Patrick Gaspard is closer to a different Brooklyn these days — a small, high-priced residential neighborhood in the southeast of Pretoria.
But even from 8,000 miles away, it often seems that Gaspard still hasn’t left New York.Continue Reading
As the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Gaspard manages the relationship with President Jacob Zuma, orchestrated the arrival of four presidents for Nelson Mandela’s funeral last month and leads a staff of 1,100 in an embassy and three consulates as they sort through the complicated relations between national unions and the African National Congress, and collaborate with NGOs.
Even in his official diplomatic Cape Dutch-style mansion in Waterkloof Ridge, Gaspard hasn’t quite let go of his past life as one of New York’s top political operatives, especially with his best friend becoming the new mayor of New York. He’s such a constant presence by phone, in inboxes and through text messages that people talk about him as if they might still run into him on the subway.
As Bill de Blasio preempted a runoff for the Democratic nomination in September, there Gaspard was. As de Blasio deliberated over who to pick for administration jobs, there he was. As members of the City Council divided and fought over who to pick as their new speaker on Wednesday, there he was again — checking in with people, and having others ask him for advice, talking through his own sense of where things might go, and why.
Every president rewards high-level supporters with ambassadorships, and Barack Obama’s no exception. Caroline Kennedy’s in Japan. Jane Hartley, a top campaign bundler, is being vetted for nomination to France. Obama finance director Rufus Gifford’s already in Denmark. The list goes on.
But Gaspard’s unlike most political appointees precisely because his background is so political — a top New York operative, he spent the past five years as Obama’s political director and then executive director of the Democratic National Committee. And there isn’t any ambassador anyone can think of who’s stayed so in touch with the ups and downs of local politics back home.
The State Department says Gaspard’s conversations with de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another friend whose primary campaign he informally advised over the summer while waiting for Senate confirmation — as well as conversations with other elected and labor leaders he’s known for years — come in the context of old friendships, so there is no violation.
“Ambassador Gaspard has had a remarkable and long record in public service from the labor movement in New York to the Obama White House, so it’s no surprise he has many close personal friendships built over decades in his former life, and even less of a surprise that despite busy lives and thousands of miles, good friends keep in touch,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “It’d be surprising if that weren’t the case. But Patrick’s entire focus and efforts now are on representing the United States as the ambassador to South Africa, and it’s been a particularly busy period in Pretoria marked by Nelson Mandela’s passing which consumed Patrick’s energy.”
Not everyone’s so understanding.
Staying so much in touch with politics back home is “outside of the mainstream,” said George Terwilliger, a former Reagan deputy attorney general, when told about Gaspard.
Back when he was the ambassador to Britain in the run-up to World War II, Joe Kennedy had a clipping service to supplement the Boston political news he was getting from friends and his father-in-law, “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and had reporters in Washington keeping him up to date on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s deliberations about running for a third term, though “other than trying to get Joe Jr. an appointment as delegate to the 1940 nominating convention, he had no active agenda,” said Kennedy biographer David Nasaw.
And Gaspard’s stayed in touch, unlike how Richard Swett did when he was using his old connections from two terms in the House representing New Hampshire to build business and cultural connections when he was Bill Clinton’s man in Copenhagen.
“I was very much in contact with both my political friends and adversaries,” Swett said, stressing that while he sees no problem with Gaspard’s approach, his own continuing conversations were “all to promote this relationship that we were able to establish between the state of New Hampshire, the U.S. and Denmark.”
Just like when he was in the White House, Gaspard’s stayed deeply in touch — so much so that after he flew in for de Blasio’s inauguration last week, rumors went flying that he was lobbying members of the City Council on behalf of the mayor’s preferred choice for speaker.
People who’ve spoken with Gaspard lately say that the speaker’s race has come up. That’s what happens, they say, when they catch up with an old friend: crazy as it may be for a diplomat posted on the other side of the world to care who ends up running the New York City Council, they know he does, that he knows all the players, and that he knows how much who gets picked speaker means.
That was his approach during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.
“There was no shortage of people who were constantly asking him about the race, from elected officials to institutional players, unions, activists et cetera,” said a person close to Gaspard. “He never ever, ever, ever hesitated to say two things to whoever asked: One, ‘Let’s first put on the table that I have bias because Bill de Blasio is my closest friend in the world.’ But irrespective of that, ‘I’m going to tell you exactly why, not only do I think he has a strong chance, but that I think he’s going to be the next mayor of New York.’”
“He would lay out the path for de Blasio,” the person said. “Despite not being in the city for a while, he could talk through the demographics, the possibilities that existed in certain communities. And he happens to be really well-versed in the strengths and weaknesses of every single person in that field, because most of them, he came up with.”