Nation

Dan Geldon is Elizabeth Warren’s secret weapon

Some dismiss Dan Geldon (left) as inexperienced, wonky, arrogant. But there’s no denying he’s part of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s rise from a Harvard law professor to a top tier candidate for the highest office in the land.
Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe
Some dismiss Dan Geldon (left) as inexperienced, wonky, arrogant. But there’s no denying he’s part of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s rise from a Harvard law professor to a top tier candidate for the highest office in the land.

They are an unlikely pair for national politics: the podium-pounding, light-seeking 69-year-old Harvard law professor-turned-presidential-candidate, and her former student, an obsessively understated consigliere half her age who resides comfortably in her shadow.

Elizabeth Warren and Dan Geldon work so closely together that she once described the pair as a “two-man platoon.” A confidant to both, Richard Cordray, said, “I don’t even know how to untangle them.”

They share a mission, though not a style. Warren is widely known, Geldon hardly at all. He prefers to stay in the background with his oft-present legal pad, plotting to advance their shared populist agenda, drawing on his finely tuned sense of how she thinks and sees the world.

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Now chief of staff for her presidential campaign, Geldon is one of the most important figures in Warren’s operation, and his judgment, assessments of risk, and strategic planning will greatly influence her political prospects in the months ahead.

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“Where I am blunt, Dan is subtle,” Warren once wrote, “and he sees much that I would miss.”

The campaign will be the biggest test yet of their decadelong collaboration — and of Geldon’s political skills. Democrats outside Warren’s orbit warn that the kind of political symbiosis the two share can come with blind spots. Geldon is the keystone of a political team, after all, that took a big gamble — releasing the results of Warren’s DNA test to try to defuse the controversy over her claims to Native American heritage — that has not yet clearly paid off. Some think it has been a downright disaster.

“The fact that we are still dealing with this ancestry thing months after it and just the way it all came together is proof you need a senior person who has competed at this level and can say this is a good idea and a bad idea,” said Jim Messina, the 2012 campaign manager for President Barack Obama, speaking broadly about Warren’s handling of the issue so far. “The most important thing you can do in politics is put someone in there who will tell you when you’re doing something wrong.”

Some dismiss Geldon as inexperienced, wonky, arrogant. But there’s no denying he is part of a remarkable political phenomenon: Warren’s meteoric rise from a Harvard law professor hellbent on protecting consumers and bringing Wall Street and the financial industry to heel, or leaving “plenty of blood and teeth” in her wake, to one of the most influential figures in Democratic politics and a top tier candidate for the highest office in the land. All in the span of about a decade. All with Geldon by her side.

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“Dan has a true center, a place he returns to that is deeply principled and deeply committed to making this country work for everyone,” Warren said. “He’s an extraordinary partner.”

Geldon and Warren share an appetite for bold moves to advance their positions, and over time have honed a skepticism of following the established codes of business in Washington and hewing to the niceties of party politics — even to the point of confronting such powerful members as Obama.

Warren credits Geldon as her guide through the political muck of Washington, from when the pair first went to the Capitol and outmaneuvered a phalanx of lobbyists to secure the creation of her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2010. He’s played key roles in the moments of her Senate career where — for better or worse — she set herself apart with her willingness to challenge other members of her own party. Among them: Warren’s successful effort to torpedo Obama’s pick for a top Treasury post over the candidate’s Wall Street background.

“I think he’s always playing the long game in a way that lets Elizabeth be really in the moment,” said Katie Porter, a former law student and researcher of Warren’s who received advice from Geldon for her own 2018 congressional campaign. Porter’s victory in a tight race for a long-held Republican seat in California’s Orange County was among those that helped flip the House to Democratic control. “Nobody should underestimate Dan Geldon.”

Geldon pulled all-nighters to help get a congressional oversight panel of the massive 2008 bailout of the banking industry that Warren chaired off the ground, and is widely credited with helping to build the consumer bureau from scratch, helping to make key early hires and build out the bones of the organization. “Dan is able to take her vision and really implement it and illustrate it, further it,” said Elizabeth Vale, who worked with the pair at the consumer bureau and on the 2012 Senate campaign. “He’s really good with a blank sheet of paper, a blank whiteboard.”

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Allies of the pair speculate that Geldon believed Warren could be a senator well before she did. He was the first person on her 2012 campaign and then eventually chief of staff in Washington before moving back to the campaign side last fall.

Geldon and campaign manager Roger Lau will be the main pillars of Warren’s presidential team. The absence of Mindy Myers, a third operative who helped steered Warren to the Senate as her 2012 campaign manager and was her first chief of staff, has raised eyebrows within political circles, but the campaign appears poised to move forward without her.

Raised in Bethesda, Md., and now 36, Geldon is an unusual figure in an industry full of hotshot consultants and Rolodex-obsessed political operatives. He fastidiously avoids the limelight and declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Dan was, I think, an unknown and I think he was fine with that,” said David Krone, who served as chief of staff to former senator Harry Reid and saw in Geldon a striking commitment to Warren’s beliefs. “He fundamentally believes in what they’re doing is right.”

Hardly fashionable, with glasses and thinning hair, Geldon is described by allies as a quiet leader whose low-key demeanor belies his tactical acumen and unwillingness to sugarcoat his counsel, even, at times, with Warren herself.

“Dan has incredibly sharp elbows, but Dan would never let you know that he has sharp elbows,” said Grant Woodard, a Des Moines lawyer and former political operative who first met Geldon in college.

A graduate of Amherst College, Geldon cut his political teeth with the College Democrats and worked for the Democratic National Committee. Even then, his colleagues saw him as a calculated risk-taker. Geldon counsels for bold moves, if the reward is worth it, but only after relentlessly analyzing every angle and possible permutation, always with the end goal of advancing the policy goal.

“He plays chess in his mind, political chess,” said LaToia Jones, a strategist who has known Geldon since their days with the College Democrats and now consults for Warren’s presidential campaign. “He thinks through every step.”

Geldon’s legal pad is a road map to implementing Warren’s vision. In tiny handwriting, on a single sheet, he compiles copious to-do lists, not just for himself, but columns for every other member of the Warren team. He is obsessive about crossing off and adding items, reminding colleagues of assignments until he can draw a line through each, no matter how minor, said one colleague.

After John Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004, Geldon left the DNC for Harvard Law School, where a course he took with Warren sparked his interest in the same issues — bankruptcy, financial protections, and inequality — that have defined Warren’s remarkable political rise.

“As much as he became a soldier to her,” said Woodard, “he became a soldier to the cause overall.”

Geldon began working with Warren on the bailout oversight panel, but the crucible for their partnership was the fight they waged to get Congress to create a watchdog agency for consumers as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial law.

The lobbying wars steeped Geldon in the fundamentals of Warren’s worldview — an economic system rigged to favor the rich and powerful, and the need for a new set of rules to ensure that markets work to benefit everyone equally.

After they won, Geldon went with Warren to transform legislative text into a functioning, aggressive consumer watchdog.

“I don’t know anything he didn’t have a hand in, whether it had to do with building up the agency, setting up its direction,” said Cordray, who was recruited by Warren during this period to be the consumer bureau’s first head of enforcement and later its first director.

It required aggressive outreach to the public, deep understanding of the political machinations working against them, and something else that would come to typify Warren and Geldon’s approach to policy making: A “very strong response to political opposition,” Cordray said. “Not to take any of it lying down.”

After Obama declined to nominate Warren for the bureau director, Geldon helped run her 2012 Senate campaign — and also managed to get married during it. People involved in the campaign say he served as Warren’s voice at every meeting, ensuring the entire operation was consistent with the values that had made Warren a national figure.

“He was kind of the moral compass of the campaign,” said Doug Rubin, a senior strategist for that bid. When her election victory returned them to Washington, Geldon served as deputy chief of staff, and was closely involved in episodes that showcased their commitment to advancing their causes, even if it meant annoying or even alienating fellow Democrats.

In 2014, they launched an extended effort to get the Obama administration’s Department of Education to crack down on for-profit colleges, combining a loud and public campaign with aggressive private outreach, instead of the polite back-channeling that is customary between political allies in government.

Later, Warren unleashed the power of her formidable grass-roots following to sink Obama’s nomination of Wall Street banker Antonio Weiss to a top Treasury position.

The successful attack on the Democratic administration reflected one of Warren’s and Geldon’s, motivating principles, that “personnel is policy.” There was other evidence it worked: During the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton and her campaign operatives sought input from Warren and Geldon on their picks for economic advisers.

After Myers, Warren’s first chief of staff, departed for a role with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the end of 2015, Geldon stepped into the role. Warren opened up more publicly, engaging more with the news media, and ramping up attacks on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on Twitter.

Then, last year, Geldon and Warren again showed a willingness to chide fellow Democrats for their support of efforts to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank, including some restrictions on all but the biggest banks. Several targets of Warren’s criticism were in the midst of tough reelection contests in states that Trump won in 2016, and they were angry when Warren called them out by name in an e-mail to supporters.

During a closed-door meeting of Democratic chiefs of staffs in March 2018, Geldon stood his ground, defending Warren and the tactics they had practiced, according to three people who were there. Part of his response to the colleagues who’d criticized his boss: Warren had been calling out Democrats for siding with the financial industry over working people for decades; anyone in the room surprised by her approach on a bill that weakened Dodd-Frank hadn’t been paying attention.

The hard feelings from the incident have not dissipated a year later, and some Democrats involved will never support her for president, said several Democratic congressional aides.

But to Geldon and Warren, the fallout was worth it, as part of a larger strategy of making it so politically painful to weaken Wall Street regulations that lawmakers of either party wouldn’t try it very often — collateral damage in advancing the cause.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.