Politics & Government

Campaign counts on Charlotte native

After 36 years guiding maverick Republican campaigns, he figured he was getting too old for sleepless nights and constant travel.

But then Sen. John McCain called about a year ago, just as his campaign was blowing up. Could McCain's old friend return to the game?

He would.

At the helm of McCain's campaign is a Charlotte native raised amid the drawls of North Carolina, schooled at the knee of Jesse Helms and so entrenched in the ways of Washington that he has enjoyed access to Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan.

“Charlie's one of the smartest political minds in the business,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who has campaigned for McCain alongside Black for the past year.

Black also is a lobbyist.

Lobbyists have become a common backdrop for federal campaigns, thanks in part to Black.

“I think he shows us the worst side of how Washington works,” said David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch, part of a non-profit group that tracks money and politics.

After decades revolving between both worlds, Black holds a nuclear-powered Rolodex and an unflappable demeanor. He knows how to soothe Republican egos and unearth their checkbooks to McCain's benefit.

“He's the prototype for the modern political operative,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican political consultant based in Raleigh who has worked with Black. “He's very much a player in what is, ultimately, a very small town.”

How Black works

Now, he hopes to use those skills to help McCain reach the White House.

It began last summer, when Black was working his lobbying job, helping clients such as AT&T, General Motors, and the Occidental Petroleum Company.

McCain's campaign had imploded, hemorrhaging money. McCain fired his top staff and called Black. The two have known each other since the 1970s.

Black took on a key role, volunteering for McCain while still lobbying on the side. He convinced a handful of campaign folks to stay on.

“Look,” he told them, “this is still winnable.”

He helped make McCain, often seen as too moderate for the party's base, palatable enough to conservatives to win the GOP nomination.

“You'd have to say this was one of the greatest political comebacks of any we've seen in modern history,” Rotterman said. “John McCain was political roadkill.”

Sitting in his bare, windowless office at McCain's campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., on a recent morning, Black, 60, wouldn't talk about what specific strategies he offered in McCain's resurgence.

But here's how Black works: He knows people. He returns calls within 24 hours. He remembers friends, stays loyal and comes through with favors. He doesn't rattle easily. He trolls the polls, counts up voting blocs – then goes after them.

“I've proven to be pretty good at pulling strategies together and getting people to cooperate,” he said.

Black, thin-framed, soft-spoken and still smelling faintly of the Winstons he no longer smokes, has been around Washington since he helped Helms pull off his own coup in solidly Democratic North Carolina in 1972.

“The philosophy was what moved me – limited government, strong national defense, stand up to communism,” Black said.

He then worked for Reagan in 1976 and was fired in 1980 by Reagan who was upset at advice to pass over the Iowa caucus.

Black, just 33 then, picked himself up and launched a lobbying firm with two buddies. They also started a political consulting firm with the same name: Black, Manafort & Stone.

And so Black helped create the world that politicians – including McCain – now rail against. First he pitched clients to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Then he switched hats during election season to help those same politicians win votes.

“(Black) comes from the slugfest, non-silk-stocking side of the party,” said Matt Towery, a former GOP operative and now a polling executive. “I think that's a big plus. Because the silk-stocking side of the party is not going to get the job done this year.”

Sometimes, it's ‘lose'

Yet Black's candidates don't always win.

Michael Reagan, son of the former president, once called Black “the worst campaign manager in the history of mankind.”

Black's role in the McCain campaign brought criticism this year.

In two interviews months apart, Black said Benazir Bhutto's assassination helped McCain because it highlighted the senator's foreign policy experience and that another terrorist attack would help McCain's campaign.

Then Black's lobbying work drew fire – a sensitive topic considering McCain has campaigned against Washington special interests.

Despite joining McCain's efforts in spring 2007, Black didn't quit his lobbying firm until this past March.

He says it's because he didn't start volunteering full-time for McCain until April.

Over time, Black's lobbying ties have returned to the news. In the 1980s, Black worked for foreign characters such as Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi.

Black said he cleared his foreign clients with the State Department and the White House – and pointed out that Marcos and Savimbi were allies of the United States during the Cold War.

Black said he quit the contracts as soon as the clients were cut off by Reagan.

And, Black said, his lobbying ties have no impact on McCain.

“The fact is, the flavor of the election cycle is to attack lobbyists,” Black said. “No one could ever argue or assert – nor would they – that I've ever exerted influence over John McCain.”

McCain's campaign this spring directed all top officials to cut ties with outside lobbying and political groups or leave the campaign. And McCain defended his senior adviser to reporters in May.

“Charlie Black has been involved in every presidential campaign going back to President Reagan's first campaign,” McCain said. “He has severed his connections with the lobbying group that he was with.”

For Black, the ultimate insider who once thought he wanted nothing more to do with presidential politics, the stakes are high. This could be his last campaign.

“There are no do-overs,” Burr said. “It's win or lose.”