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BALTIMORE — Kamala Harris’ campaign is careening toward a crackup.
As the California senator crisscrosses the country trying to revive her sputtering presidential bid, aides at her fast-shrinking headquarters are deep into the finger-pointing stages. And much of the blame is being placed on campaign manager Juan Rodriguez.
After Rodriguez announced dozens of layoffs and re-deployments in late October to stem overspending, three more staffers at headquarters here were let go and another quit in recent days, aides told POLITICO. Officials said they’ve become increasingly frustrated at the campaign chief’s lack of clarity about what changes have been made to right the ship and his plans to turn the situation around. They hold Rodriguez responsible for questionable budget decisions, including continuing to bring on new hires shortly before the layoffs began.
Amid the turmoil, some aides have gone directly to campaign chair Maya Harris, the candidate’s sister, and argued that Rodriguez needs to be replaced if Harris has any hope of a turnaround, according to two officials.
“It’s a campaign of id,” said one senior Harris official, laying much of the blame on Rodriguez, but also pointing to a leaderless structure at the top that’s been allowed to flail without accountability. “What feels right, what impulse you have right now, what emotion, what frustration,” the official added. The person described the current state of the campaign in blunt terms: “No discipline. No plan. No strategy.”
This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former staffers as well as others close to the campaign, including donors. The sources were granted anonymity to speak freely about the turmoil within the organization and protect them from repercussions.
The internal strife is the latest discouraging development for Harris’ once-encouraging candidacy. She has slid into low single digits and is now banking on a top-tier performance in Iowa to pull her back into contention. Inside the campaign, which had already experienced staff shakeups before the layoffs, rank and file aides are fed up with the weak leadership and uncertainty around internal communication, planning and executing on a clear vision. They say the constant shifting has eroded trust in the upper ranks.
While staff ire centers on Rodriguez, his defenders argue he has stood loyally by the candidate despite being relegated to a role akin to deputy campaign manager to Maya Harris. They say he’s had to get Maya Harris’ buy-in even on routine decisions, which were often slow to materialize, further undermining staff’s confidence in him as a supervisor.
“From the outset of this race, he has had all the responsibility with none of the authority. He’s been managing this race with at least one, if not two, hands tied behind his back,” a senior campaign official and longtime Harris hand said of the Rodriguez-Maya Harris dynamic. Rodriguez’s decision to keep mum amid criticism from staff is evidence of his devotion to the candidate, his defenders said.
“He would never talk shit about [Maya]. He would never undermine her. He’s just not that guy,” the senior official said.
Aides describe a bleak environment in which workers have started to openly question the judgment of managers after seeing colleagues marched out the door. During a recent meeting, aides pressed Rodriguez and Maya Harris for answers about campaign strategy. At one point during the more than two-hour discussion, Maya Harris herself turned to Rodriguez and challenged him in front of about 20 staffers, and several more listening in by phone. Rodriguez seemed unprepared for the exchange, according to people present. They walked out with little consensus about how to prioritize upcoming events and strategy around advertising.
One recently departed aide tried to sum up the mess: At the staff level, the person said, “everybody has had to consolidate. Everybody has had to make cuts. And people are pissed. They see a void. They want to push someone out. And I understand that. But the root cause of all of this is that no one was empowered really to make the decisions and make them fast and make them decisively.”
Still, others point to Rodriguez’s constant yielding to Maya Harris as a reason he should be held accountable for the campaign's failures. “It was his decision,” another aide said of the fraying pact, adding there were opportunities for him to take control. “He chose to defer to Maya.”
The unorthodox composition of the campaign is further complicated by other factors. Rodriguez’s California business partners — Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Laphonza Butler — are senior Harris advisers atop a flat leadership structure that includes just a few other outside voices, including ad maker Jim Margolis, pollster David Binder and Maya Harris. Critics of the arrangement say it has contributed to an insular culture and reinforced the business partners’ long-term obligations to one another.
The leadership upheaval is the latest turn in a campaign that has endured multiple reorganizations and never gelled as a unit. In September, Rodriguez announced internally that he was putting Butler and Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’ former Senate chief of staff, in charge of most departments. The moves soon gave way to other changes.
Under an updated iteration, Clegg formally assumed control of messaging while Butler took over the financial, digital and operations teams. Dave Huynh, the campaign’s delegate expert, was put in charge of the political department. Emmy Ruiz’s turf included states and the field organization. And Kosoglu oversaw scheduling, communications, advance and policy.
Yet, even these seemingly clearer lines of authority are already being blurred.
In late October, Rodriguez informed staff that he was redeploying aides to Iowa from other states and laying off dozens of others, including at the campaign’s headquarters. He said at the time that the moves were driven by the need to stash enough money for a seven-figure TV ad buy in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Now, it’s unclear whether Harris will have the money to do so.
The former aide said people in the campaign began warning of declining revenues early, but that leadership dysfunction around Rodriguez, Maya Harris and others convinced the person that Harris wasn’t getting an unvarnished view of the picture. “I don’t think anybody wanted to tell her,” the former aide said, adding, “I still don’t think she knows the severity.”
Other aides express fears that the candidate is not being advised of the gravity of the organizational troubles. And they question the wisdom of firing junior and midlevel staffers while the main people empowered to make decisions have all been spared.
Harris’ history with Rodriguez began six years ago, when Rodriguez, who had been an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, took a job in the California attorney general’s office as a conduit to the city of Los Angeles. Late in 2015, Rodriguez, then a senior adviser to Harris’ Senate campaign, came out of the bullpen to manage her race after she parted ways with her first manager. It wasn’t a competitive contest, but Rodriguez helped oversee spending cuts and staff and consultant layoffs as he worked to significantly slash Harris’ overhead.
Maya Harris had helped bring in the first round of hires for that campaign, including several people who were eventually fired, before leaving to run policy for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
When the Harris sisters were building the 2020 staff, they and others were in talks with at least one well-known Democratic strategist whose understanding of the proposed role at the time was to serve alongside Rodriguez given his lack of national campaign experience. The consultant passed, and no one else emerged in that capacity.
Rodriguez confidants from the campaign said they urged him to quit long ago given the challenging nature of the family dynamic, but they don’t think he will. “It was like, ‘I need to be the captain of the Titanic and go down with this ship,’” one said after talking to him recently.
In a statement to POLITICO, Rodriguez said, “Campaigns are long and arduous, but we are all united in our commitment to making sure Kamala is the nominee to take on Donald Trump and win.”
“We have had to make tough decisions to compete in Iowa and ensure Kamala is in a position to be the Democratic nominee, but Maya, I, and the rest of the amazing team are pouring our heart and soul into winning this campaign.”
Aides pointed to late efforts to save the organization. They were invited by management into a crowd-sourcing push for ideas they hope will be incorporated into the plan going forward.
The organizational problems have been agonizing for rank-and-file workers who still believe in Harris’ chances and want to do right by her, another aide said. But the person noted that Harris’ well-received speech at a major Democratic event in Iowa a few weeks ago was eclipsed by news of layoffs across New Hampshire earlier that day. It was the latest reminder, the aide said, of her diminished standing in the race and the dysfunction in Baltimore.
“The loyalty and love for Kamala Harris has never waned,” the person said. “People are still very much invested in her. It’s the directionlessness of the campaign that frustrates them.”
There’s more than enough blame to go around at the top, the aide concluded.
“The whole campaign has been a bunch of people sitting around a table giving opinions and then not backing them up when it comes down to it,” the person said.
“The apparatus wasted her talent more than she blew it.”