/On the Ground With Lis Smith, the Political Pro Who Invented ‘Mayor Pete’

On the Ground With Lis Smith, the Political Pro Who Invented ‘Mayor Pete’

Smith and Buttigieg on the campaign bus on November 9, 2019, headed to an event at Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Photo: Rob Strong

A couple of months back, I was in New Hampshire, bumping along on a tricked-out campaign bus stocked with SkinnyPop and White Claw hard seltzer (snacks befitting the first millennial presidential candidate), when Lis Smith, Pete Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, told me something that caught me off guard. She loves the New York Post, she said, and gets it delivered to her home. The Post is the same paper that once called Smith a “bimbo” and wrote a story, among many others, claiming that her then boyfriend, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, had spent part of a Jamaican vacation sucking her toes in a hot tub.

That she could still love a paper that had so publicly abused her stayed on my mind while I shivered in an uninsulated barn, a brewery, a theater, and a middle school watching Buttigieg stump along with the other reporters Smith had invited for an on-the-record ride through the state. She mostly stayed on the warm bus. At night, during an off-the-record ride back to the hotel, with the candidate safely cocooned away in some reporterless SUV, Smith drove the conversation, peppering the members of the press with questions about their thoughts on the day’s events, the bus tour, and the state of the race. While campaign manager Mike Schmuhl and press secretary Chris Meagher sipped their drinks wearily, Smith answered questions and needled the assembled crowd of reporters. She was the uncontested center of attention.

At 37, Smith is already a campaign-worn strategist and Washington, D.C., folk hero, credited with launching the 38-year-old mayor to, if not the top tier of the presidential race, its second tier — not a bad showing for someone who was a relative unknown this time last year. Even before she dated the “Luv Gov” and was marked by the particular kind of celebrity that only New York tabloids can bestow — niche, intoxicating, and troubling all at once — Smith seemed destined for notoriety. “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t,’’ was her high-school-yearbook quote, a line spoken by Lady Macbeth. “She came, like, fully formed in the stilettos to college,” one Dartmouth classmate said.

With jet-black hair and big hazel eyes lacquered with mascara and smudged with liner, Smith looks like a slightly devious Snow White. She is partial to all black and leather jackets and wearing sunglasses indoors, which, she told me, has a particular utility: “I have very expressive eyes, and sometimes, when we’re doing those on-the-record bus tours, wearing sunglasses is sort of a way to sit back and look around the room without people knowing.”

On the New Hampshire bus trip, modeled after John McCain’s Straight Talk Express (Smith met McCain at a fund-raiser when she was in high school), she hovered near Buttigieg at all times, glowering over her phone listening to questions as she scrolled. Smith’s theory of media domination means putting the candidate in the direct line of the press and hoping the access — rare in national politics — generates goodwill. The countless hours spent answering questions has proved a clever way to burnish Buttigieg’s smart-young-man image. Even if he doesn’t exude the chummy presence that McCain had on a press bus, Buttigieg still gets credit for wanting to. That feeling that attracts voters to Buttigieg is something Smith crafted, bugging reporters to let him talk about his military record and precocious ambitions.

The need for a campaign to have a good story line is something Smith has understood for a while. Politics has become pop culture, and the formerly dull mechanisms of government and the people who understand them are either basking in odd new categories of fame (see the Obama-alum staff of Crooked Media) or grasping to maintain relevance (see the New York Times editorial board dabbling in the tropes of elimination-show reality TV by announcing candidate endorsements via a heavily edited episode of the paper’s FX docuseries). In response, campaigns have “moved from messaging to content creation,” and Smith is especially good at it, David Turner, the 34-year-old communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, told me.

Turner met Smith when he was running press for a dark-horse governor’s race and she was working out of the DGA headquarters. He considers her a mentor, the purveyor of sage advice like what to do when you’re stuck on a dud of a campaign. “She told me with a long-shot challenge you can experiment,” he said. It’s advice she herself has taken to heart. James Singer worked with Smith on Martin O’Malley’s presidential bid in 2016 and told me that Smith was already toying with the total-saturation approach to campaign communications she’s used this election cycle, but Buttigieg provides an even better vehicle to test her theories about political media. “With Pete, she had this talented ball of clay,” says Singer. Buttigieg knows how to sing for his media supper, speaking French and Norwegian and talking about James Joyce and bringing Democrats and Republicans together with sensible policy solutions. And Smith knows how much reporters, America’s underpaid political gatekeepers, love to talk about how they’ve read (parts of) Ulysses. She knew what they wanted: not just a good quote but a good character. She gave them Mayor Pete. Though Buttigieg is now struggling through a harsher phase of media critique, catching flack for the whiteness of his supporters and drawing questions about just what he means when he talks about “heartland” values, Smith has already made her mark — everyone knows his name, even if they’re tweeting sourly about him. Whether the campaign can move beyond its current problems remains to be seen, but Buttigieg has as decent a shot as he could have hoped for, and that is Smith’s doing. “On campaigns, you’ve got a lot of handwringers, a lot of lemon suckers,” former governor of Virginia and former Smith boss Terry McAuliffe told me. “Not with Lis.”

On Buttigieg’s campaign bus during a four-day tour of Iowa in September 2019.
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

It’s difficult to divine precisely how a person acquires the sort of self-assurance that allows them to speak candidly with would-be Masters of the Universe for a living, but a childhood in Westchester is not a bad start. Since Smith and her twin brother are a decade younger than her older siblings, Smith’s parents “didn’t do kiddie stuff” with them. Smith was worldly from a young age. At 9 years old, in the midst of the 1992 Democratic primary, Smith was able to spot Jerry Brown and point him out to her mother as they stood outside the Parker Meridien hotel. “I’d go into the first day of fourth grade, and they’d ask me, ‘What did you do over the summer?’ And I’d name like ten countries I’d been to,” she said. She told this story while sitting in the lobby bar of Santa Monica’s bougie haven Shutters on the Beach (a sentimental favorite from childhood).

Her parents, both lawyers, had their own connections to Washington politics. Smith’s father, Thomas, is a cousin of Senator Sam Ervin, who famously ran the Watergate hearings; her mother Adrienne’s family was entrenched in the New Hampshire “first in the nation” primary process, meeting the candidates, like Reagan and Ted Kennedy, on their whistle-stop tours. “My father was born toward the end of the Depression, an only child, in a mill town in North Carolina,” Smith told me, sounding an awful lot like a politician telling her origin story to a pancake-breakfast crowd. “Obviously, the fact that Sam was family was big.”

Smith talks about her time at Dartmouth almost as another campaign. She got heavily involved in Democratic politics there, and by the time the 2004 presidential election rolled around in her junior and senior years, she was volunteering nearly full time for John Edwards. In one formative anecdote she relayed with particular glee, his campaign sent her to do some low-grade ratfucking at a town hall for retired Army general Wesley Clark. The mission was to use a pointed question about his record to make him look like a corrupt insider. She wore a pair of low-slung Juicy Couture jeans. (“There were never fewer than, like, two inches between my sweater and my jeans,” Smith said of her aesthetic at the time.) “I probably didn’t look like the person that would ask Wes Clark about his long record of lobbying.” “Tell them you did a good job,” a Clark aide told her on the way out.

When she graduated, Smith went to work on Claire McCaskill’s 2006 Senate campaign in Missouri. Richard Martin, McCaskill’s campaign manager, said it was obvious that Smith was talented but frustrated by her lowly status on the press team. “I just thought of her as a shooting star, and either she was going to burn out or she was going to make it big,” he said. After McCaskill’s win, she joined a 2007 Kentucky governor’s race as traveling press secretary (lost), a 2008 Illinois House race as communications director (lost), two governors’ races in 2009 as press secretary — McAuliffe’s in Virginia (won) and Jon Corzine’s in New Jersey (lost) — then Ted Strickland’s 2010 Ohio governor’s race as communications director (lost), and the Democratic Governors Association for a stint, followed by a big break as director of rapid response on the Obama 2012 campaign (won), then a job as press secretary on Spitzer’s comptroller campaign in 2013 (lost) and gigs as a spokeswoman for Bill de Blasio for mayor in 2013 (won), deputy campaign manager for O’Malley for president in 2016 (lost), then spokeswoman for Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2018 (won), and finally Buttigieg in 2020 (?).

Along the way, she built relationships in the media — not just in the egotistical TV-studio cesspools of New York but in swing states, too. “I remember at the time almost being afraid of her,” said Joe Vardon, who was a reporter at the Toledo Blade during the 2010 Ohio governor’s race. Smith had a way about her, he said. “She would stare at you when you’re face-to-face, and she does want to kill you in that moment — it’s believable.”

But Smith’s real power is that reporters actually like her. It helps that she’s fun — “She’ll have a beer or a vodka or several,” Vardon said — but it’s also that she knows how to spot and place a story that will pop. Vardon, who now writes about the NBA at the sports site the Athletic, put together that Buttigieg looks a little like Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston Celtics. He sent Smith a message on Twitter. “I had just started to pitch the idea” about arranging a conversation between the two youthful, Indiana-born overachievers, he said, “and before I could even finish, she just said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’ and she put me on the phone with Pete for a half-hour, which, as you know, is a long time to be on the phone with a candidate.”

Singer worked on opposition research for O’Malley. (He later headed up Kamala Harris’s 2020 research team.) Part of his job was to pitch Smith, O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager, on stories that she could then pitch to the press. He recalled one story they placed in 2015 that compiled all the times Hillary Clinton had spoken positively about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that became a bugaboo for Bernie Sanders supporters as a sign of her supposed anti-working-class bias. “That was big for me because we got it pitched and Tapper published it,” Singer said, referring to CNN star reporter Jake Tapper. It wasn’t enough to save O’Malley’s campaign, but it was a good shot at the front-runner.

Smith made waves on the Obama 2012 campaign largely because of her Twitter attacks on Mitt Romney, which were prolific. Rachel Cohen, a Senate communications director who worked with Smith on that campaign, said she remembered Smith taking her computer with her into the ladies’ room so she wouldn’t miss anything that happened online. Much of the content of Smith’s attacks seems quaint in the age of Trump: She harped on Romney’s unreleased tax returns and, in the final days of the election, hammered on his misleading spin that an auto manufacturer would be leaving swing state Ohio for China.

She also wasn’t afraid to use the right’s megaphone to plant her message. In 2016, “she always went to a bunch of right-wing people,” Singer said, like Ed Henry at Fox or writers at The Weekly Standard. According to Singer, Smith’s philosophy was, “Sometimes it’s not about getting in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but if you can get something in an ecosystem — it can be the left or the right — it will churn up and turn into something larger.”

During the Buttigieg campaign, she’s drawn fire for her record of having worked for conservative Democrats as well as progressive ones; she lacks a core belief system, her critics might say. Smith isn’t bothered. “I’m a true believer in terms of the Democratic Party, but I believe in a big-tent Democratic Party,” she said. “My personal views are, you know, I’m from New York. I’m a pretty liberal Democrat.”

Smith has also proved particularly suited — or particularly well adapted — to the masculine culture of professional politics. She knows how to gossip and isn’t stingy with colorful on-the-record comments. “Lis gets on the phone with me, and on the record is like just dropping F-bombs,” one reporter told me about a story he was working on. “The F-bomb was this gratuitous quote, but it also just made the story.” She is a good hang who listens to the notoriously boorish Barstool Sports podcasts and watches ESPN to unwind while she exercises. “She can talk basketball, she can talk sports, she can do all of that,” Turner said. She bullied the O’Malley team into a fantasy-football league and would joke every weekend “that she wanted to rip our throats out,” Singer said. At his going-away party, she made an unusual request: “She wanted a lock of my hair, which is so fucking weird and hilarious, and of course we were absolutely hammered,” he said. “I think there’s a picture somewhere of her in a very dingy Baltimore bar clipping my hair for good luck.” One former campaign co-worker said that being a woman in the heavily male space of politics can be an advantage. “There’s a certain element of particularly male reporters who find her good-looking — this is not minimizing her, I want to be clear. This is minimizing a nerdy press corps,” he said.

Smith herself seemed a bit on edge when I asked about her persona. “I’m not just a caricature, you know,” she said, over drinks at a West Village bar. Her time in the tabloid spotlight began in 2013, when she was working for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign: During the transition from campaign to City Hall, the New York Post broke that Smith was dating Spitzer, who had stepped down as governor in 2008 after being caught up in the sting of a high-priced prostitution ring. (Smith is so enmeshed in the brutally parochial school of New York politics that she is a glittering thread connecting three of the state’s most powerful politicians, all of whom hate one another — de Blasio, Cuomo, and Spitzer.) “Ho! Ho! Ho!” proclaimed one Christmastime Post cover featuring Smith and Spitzer. “Xmas Leg Nog” was the Daily News’ take on the holiday photos of Smith in a dress. “Eliot and DeBabe,” read another Post cover with a picture of the couple emerging from Smith’s apartment.

Smith’s tabloid drama has become part of her arsenal of professional assets. She’s the rare staffer who can accurately claim to understand what her famous boss is going through while suffering in the media glare. As for Spitzer, Smith was largely mute about him on the record, as were others I interviewed. “It was a relationship that became very public, but I would like to keep that private and any aspects generally of my life private going forward,” she said.

She considers herself an introvert. “Part of being an introvert is you sit back and watch people and see what makes them tick,” she said. One political reporter said she’s good at “making what must be 100 reporters feel like they’re intimately involved with this campaign and this candidate and can reach out for anything.” She responds to texts and emails, seemingly at all hours. When Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter wrote up her birthday party in October, many reporters from CNN and the Times made the “spotted” list. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and soon-to-be Times media columnist, pointed me to the interview he’d done with Buttigieg, part of a series with all the candidates, as something “emblematic” of the way she operates. Though he texts Buttigieg, she replies first, giving him shit for texting from a “couch in Brooklyn” and asking why she doesn’t see any BuzzFeed reporters at her press gaggle in Iowa (“Not a buzzfeeed [sic] reporter in sight. Sad!”). “I’ve done a bunch of these with candidates, and it’s the only one where the flack gets ahold of the phone and takes it away from the candidate,” he said.

“There’s not a really positive way to say this,” he said of Smith’s outsize presence, “but I mean this positively: This just isn’t an era where having an overdeveloped sense of shame really helps you much.” She has this in common with President Trump, for whom Smith admitted her selective admiration. “I would be lying if I said I hadn’t studied some of his approach with the media and what worked, what didn’t work.”

With Spitzer at a March 2014 Knicks game and alongside de Blasio at the White House in December 2013. Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images/2014 James Devaney; Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/2013 AFP.

With Spitzer at a March 2014 Knicks game and alongside de Blasio at the White House in December 2013. Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images/2014 James Dev…
With Spitzer at a March 2014 Knicks game and alongside de Blasio at the White House in December 2013. Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images/2014 James Devaney; Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images/2013 AFP.

In January 2017, Buttigieg decided to run for chair of the Democratic National Committee. He lost the race but gained a key asset: Smith. President Obama’s top communications adviser, David Axelrod, told me that, as he recalled it, Buttigieg had specifically asked him about Smith. “This is a campaign that is very, very tight knit, with Mike, me, and Pete,” Smith said, referring to Buttigieg and his campaign manager and childhood friend, Schmuhl. “It was just the three of us, really, at the beginning.” Neither Buttigieg nor Schmuhl had a political résumé beyond Indiana politics before a couple of years ago, and they’re both on the placid end of the spectrum, at least by political-world standards. “They’re very different,” Axelrod said of Smith and Buttigieg. “She’s about as subtle as a bulldozer.”

“The fact that he had a veteran campaign warrior who understood the media and understood how to deal with media was not only practically important for him as a candidate but also signified that he was serious,” Axelrod told me. But Smith needed Buttigieg just as much; it’s not as if Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren were likely to welcome her into their campaign inner circles. Smith considers Axelrod a mentor. She worked for him on the Obama 2012 campaign — Smith was “a standout,” he told me — and continues to seek his advice informally. (Both were at pains to emphasize that Axelrod has no formal advisory role.) Axelrod is, she told me, “to some extent, someone who I want to be, you know?”

Early on, Smith said, she liked that Buttigieg was moving in a different direction from other Democrats, who were trying to meet the challenge of Trump with pugilism or by following a mantra of former Obama attorney general Eric Holder: “When they go low, we kick them.” Instead, Buttigieg oozed preternatural calm. The attraction may have been that Buttigieg was simply so at odds with what was already out there. Smith tried to explain it to me: “Growing up, my favorite band was Guns N’ Roses. My older brother was into it. I was obsessed with Axl Rose. But then one day, I listened to Radiohead. And I was like, This is so fucking different. I don’t even know what this is, but I like it.

Smith also cultivates comparisons of Buttigieg to Obama, telling me that they’re both “people who don’t view the world in just very stark, black-and-white terms where you’re a good person or a bad person.”

I asked Axelrod if Smith had found her own Obama figure in Buttigieg, but he politely rebuffed the idea. “I think Pete has an agile and interesting mind,” he said, but Obama possessed other qualities. “He had extraordinary intellectual power but also a great humanity.”

Addressing the press on the campaign bus.
Photo: Rob Strong/© 2019 Robert C Strong

When I saw Smith in Santa Monica, it was a day before the last debate of 2019, and she was holed up with Buttigieg to prep. It’s in debates that a sharper side — a more Smith-like side — of Buttigieg emerges. When Warren attacked him for his “wine cave” fund-raiser, he shot back that he was the only non-millionaire or -billionaire onstage. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” he said. “The dynamic in debate prep, I can guarantee,” McAuliffe said, “is she’s telling Pete, ‘You go after them, you go for the jugular, you don’t stop.’ I mean, she’s a fighter. She takes no prisoners.”

Jugular is a word that came up often when people talked about Smith, and she would certainly take the characterization as a compliment. “It’s important on a campaign to have spokespeople and to have people in public-facing roles who can go a little farther and be a little edgier than what the candidate is going to do,” Smith said. Like when she called Cynthia Nixon “unhinged” on Twitter during the actress’s primary challenge of Cuomo. She can be frank about “the edifice of politics,” one reporter said. The reporter recalled a conversation they’d had during a news cycle in which a shooting occurred while another candidate was rolling out his campaign — television news was covering the shooting, not the candidate. As in a cold-blooded and theatrical West Wing hallway conversation, she confided that these were the sorts of things that kept her up at night, the ways a national tragedy could affect a campaign.

Singer thinks the analogy doesn’t even cut it. “I always joked with her [that] you couldn’t make up Lis Smith. If Lis Smith was a West Wing character, you would roll your eyes.”

Many of the people I talked to described Smith as talented, though a little difficult at times, but in the same breath acknowledged that it might sound sexist to characterize her as such — they didn’t mean it to be. Her colleagues in the flacking profession can seem irritated by the high profile she keeps. “Sometimes she forgets that she’s the staffer, and ultimately our job as the staffer is to communicate on behalf of our principal,” the operative who has worked on campaigns with Smith told me. Even Smith loyalists will admit that, at times, she can be a lot: “Sometimes I felt like she was a little out of control, but I never felt like it was unfair,” Singer said.

Her instinct for the jugular can also misfire. Back in October, a story appeared in the McClatchy-owned newspaper The State that described a focus group of black voters in South Carolina and surmised that some of Buttigieg’s struggles with black support might have to do with homophobia in the black community. (The campaign has recently struggled with public complaints by its own minority staffers that senior management didn’t listen to their concerns about Buttigieg’s poor showing in communities of color.) MSNBC analyst Zerlina Maxwell tweeted, “I am offended that some folks in the media are covering Mayor Pete like he can win when he’s at zero with the base of the Democratic Party. BLACK PEOPLE. Your bias is showing so please be aware and tuck it in.” Smith responded, “I would agree that bias is showing, but it ain’t from those folks.” (Smith’s tweet has since been deleted.)

The campaign denied leaking the story, but I had my suspicions, given that Smith and the story’s author appear to be friends. I asked one person about a post on Smith’s Instagram that suggested (jokingly, it seemed, but still) that they had been engaged and broken it off. When I went back to reference the picture, it had been erased.

It was one of several instances in which I was pretty sure my questions to others were being poured back into Smith’s ear. Once she’d agreed to be interviewed, Smith was mostly friendly over text, making small talk but also letting me know she knew that I’d talked to a variety of political notables, often just hours after I’d gotten off the phone with them: “Omg lol terry just texted me. How was your convo???” Smith mentioned that she’d told the bartender at the place we’d planned to meet for our first sit-down that she’d be bringing a reporter in for a drink. What, I wondered, was he supposed to have done with that inside information? Mix mine a little stronger?

On my last night in Santa Monica, I watched the debate in my hotel room and, when it was over, headed to a party in Venice Beach that I wasn’t invited to. Smith’s name got me in the door.

I found my way to a largely empty lounge area sponsored by Bank of America and “Politico 2020,” according to the pillows. A variety of people, some of whom definitely looked familiar from TV but whose names I didn’t know, drank wine and posed for a photographer in front of a white backdrop. I spotted one D.C. guy who holds political “salons” in his house with his wife and for a while was rumored to be shopping a reality show about it. I tried to picture the party with more cameras and the vaguely famous TV faces throwing wine at one another. It would still have had overwhelming sponsored–by–Bank of America vibes. But a Lis Smith show? “She’s just somebody who I’ve thought for years, like, Huh, there’s going to come a story where Lis Smith is the protagonist, not the flack,” Ben Smith said. Lis Smith is “never gonna have a conventional life,” her friend Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, said. “It’s just not who she is.”

Smith finally arrived and slipped into the crowd. Someone grabbed her a drink. At one point, a woman approached her. “I fucking love you,” she said and talked about how good she thought Buttigieg’s answer on China had been in the debate. After she moved on, I asked Smith how often stuff like that happens to her. “More than it used to,” she said, shrugging.

*This article appears in the February 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!