BY CHRISTOPHER CADELAGO
Ryan Clumpner was chatting with his wealthy aunt at a recent holiday gathering when the subject inexorably turned to politics.
“Somehow, she ended up going on a lengthy monologue about how rich donors have ruined democracy and turned our country into an oligarchy,” said Clumper, a former top GOP aide at the state Capitol who left to head the Lincoln Club in San Diego.
When she was done, she asked what he did for work these days.
“Run a super PAC,” he replied.
It’s Christmas, a time of presents, carols and sports on TV. During the holidays, we gather with family, dine and party. We also argue politics. And nobody has it worse than the people who practice politics for a living.
In a company town like Sacramento, where political operatives work, and work out, shoulder-to-shoulder, debating public affairs while breaking bread with relatives is an inescapable, less merry holiday tradition.
As someone who works with state government officials, Jason Kinney assumed when he married into a well-known family of Sacramento lobbyists and political insiders that every holiday event would be “rainbows and unicorns.” Instead, Kinney, a consultant to top Democratic officials and principal at California Strategies, said he spends a lot of time at family events defending his clients.
“There’s a lot of ‘please pass the turkey, then please justify how you could possibly think eliminating redevelopment agencies is good for California,’ ” Kinney said.
He should consider himself fortunate. Some scenarios involve partisan jeering, along with disagreements over current and prospective U.S. presidents. Political and campaign operatives describe themselves as virtual magnets for dinner-table disputation.
“When you work in politics, your family, or anyone not in politics, always expects you to have special insight into what’s going on in all political realms,” said Rachel Laing, a public affairs consultant and former spokeswoman for ex-San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican.
Lately, Laing said she’s been doing a lot of talking about real estate tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump, explaining to relatives and friends how unlikely it is that he will ultimately win the GOP presidential nomination – “and even unlikelier he’d actually win the White House.”
A Democrat, Laing said she’s fortunate that her family and most of her in-laws range from left-leaning to “left-of-Fidel-Castro,” so “most of the disagreements are mild.” But there was some static eight years ago as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competed in the Democratic primary.
“My mom accused me of ‘betraying the sisterhood’ for not supporting Hillary Clinton, and not-entirely-in-jest threatened to write me out of her will,” Laing said.
Inez Kaminski, an associate at Swanson Communications in Sacramento, recalls a recurring scenario with her 93-year-old Republican grandfather, whom she sees during Christmas. He has lived in the same orange-shag-carpeted condo in Malibu for 35 years, and has a signed picture of former President George W. Bush on his refrigerator, next to a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Each year, his favorite needle is: “ ‘So, what do you think about Obama?’ ” just to get a reaction, said Kaminski, a Democrat.
Kaminski said she doesn’t back down. “I root for my guy, more antagonizing than I need to be,” she said. “ ‘President Obama will go down in history as the best president of all time’ ” usually ends dinner conversation, she said.
“We’ll do the dance again next year.”
Republican Alex Vassar, a veteran political aide and legislative historian at OneVoter.org, remembers an exchange with his father two years ago. Vassar was describing legislation that captured his attention when his dad shook his head, asserting the governor can create laws when he wants by issuing an executive order.
“The president can do a lot more with those than a governor. I’ve studied this, and I’m saying this as a professional opinion,” Vassar recalled pushing back.
Vassar chided his father, a boat carpenter since the 1970s, that challenging his opinion was “like when you tell a client that a job requires mahogany and (you) say, ‘Oh, this is what I do for a living.’ You know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t know,” his father replied. “You weren’t around for Nixon.”
The talks can leave a lasting imprint. Ben Golombek, a chief of staff at the Capitol, was with his girlfriend, a lobbyist, at the time of a visit to his native New York. His parents gave them a lift back to the airport, and his mother launched into a critique of unethical lobbyists.
Her disapproval led Golombek and his girlfriend, whose father also worked in the field, to counter that lobbyists play an important role in the political process.
Mom then gave a little. Lobbying is OK, she said – so long as it wasn’t for alcohol companies. Or on behalf of the tobacco industry.
His girlfriend’s father represented liquor distributors and had tobacco as another client, “which my mom was told and chose to ignore,” Golombek said.
The next several minutes were dominated by “a long and awkward silence.”
“It was sort of funny in retrospect … my mom (embarrassing) herself in front of her future daughter-in-law.”
Not all memorable moments at holiday tables of political families involve politics.
Dennis Revell, who runs a public affairs firm and was the spouse of the late Maureen Reagan, over the last 35 years has spent all but a handful of Christmas celebrations with the Reagans.
The late president’s duties involved carving the turkey with a standard knife, a responsibility that when he became ill was passed on to Revell, who favored an electric carver. Revell said he joked with Reagan about the change in cutlery, suggesting he was going to use his chain saw for the task and asking if it was OK.
“Would oil from the chain ruin the taste of the turkey?” Revell asked. Reagan responded with hearty laughter.
Keeping it light is often the best approach, said Sherry Blair, a licensed clinical social worker and board-certified professional counselor. Certain topics, including immigration issues, have stirred passions in her own family. When participants introduce alcohol into the mix, it can often have an amplifying affect.
“It becomes, God forbid, a Molotov cocktail,” said Blair, a lecturer at the University of Southern California.
Part of the reason things may become so animated is that family members sometimes set aside social etiquette typically found in formal settings.
“It definitely happens when someone doesn’t realize where to draw the line and how to agree about disagreeing,” she said.
Blair said she’s helped calm the situation in her own ranks by redirecting the conversation to a less disputed topic.
“When someone has taken it to the limit, you have to realize to pull back and have fun, which family and friendship gatherings are supposed to be about.”
Political practitioners develop their own methods of pacifying relatives, friends and strangers alike.
When he’s traveling during the holidays, Steve Maviglio, a Democratic public affairs consultant who has worked for politicians ranging from former Gov. Gray Davis to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, usually tells people he’s a landscaper.
Molly Weedn, of the California Medical Association, recommends staying active by volunteering to do housework. Visiting her boyfriend’s family for Thanksgiving, Weedn narrowly avoided an awkward encounter with a 91-year-old relative who announced she’d just watched “50 Shades of Grey,” which she dismissed as pornographic. Weedn looked at her boyfriend and warned, “If you say I have read the books, I am breaking up with you right here, right now.”
Before establishing his public affairs firm in Sacramento, John Kabateck spent eight years as California director of the National Federation of Independent Business. His brother, Brian Kabateck, a plaintiff’s attorney in Los Angeles, is former president of Consumer Attorneys of California, which has clashed with business interests at the Capitol.
Though their political differences aren’t as deep as some may think, John Kabateck said, they learned a cardinal rule over the holidays: “Pumpkin pie and politics don’t mix.” He said they’d much rather talk about chocolate torte than tort reform, and microbrews instead of MICRA, the state medical malpractice law.
“Plus, we usually stay with him and his wife in L.A.,” John said last week, “so it doesn’t seem proper etiquette to bite the hand that feeds you … Well, that, and I would hate to disagree with him over a turkey dinner and wake up with a horse’s head in my bed.”
Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles, offers this advice: “avoid the conversation at all costs.”
“I usually get my fourth plate of tamales, pretend to fall asleep on my grandma’s couch or tell everyone I’ve changed career paths and have become a used car salesman,” he said.