The Worst Job in Washington

When the elevator doors opened, there was still no sign of the campaign. Every door was locked and unmarked. Around one corner, slightly open, was the door to a closet filled with cardboard boxes. Out of one fell a bumper sticker which read: “Like father, like son. One term and you’re done.” I was in the right place.

Around the next corner I saw a sliding window that opened onto a mailroom. “Kerry for President” signs were taped to the walls. Steel shelves held bins filled with dozens of cellphones. Next to them, more bins overflowed with satellite-TV receivers. I knocked, but there was no answer. Just then, a young man, mid-twenties and casually dressed, emerged from the elevator. “Is this the Kerry campaign?” He nodded. “May I talk to who’s in charge, please?”

Swiping an electronic passcard in front of one of the unmarked doors, he led the way in to a large office, where he asked me to wait while he asked the director if he would see me. The office seemed typical. About a dozen staffers sat at computers working on what appeared to be spreadsheets. The only off-kilter detail was the large, white dry-erase board. Written in large letters across the top was, “Kerry-Edwards victory party. Live from Copley Square. 8:30.” On the left side, in blue marker, were the names of the states that went for Kerry, their electoral votes written beside them. On the right, in red, the states won by Bush. No one had bothered to add up the totals. And no one, in all the days since Kerry had conceded defeat, had summoned the heart to erase the board.

The young man came back. “No-go,” he said. His boss wouldn’t talk. He walked me out. Why were they all here? “The FEC auditors,” he said. “They arrive in a month,” he said.

By law, the Federal Election Commission audits every federal campaign. And so shortly after the last vote is counted, the FEC moves in to start counting pennies. Win or lose, every campaign, including those that didn’t make it out of the primaries, must maintain a skeleton staff to provide the FEC with the documents it requests. You don’t just flip the FEC an accounting register and your cell phone number and tell them to call with any questions. Audits can take two to three years to complete, and someone needs to be there to turn out the lights when the last auditor leaves.

What must it be like to continue working for a campaign that has already lost? I called Keri Adams, now vice president of Community Affairs with Planned Parenthood in Tennessee. She had been in charge of the budget for media and polling expenses during the Gore campaign in Nashville. Just after the election, while the recount was still underway in Florida, she was asked to move to Washington and staff the audit.

“The first thing you need to do is liquidate the campaign’s assets. Computers, furniture, cellphones,” she said. This, I thought, explained the cellphones and satellite TV receivers I saw at the Kerry campaign office. “It was a strange, eerie feeling. It’s almost like you’re packing up for someone who’s died. “Then you have to prepare for the auditors. They’re going to go through every check, every credit card bill, every cash receipt. I spent days creating the most elaborate spread sheets of phone bills you ever saw.

“When the FEC auditors arrived, we were told not to have any contact with them. We were told specifically to keep our distance, and I remember the words, ‘lest they manipulate us.’ Our instructions were to be friendly in elevator situations. They weren’t supposed to have even known our names, but the auditors were in our office every day. The most awkward thing was trying not to have a relationship–even an acrimonious relationship–with someone who you would see every day. Your bosses plant the suspicion in your mind: They might try to manipulate you–and immediately, the armor’s up. “Basically, you wait for the auditors to ask for something, and then you provide it. Because we weren’t allowed to have contact, we had a contact person. All the FEC requests would go through her. She would come to us and say, ‘they’re looking for this document or this check.’ And so we would go through this long row of file cabinets filled with sequentially ordered checks for the 100th time looking for the one check out of sequence, because that’s the one the FEC wants.

“There were stretches when things were busy, but there was also a lot of downtime and a lot of boredom. One of the lawyers on he campaign made it through three Harry Potter novels in what seemed like one week. Fortunately, because of some strange cable-TV package, we had access to all the movie channels. We tried to get rid of them. All we wanted were the news channels, but they were [sold as] a set. It definitely added to the absurdity. Once, a colleague and I were watching My Dog Spot, and our boss came in to ask us a question. We actually held up our hands and said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Wait until this scene is finished.’ And he waited. And how many damn times did I see Gladiator that year?”

Why would anyone sign on for such a job, I asked. No question took her longer to answer. “A smart person would have said, ‘I’m going to stay in Nashville and make a life for myself.’ But a smart person wouldn’t be working on a campaign in the first place. There was morbid curiosity, of course. But I joined the campaign in the first place, I guess, because I wanted to be a part of something historic. After the election, even though the campaign was over and we had lost, it was still the chance to be a part of something that historians would be talking about for decades. That’s kind of sad, in retrospect. It was, after all, just an audit.

“There weren’t a lot of individual moments of job satisfaction,” she recalls. “If you think audits are fun, then there are 1,000 thrilling moments. But, when I found out that the division I oversaw in Nashville was finished and passed the audit, that was very gratifying. We weren’t fined. I knew that my department, what I was doing, was clear and clean. Knowing that I, at least, had done a good job, that was my job satisfaction. Accountants are special people, there’s no way around it.”

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation