Outsider Bevin Hires Insider Chief of Staff
November 14, 2015 · 9:35 AM EST
Maybe Republican Matt Bevin isn’t going to burn down Frankfort after all.
The Kentucky Republican rocked the GOP establishment by challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year’s primary and irked some party strategists this year by running his gubernatorial campaign strictly on his own terms.
But the newly elected governor with outsider credentials and a tea party reputation selected a party loyalist with broad appeal and credibility across the Republican spectrum to be one of his top aides.
On Thursday, Bevin named James “Blake” Brickman to be his chief of staff, in a move that is getting good reviews from Republican insiders. He previously served as Sen. Jim Bunning’s chief of staff on the Hill and managed GOP Rep. Andy Barr’s re-election campaign in the Lexington-based 6th District in 2014, along with his work as an attorney in the Bluegrass State.
Former Bunning chief of staff Jon Deuser, who initially hired Brickman for a junior legislative position in the senator’s office, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Bevin’s selection.
“It speaks well of the incoming governor to cast a wide net for talented people, even if they didn’t support him in the primary,” Deuser said. Brickman publicly supported and raised money for businessman Hal Heiner in the GOP primary. Heiner finished third.
Previously, Brickman worked his way up in Bunning’s office, according to Deuser, and then took a leave to be political director on the senator’s 2004 re-election race, which turned out to be closer and more competitive than expected. But Brickman and then-campaign manager/now-Iowa Rep. David Young “built a great architecture that withstood the storm,” Deuser recalled.
In spite of Bevin’s campaign against the Republican leader last year, multiple McConnell allies were encouraged by the governor-elect’s decision to hire Brickman.
“Smart choice,” said veteran McConnell adviser Steven Law. “It shows Bevin is willing to reach outside his circle to build a strong team.” Another McConnell ally called Brickman a “very good pick.” “He knows if you want to succeed and get things done, you have to hire good people,” the source added about the incoming governor.
Brickman has deep roots in Kentucky politics, particularly compared to Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire and Maine. Brickman’s grandfather, Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, was a Democratic governor of Kentucky in the mid-1960s and his great-great-grandfather James Breathitt, a Republican, was elected state attorney general in 1907.
“Blake is a terrific hire. He’s easily one of the smartest guys in any room without having to tell you,” said Kentucky GOP Rep. Hal Rogers’ former chief of staff Michael Higdon, who worked with Brickman on the Hill. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rogers will never be mistaken for a tea party apologist.
“Personable, politically savvy, strong management skills, and a quick study on policy, this has to quash any outstanding fears or queasiness among Republicans about the direction the new governor might go,” added Higdon, who is now a vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs.
Multiple Republican sources rated Bevin’s first staffing choices as solid. Earlier this week, Bevin announced attorney Steve Pitt will be his general counsel. Pitt defended the only other Republican governor of Kentucky from the last four decades, Ernie Fletcher, on misdemeanor charges from 2005-2006, according to The Courier-Journal.
As an outsider who believes he has a mandate, Bevin struck some fear in Democratic and Republican circles that he would lurch to the right. But his initial hiring decisions are painting a murkier picture of how willing he is to burn down the political establishment in Frankfort.