Stevens was very focused on ANWR. I think people still don’t know that much about Alaska.

They think they know about Wasilla now.

The governor sort of put them on the map, that’s for sure.

What advice would you have for any Alaska politician who might be interested in moving up to the national political stage?

You mean the governor in particular? I wouldn’t give any advice, but it will be interesting to see, if she has an interest, whether she tries to do that from Alaska or from the senate. I know nothing about this, I just know there’s speculation that she may be thinking about running in the primary in a couple of years here. Well the problem is, normally it’s better to run from governor. But a small, isolated state makes it difficult. Again, with the resource issues Alaska has, that may be the exception, she may be able to run from there if she can establish national energy policy credentials as the governor of Alaska and say she’s actually been on the ground doing that. I think it’s always tough to run against an incumbent, I think Lisa Murkowski has done a good job, I’ve been impressed with the job she’s done here. I think Alaska would probably be better served with a governor and a senator not running against each other, but that’s none of my business.

What’s your future hold?

I’ll be here for a while, but then who knows. I have great admiration for President Obama, both as a public official and as a person. It’s only been four years here, this trip from freshman senator, it has been a pretty interesting ride. I feel pretty invested in it. So we’ll see.

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