Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee’s communications director, picked up a bunch of headlines earlier this week when he announced he will be leaving the party leadership to run Georgetown University’s new Institute of Politics and Public Service. Elleithee, active in Democratic Party politics for more than two decades, worked on numerous Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns over the years. To locals, though, he might be best-known for his role as an adviser to former DC Mayor Vince Gray’s 2010 campaign, which unraveled over the next four years amid revelations that it was aided by an illegally funded shadow operation overseen by now-disgraced businessman Jeffrey “Uncle Earl” Thompson.
Elleithee, who only played a role in Gray’s above-board campaign, publicly aired his disgust in a 2011 Washington Post op-ed, calling the shadow effort “stupid politics” and a “betrayal of the voters.” But in a Medium post announcing his new gig, Elleithee wrote that while he’s getting out of the party apparatus, he’s not giving up on his life’s pursuit, writing, “I love politics.” In an interview with Washingtonian, Elleithee expounds on that statement, and explains how he plans to connect with today’s political neophytes. He also says that even after the Gray campaign, he hasn’t given up on the District’s local politics.
Your Medium post and the announcement of your job move seemed to be interpreted to say that as after years as a political consultant and spokesman you’re sick of politics. Is that right?
No. I start by saying I love politics. I think politics is a noble calling. I think public service is a noble calling. Politics is how democracies settle their differences, but I think we too often lose sight of that. While I think there is a lot of amazing things that can happen when the system works, it doesn’t always work. I’m excited to engage with young people because I actually think as long as young people feel disengaged and disenfranchised, the process will never get better. I want to learn from them what will get them re-engaged. I want to learn from their ideas on how to make things better.
Why are young people disengaged? Is there a generic disinterest in dualistic partisanship or because young people are not actively courted?
I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that. I want them to tell me why. I want them to tell us what we’re doing wrong, why they don’t feel connected to the way politics is done. We know they feel just as disenchanted as other people do with the process. But what I’m hoping at the end of the day comes out of this is that young people and students who participate in the program see the value in politics and public service and get excited about participating in the process, and that the political professionals that come through learn how they might be able to do it better.
What are the practices or tools you’ll use to do that?
Our flagship program is going to be a fellows program where we partner students with a number of political professionals, have them spend a semester together exploring ideas. We’re obviously going to have a robust speaking program that’s going to be a much-more interactive environment. How politics is communicated is going to be an important thing to look at.
That’s been your speciality for most of your career.
It has been, but communications is changing. I’m hoping that we can partner with some really interesting digital media platforms where young people are absolutely getting their information now.
What are those, besides the obvious like Twitter and Facebook?
Snapchat just hired a director of news, which is really interesting to me. Fusion is doing interesting things. Medium, where I posted my essay. Those are just a couple. There are so many different ones. Vox, [Independent Journal Review], BuzzFeed is becoming a powerhouse. There are so many of these that are doing new and creative things. There are so many different venues where young people are getting their information. How do we engage people where they are getting their information without cheapening the debate?
Do you ever find it difficult to keep up with the platforms that are more socially directed?
Absolutely. That’s why I’m really excited to hear from students where they are getting their information and helping figure out how we can apply a political dialogue to that venue.
No hesitation about sitting out in 2016?
I don’t see myself as sitting it out. I just see myself doing it in a different way. Doing this against the backdrop of a presidential campaign, which will be a real-life laboratory for a lot of the discussions we’ll be having, is fascinating to me. If we can get young people engaged in this election and begin to crack the code about how to get them excited, then I can’t think of anything that’ll fulfill me more. If I can get home to see my kids before bedtime, that’s an added plus.
Is it going to be an challenge to get young people engaged when it’s possible the two major-party candidates are going to have last names that your students’ parents came of age with?
Let me put it this way: I think young people are going to be much more interested in what the candidates have to say and whether the candidates understand that. That’s going to matter much more than what anybody’s name is. But I’m excited to find that out.
Followers of local politics probably know you best for your involvement in Vince Gray’s 2010 campaign. You and Steve McMahon wrote that Post op-ed around the time all of the shadow campaign stuff started coming out. Did that have any lasting impact on getting out of campaigns?
As disheartening as that race turned out to be, it doesn’t change my passion. In a lot of ways I’m even more focused and engaged on my local government now, having been through that—watching what the current mayor and council are doing, and they’re doing some great things. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that in a town like this where so many smart political people live, that so few people actually engage in local politics. And that bothers me. I moved to DC 25 years ago to go to school and I’ve lived in the region for most of that time. I’d never been engaged in DC politics before. My point is whether we’re talking about the presidential election or a local council race, it still matters to people and we can’t allow ourselves to feel disenchanted or disenfranchised.