An Interview with Patti Solis Doyle, Renowned Campaign Manager
Patti Solis Doyle served as an aide to Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 in 1992 and during the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton LAW ’73. She later managed Hillary Clinton’s 2000 and 2006 Senate campaigns and part of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Akhil Rajan of The Politic spoke with Solis Doyle about her experience working closely with the former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate.
The Politic: You’ve worked a lot of your career, over 20 years, with Hillary Clinton, and that started before she was even first lady. I want you to talk a little bit about the moment when you realized that she was more than just first lady or a campaigner but was the candidate herself. When did that transition happen in your mind?
Patti Solis Doyle: I started working for her in September of 1991. I took the job to work on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The day I landed [in Arkansas], the campaign manager basically said, “Change of plans. So sorry, Bill Clinton’s wife has been complaining that she doesn’t have any staff people. I just assigned you to her. Go meet her.”
I was very bummed. I didn’t want to work for the wife. I wanted to get some real campaign experience under my belt. But I couldn’t say no, so I went. And she shows up.
She’s a partner in a law firm. She’s beautiful. She basically says, “Hi, I’m Hillary, what am I doing next week?”
I said, “I have no idea. I literally just landed.”
She’s like, “OK, great. But here’s the deal. I need to be home for my daughter, Chelsea. I need to be home on these days; I need to be home on the weekends. I can’t be gone the same nights that my husband’s gone. That’s the parameter for me.”
I was like, OK, so this is clearly an accomplished woman, but her priority is her child. And that really spoke to me. So that was one pivotal moment.
The second pivotal moment was…[when] we were going to raise money in Texas and California. And I heard her give the stump speech for the first time for her husband. The woman spoke without any notes in front of her, without any prepared draft that she had reviewed earlier. She spoke not only in complete sentences, but in complete paragraphs. It was as if she were dictating an already written speech.
I was blown away because she had this passion, this eloquence. And I said to myself that day, “This person should be running for president.”
She was always Hillary to me. She was never First Lady Hillary Clinton, she was never Senator Clinton. She was never Madam Secretary. She was always Hillary to me because I met her when she was Hillary.
When she ran for Senate in 2000 in New York—a historic race because never had a sitting first lady ever run for public office—we had to hire a whole new cadre of people. I didn’t know New York politics the way I needed to know New York politics in order to run a race there. So we had to hire a bunch of New York-centric consultants.
They all looked at her like she was some sort of fragile china doll, like, “How do we talk to her? She’s the first lady of the United States of America. We need to be deferential.”
She hated it with every fiber of her being because she felt like people weren’t being honest with her…My first big job was to transition this new staff, to get them to treat her like a person, not a figurehead. And that was really challenging.
Her own staff was intimidated by her. […] Throughout 2000, 2008, and even 2016, [that] was one of the obstacles that she faced—not just with future staff people, but with real voters. They saw her as this figure. They didn’t see her as a real person. I consider myself very lucky because I knew her before she was the icon. I knew her when she was the person.
So how did you break past that as a campaign operative and then as the manager of her immediate staff? How did you get people to see her as more of a human being?
I had her get drunk with them. [Both laugh.] I did, I’m not kidding. So we would have meetings, and I’m like, “Hey, let’s break some wine out,” or, “Hey, let’s order some Chinese.” […] I tried to put her in situations that were comfortable and revealing…and after time, that worked. It was a much harder situation with the electorate.
[It] was my idea for her to spend the night in people’s homes rather than in hotels when she was traveling in upstate New York. That was a real groundbreaking move because first of all, the voters were like, “Oh my God, the first lady of the United States is staying in my house!” So they went through all these hoops to get the finest food, use their finest china. And [Hillary] was like, “No, you know, let’s get a burger.” She would clean her own plate and wash the dishes, and she would strip her bed in the morning. She was a real person. And she did that at least 20 times.
That reverberated across the state. The host family would then tell their neighbors, and they would tell everybody who lived on the block, and those people would tell the people they worked with. It was a really great way to sort of break down the barrier.
Obviously, that was a much harder thing to do on a national level in the ’08 campaign. But it worked in New York.
One of the moments that’s really resurfaced, especially today, in light of recent national conversations about #MeToo, was the handling of an aide who was accused of sexual misconduct that you wanted fired. In a normal election…do you believe a decision like that by a candidate should be disqualifying?
Yes, I do. Back then, obviously, it was 10 years ago, and it was a different time. But it wasn’t lost on me that I was the first Hispanic woman campaign manager of a presidential campaign. It wasn’t lost on me that I didn’t want to just do the right thing. I wanted to be better than any other campaign manager had ever been.
When confronted with this issue, I wanted to send a signal to the rest of the staff that this kind of behavior was not okay. And I wanted to send a signal to the rest of the staff that if anything like this happens to you, of course you can come and talk to me about it or talk to your boss about it, and we’re going to do something. So when she overruled me…I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed and as angry with her. But this is also the same woman who allowed me to bring my three-month-old baby to the White House because she knew I was struggling with balancing my motherhood with my career. This is the woman who, for 30 years, doggedly advocated for equal rights, equal pay, women’s health. To me, this one horribly bad call wasn’t enough to negate a 30-year career in advocating for women.