Bardella served two years as a political grunt, answering phones and attending community events. Then in 2003, a millionaire congressman named Darrell Issa spearheaded the recall of California’s Democratic governor Gray Davis. The recall effort prompted a local CBS affiliate to beef up its political coverage. A producer contacted Bardella to gauge his interest in a career change; Bardella pounced. He became the station’s political point man, writing scripts for newscasters and tracking down lawmakers for interviews. But the path to elite TV journalism is a long slog through remote American outposts. Bardella had no interest in that.
When San Diego mayor Dick Murphy resigned amid a public-finance scandal in 2005, Bardella returned to politics, joining Republican businessman Steve Francis’s mayoral campaign. Although Francis lost, Bardella’s work caught the attention of Steve Danon, a public-relations consultant who worked for Francis. During the campaign, Danon hired Bardella.
Danon was impressed. While most young staffers clocked out at 5 pm, Bardella often stayed until 10 or later. As the only employee without a college degree, Bardella believed he had to work that much harder, Danon says. “There was a little bit of an insecurity in Kurt,” he says.In late 2005, the firm landed a new client: Brian Bilbray, a former San Diego County supervisor running for Congress. Bilbray joined a field of 14 Republican candidates looking to fill the seat vacated by Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who had resigned after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes.
At 23, Bardella emerged as a key member of the campaign’s media team. He drafted press releases, set up interviews, and pushed the message. At 11 one night, Bardella saw a misreported item in an online article about Bilbray. He called the publication’s night editor and had the mistake corrected before it appeared in the newspaper the following morning.
Bilbray defeated his Democratic opponent with 49 percent of the vote. Danon began assembling a team to run the Washington office. Although he was inundated with résumés, Danon offered the press-secretary job to Bardella.
Bardella was thrilled to be heading to Washington. While browsing through a thrift shop during his junior year of high school, he came across a VHS three-pack of The West Wing. He bought it and was hooked from the first episode. Although he knew The West Wing was only a TV show, it shaped his perception of the nation’s capital. “It was an idealized version that I had, that this place is where some true impact happens,” Bardella says. He says he thought, “It would be really amazing to be a part of that life.” He left California on July 5, 2006.
From the moment he arrived here, Bardella was spellbound: the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, being at the center of the political universe. “I was in awe,” he says.
Still, Bardella wondered if he could make it. He didn’t have a college degree or national political savvy. “I was terrified,” Bardella says. “I wasn’t sure how I would stack up against the best of the best.”
At after-work cocktail parties, Bardella formed his image of Washington success. “You go to those receptions [and] you see those people who, when they walk through, everyone knows who they are,” he says. “I was like, ‘I wonder how it feels to be one of those guys.’ ”
Bardella’s idol was George Stephanopoulos—the former Bill Clinton spokesman who turned his White House experience into a political-journalism franchise at ABC News. When Stephanopoulos walked into a cocktail party, people noticed.
When Danon learned of Bardella’s regard for Stephanopoulos, he suggested Bardella contact him. Bardella sent Stephanopoulos an e-mail. Like he’s ever going to respond to me, he figured. I’m a nobody.
To Bardella’s surprise, Stephanopoulos replied with an invitation to the ABC News studio in Washington. They met for 20 minutes, and Stephanopoulos signed Bardella’s copy of All Too Human: “Good luck with your political education.”
Bardella considered the encounter a one-time thrill. He was stunned to hear from Stephanopoulos several months later.
Representative Bilbray had been active in the congressional debate over illegal immigration, which was emerging as a big national issue. The congressman’s Southern California district was close to the Mexican border, and immigration policy had been the central theme of his campaign. That made Bardella a good contact for journalists reporting on the issue. Stephanopoulos wanted to know if a Republican resolution opposing the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 would pass the GOP conference. The act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for as many as 20 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, faced sharp criticism from the left and the right. Bardella assured Stephanopoulos that the measure would pass.
Shortly after their conversation, Bardella watched Stephanopoulos’s appearance on ABC’s World News Tonight. Stephanopoulos predicted that Republicans would vote in favor of the resolution, citing congressional sources.
“Just like that, I had become a source,” Bardella says. “I was flabbergasted that this was live ammunition we were playing with.”
An hour later, Republicans did vote in favor of the resolution.
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