Guy Cecil Returns to Defend Democratic Majority

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 29, 2011 · 1:51 PM EDT

A framed New York Times front page hangs on the wall behind Guy Cecil’s desk.

“Democrats take the Senate,” the headline reads, a reminder of his role on the front lines in helping his party win back the majority in 2006 as political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

After a four-year absence, Cecil is back. But this time his office is just a few steps down the hall and his title has changed. As the DSCC’s executive director, Cecil is at the helm of defending the very same majority that he helped usher in.

It’s a big change being back on the campaign side, not that Cecil is any stranger to that pace.

In 2009 the Democratic operative had come off a losing presidential primary and had opened his own consulting firm, living what he remembers fondly as “a normally scheduled life.”

Then he agreed to meet with Sen. Michael Bennet.

The only condition was that the newly appointed Colorado Democrat understood that Cecil wasn’t interested in a job. “I’ve said that before,” Cecil said, smiling.

“I knew during our first meeting that I wanted him for the job,” Bennet recalled. “Away from politics, Guy has a passion for public education.”

Policy and personality connected Cecil to the former Denver schools chief, so he agreed to become Bennet’s chief of staff. The Senator benefited from Cecil’s political expertise and promised to impart his own knowledge of the education system to Cecil. “I shortchanged him on that,” Bennet joked in a recent interview.

Cecil is known as a student and teacher of the campaign’s ground game, but his love for education has been a lifelong theme.

Cecil, 36, was born in Hialeah, Fla. He grew up in an apolitical family, but policy hit home at an early age.

When Cecil was 7, his 6-month-old brother was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the abdomen and spine. To make matters more complicated, their father lost his job as a boat mechanic. Without health insurance, Cecil remembers his parents spending his childhood paying back hospital bills.

“My parents are the two most selfless, hardest-working people I know, who did everything in their power to give me and my brothers a chance to succeed,” Cecil said.

The Cecil brothers went to public schools, and Guy was the first in the family to go to college. After graduating from the University of Florida, he taught high school at Northwest Christian Academy (and started the school’s first debate team) and was a minister to college students and singles at Northwest Baptist Church.

Working one and a half jobs would “set a precedent for the rest of my life,” he said.

But Cecil realized his calling was elsewhere and took his talents from South Beach to Boston. He worked at a local education group before getting involved in the open-seat race in Massachusetts’ 8th district.

“He was literally just a volunteer off the street,” Tom Keane Jr. told Roll Call. Keane was a Boston city councilman at the time running in an extremely competitive Democratic primary.

Even though Cecil lacked campaign experience, “Guy was willing to do anything” and “understood what it took,” said Keane, now a columnist for the Boston Globe Magazine.

Cecil was quickly promoted from volunteer to paid operative. But he was initially in charge of Somerville — against the city’s mayor, Mike Capuano. Capuano went on to win the primary and general election while Keane finished in ninth place, just 350 votes ahead of the 10th candidate.

But despite the bad loss, Cecil had an important personal takeaway about “liking the candidate that you worked for.”

That’s a big reason Cecil took the challenge with Bennet, a new Senator without any staff or campaign infrastructure. Cecil guided the Senator and full-time candidate to tough primary and general election wins in a less-than-favorable political climate.

But Senate races are nothing new to this political veteran.

After the Massachusetts primary in 1998, Cecil ran the field program in Columbia, S.C., when Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) was re-elected over then-Rep. Bob Inglis (R). Two years later, Cecil did the same for the coordinated campaign in Missouri when Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) won a tight Senate race posthumously over Sen. John Ashcroft (R).

It was an early test for the young operative when Carnahan died in a plane crash before the election and Cecil’s canvassers were suddenly volunteering for a funeral.

In 2002, Cecil ran the coordinated campaign in Arkansas when Attorney General Mark Pryor (D) defeated incumbent Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R). Cecil briefly managed Erskine Bowles’ 2004 campaign, which came up short against now-Sen. Richard Burr (R) in North Carolina.

The managerial experience impressed then-DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Executive Director J.B. Poersch, who hired Cecil in 2005 to become the committee’s political director.

After Democrats regained the majority, Cecil signed on for another cycle and restarted the recruitment process. Cecil met then-Oregon Speaker Jeff Merkley at the Portland restaurant India Oven for a frank conversation about the prospects of defeating Sen. Gordon Smith (R).

Merkley said he came away from that meeting with a distinct impression that the DSCC was a “high integrity operation.” The committee backed the rhetoric up with primary and general election assistance.

Just when it looked like another bright cycle for Senate Democrats, Cecil was presented with the personal and professional challenge of a lifetime.

In the fall of 2007, Cecil left people he liked working with and Senators he liked working for to join then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

It wasn’t Cecil’s first presidential race, having worked for Al Gore in 2000 and as a consultant to Gen. Wesley Clark’s campaign in 2004. But this was a much larger stage. Cecil landed in New Hampshire, where Clinton pulled off a stunning upset, and was eventually promoted to national political director and field director.

Even though Cecil’s résumé is dotted with wins and losses, Democrats believe his campaign and committee experience will serve Democratic candidates well.

“He was on the ground in one of our toughest states last year,” DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) told Roll Call. “He knows the entire country and he knows this class. He’s worked with them before.”

“It helps to have a familiarity with the institution,” added Poersch, who served as executive director for the past three election cycles. “There can be a pretty steep learning curve.”

Even though Cecil is laser-focused on the Senate, he desperately tries to have a regular life.

He’s chairman of the board of trustees at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood. “I didn’t want my time here to just be about national politics,” Cecil said.

He’s also a self-described reality show addict. “My colleagues are amazed at the amount of bad television I can squeeze into a demanding schedule,” Cecil said.

The reality now is that Democrats start the cycle on the defensive but that doesn’t faze Cecil or the Democratic caucus.

After Bennet’s win last fall, the Senator was mentioned as a potential candidate to head the DSCC. He wasn’t interested, but now he’s lost his top aide. “It was no surprise to me,” Bennet said. “But I knew they didn’t need me. They needed Guy.”