Politics & Government

Obama's likely new staff chief was known as '101st senator'

Sen. Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Pete Rouse, in his office suite on Capitol Hill on November 15, 2005.
Sen. Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Pete Rouse, in his office suite on Capitol Hill on November 15, 2005. Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune/MCT

ANCHORAGE — He once helped run state government in Juneau, played shortstop in a local softball league, and voted as an Alaska resident until he moved to a job in the White House two doors down from his close friend, President Barack Obama.

Now it's expected that Pete Rouse will move one office closer to the president when chief of staff Rahm Emanuel resigns to run for mayor of Chicago, and Rouse takes over Emanuel's responibilities.

Before moving to the White House, Rouse had spent 25 years as the consummate Democratic insider in the U.S. Senate, where he 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. 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 Emanuel's and Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod.

Just one month after Obama took office, Rouse, who is in his mid 60s, described his ascendancy with Obama to the White House as "an interesting ride." "It's only been four years here, this trip from freshman senator," he said.

Rouse has deep family roots in Alaska — his mother, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, grew up in Anchorage starting in World War I, when it was a railroad construction town.

But Rouse himself was born on the East Coast and had never been west of Denver until late 1978 when he flew to Alaska 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 went to work for for Democrats in the Senate. 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 the 2008 presidential race, records show, the man who would co-lead Obama's transition team voted absentee in Juneau.

There's no record now that he's still registered in the state. In 2008, he could have legally remained on Alaska's voter roles as long as he didn't vote elsewhere and intended to return someday. Voters also are allowed to remain registered in Alaska 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.)

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.

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 once 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."

The Alaska years ended, however, when Miller lost the 1982 Republican gubernatorial primary. Rouse headed back to Washington.

As a workaholic senior staffer in the U.S. Senate, Rouse liked to stay quietly in the background. News stories about him during that time invariably noted two things: his affection for cats 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 once told the Post.

Plans for Rouse to help Obama campaign in Alaska ended, however, when Sarah Palin was picked as John McCain's vice presidential candidate; winning the state seemed impossible.

Asked shortly after Obama's inauguration what his role would be in the White House, Rouse responded, "I fix problems," he said, explaining his new role. And if the Republicans take over Congress in November, as some predict, Rouse has friends on the other side.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, now fighting to retain her seat with a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary to a tea party candidate, once praised him. "Pete's very smart, highly skilled, and has always been totally square in our dealings," she said.

This story is adapted from a version that appeared originally Feb. 21, 2009

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