Marc Elias ’90, the Democrats’ ‘go-to lawyer’
As general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Marc Elias ’90 was in the thick of the long, historic and divisive 2016 election. If he slowed down in its aftermath, it was hard to tell. He represented the Clinton campaign when Green Party candidate Jill Stein pushed for recounts in several states and argued two different redistricting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court on the same December day.
Elias is a partner with Perkins Coie, with clients and expertise in campaign finance, voting laws and other areas that get him regular mention in Politico, The New York Times and many other major media outlets. An August story in The Washington Post described him as a “go-to lawyer for recount fights and redistricting battles” and a “Democratic superlawyer.” He’s been inside Democratic elections and politics for years.
His CV includes serving as general counsel for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and lead counsel for Al Franken during the 2008 election recount that made the comedic actor/writer-turned-politician a U.S. senator for Minnesota. Elias’ deep-blue client list includes the Democratic National Committee and scores of Democratic candidates, political action committees and other organizations he describes as progressive-leaning.
Elias has always been keen on politics. At Hamilton he was a government major with a big Dukakis/Bentsen sign in his Babbitt Residence Hall window. Torn between law school and graduate school to study political science, he opted for both — a law degree and a master’s in political science from Duke University. Yet his abiding interest in politics never kindled a desire to run for office himself. “I like the mechanics of elections, and I’m happy being a lawyer advising campaigns. I think that’s probably close enough to the process for me,” he says.
At the end of December, Elias took a couple of weeks off before leaping into the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections. During the respite, he made time for an interview with the Hamilton Alumni Review. Here’s what he had to say, edited for length and clarity.
So it’s been almost two months since the election. With that little bit of distance, what stands out most about being part of it all?
Well first, I mean it was a tremendous honor to represent Secretary Clinton and her campaign in this historic election. She was the first woman major party nominee, and obviously I would have preferred that she had prevailed, but it was just a tremendous honor to be associated with her and the campaign effort.
In addition to the Clinton campaign, I argued three cases in the Supreme Court this year, two on one day, one back in the spring, which, incidentally, I won 8-0. [It was a Virginia congressional redistricting issue that drew national attention. The justices upheld a lower court’s redrawing of a congressional district, a reconfiguration that had been contested by several Republican congressmen. As the Hamilton Alumni Review goes to press, decisions on the other two cases are still pending.]
And I litigated more than a dozen voting rights cases, trying to make sure that people have their right to vote protected and aren’t prevented from voting because of changes in the law that seem designed to inhibit the right to vote. And then, I represented the next governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, in his recount. It was good to see a Democrat take control of the governorship in North Carolina, particularly in light of all of the discouraging laws that his predecessor had overseen. So it was just a busy year all around, and as I look back on it I hope my next year is equally fulfilling, but not nearly as hectic.
You acknowledge a sense of disappointment in the presidential election results, so how do you fire yourself up to move forward?
Part of why I’m taking these two weeks off is to let the page turn from the results of 2016, which were obviously excruciatingly difficult at the presidential level but more of a mixed bag at the House and Senate level where the Democrats gained seats, although not as many as we might have hoped. My hope, my goal, is that after taking a little bit of time off, I’ll hit the ground running again in January. One of the things about politics is that you’re never more than two years away from the next big election.
In 2004, I represented John Kerry, and it felt like after he lost that, the Democratic Party was in for a very cold, dark period, and yet four years later President Obama swept into office on a message of hope and change that not only landed him in the White House but also brought him 60 Democratic senators. For a period of time it looked like the Democratic Party was unstoppable and unbeatable. So, yeah, these things tend to go back and forth to some extent. No party stays down forever. And the Democratic Party will learn the lessons from 2016 and move forward.
What is the rewarding part about what you do that keeps you doing it?
I think it’s three things. Number one, I believe in the candidates and the causes, which is nice and not something that every lawyer gets to say. Most lawyers take their clients as they come, and I really have the benefit of working for a political party and for causes that I believe in and believe will make a difference for the country.
The second thing is that it’s always interesting. Every time someone in the public says that they’ve never seen a political year like this, that’s just a testament to how interesting it is to work in politics. There’s always something different, there’s always something new, there’s always some variation that no one’s thought about before.
And then, finally, I enjoy the people. I enjoy the people I work with on campaigns and around elections. And I think you’ll find that most Democrats and Republicans will say that — that the people who work around campaigns are really inspiring. I was talking a few days ago to a woman from Pennsylvania. She had graduated from college and taken a job with the Clinton campaign knocking on doors in New Hampshire during the primary and then knocking on doors in Southern Virginia in the general election. I asked her how much did you work? She said it was 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
What accomplishments in your career so far, maybe even a single accomplishment, have meant the most to you?
Representing several presidential campaigns has obviously been a big accomplishment. Arguing in the U.S. Supreme Court I would say may be the biggest one. Every lawyer from the time they are in law school dreams about the opportunity to argue a case in the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ve had the opportunity to argue three, and that’s been a really special thing, standing in the Supreme Court in front of the justices; there’s really nothing else like it for a lawyer.
And the last thing I’d say is representing Al Franken in his Minnesota recount was a big one for me.
First of all, I love Al. He’s hilarious in person and a tremendously nice guy. I mean, in person he is as funny or funnier than you saw him on Saturday Night Live. Also it was just a really interesting experience. It was a long, hard fight over eight months. We worked tirelessly to ensure that every vote cast was correctly counted. We went from having looked like we lost the election to eventually having turned the results and having won.
People who know Hillary Clinton talk about how funny she is, too.
Hillary is very funny. And she’s extremely warm and personable, just an absolutely delightful person.
I know you tweet.
I do tweet a lot. [see @marceelias]
Do you have to keep a lid on what you tweet? I mean, after all, you are an attorney who represents clients.
You know, it’s funny. I do think a lot about what I tweet and how it reflects on clients. I had this experience a few weeks ago where I tweeted out something. It was about Trump — you can find the tweet — but it was something to the effect of, ‘We’re now being bashed, by a guy who thought the election was rigged and won the electoral college, for participating in a recount that we didn’t ask for.’ Something to that effect. And I tweeted it, actually, from my office/garage, and all of a sudden it just started getting retweeted and retweeted and retweeted. Eventually people started saying, ‘This is Hillary Clinton’s lawyer!’ I was just tweeting in response to something that Trump said. And then someone called me and said I was on Good Morning America. I’m like, ‘Wow!’ So I do try to think about the consequences it has for clients. Every so often something I say gets more picked up or less picked up than I would have thought.
Do you have a career bucket list or anything you really would like to do? It seems like you’ve touched a lot of brass rings at this point, but is there anything else?
I never really made a list of things that I wanted to do professionally. I’ve just sort of taken the opportunities as they’ve come. I joked with someone the other day that graduation speakers fall into two camps. They either say, “Think of your dream and pursue it, and don’t let anyone dissuade you from it.” Or they say, “Don’t plan out your future, just follow the path that you follow, and it will all be fine.” I’ve been much more in that second camp. I didn’t have a plan. And I still don’t.
Do you ever get back to Hamilton?
I do. Since I’ve left, I’ve taught at Hamilton, and I have been back to visit for events here and there. I actually took my son to visit on a college tour not that long ago.
Is he the one who just got into Duke?
He just got into Duke, which is my wife’s alma mater. So she won round one. But I still have a daughter.