Q&A with Robert F. Bauer

Published in 2009 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on March 10, 2009


Robert F. Bauer, chair of the political law group at Perkins Coie, served as general counsel to Obama for America. He spoke with us in December.


How did you become general counsel to Obama for America?

When [Barack Obama] came to the United States Senate in 2005, his staff was organizing his operation and invited me to meet him. It was a natural consequence of [that] representation.


Did you talk about a presidential run?

Not at the time. We were just talking about a broad range of questions that you sort out when you’re shutting down a campaign organization, you’re coming to the Senate, you’re starting to orient yourself toward the rules of the institution.

I would not say I anticipated we’d be looking at forming a presidential campaign on very short notice. The logistical and organizational achievement of building an organization like that from the ground up, in that period of time, is something I’ve never seen before: everything from trying to figure out where to find the administrative staff, to recruit the staff to actually run the place, to locating office buildings, settling leases, and literally establishing the infrastructure for a presidential campaign, with virtually no time to spare. It was an absolutely astounding feat, accomplished by people of rare talent.


What did you do as general counsel?

I recruited an in-house [legal] staff that grew, and that was highly, highly capable, headed by chief staff counsel Kendall Burman. A presidential campaign like this—which would have been an undertaking in any event, but this was innovatively run, and raised and spent $750 million-plus—presented a whole host of [legal] issues. It’s almost impossible for me to catalog the different things that came across our desks—topped off by our building the most ambitious election-protection program, in collaboration with the national party, that had ever been on the ground.


Did anything occur that you hadn’t foreseen?

Sure, on a day-to-day basis, you always wish you’d done the job a little better. [But] what greatly helped the effort is that, in most cases, you had election officials who were determined to conduct a successful election, and voters who were determined to vote. When you have that, then you have election protection right there that the lawyers can build on.


Any memorable stories about the campaign?

One story concerned predictions of nasty behavior intended to drive down turnout. I made some reference on a conference call to having people arrested if it should become necessary, and, lo and behold, someone ordered up T-shirts with my name on the front and the remark about having people arrested, in quotes, on the back. I felt, for a moment, like Patton. Not bad.


How involved were you in the decision not to participate in public financing?

I was very much involved in it—in that I was asked to support the analysis of the system and its current problems, and, as you probably know, when we announced it I was involved in explaining it to reporters. As a longtime observer of the campaign finance system, it was a role that obviously came naturally with my position.


Where were you November 4th?

In Chicago. In the boiler room.


Boiler room?

There was a huge room at headquarters in Chicago, on North Michigan, and in it were the senior decision makers, the legal team and the data analysis team. And also the state desks, where phone lines took in reports from lawyers as well as field organizers.


So you were working.

From 4:30 in the morning until the election was called. Then we still had a few problems to sort out, and then we all hopped on the trolley and rode off to Grant Park.


Where were you in Grant Park?

Where the camera banks were set up, in a sort of semicircular field in front of the stage. There was a lot of staff and friends and supporters who were gathered in that part, and I was standing there with other lawyers waiting to cheer and savor the moment.


And after the election?

I hung out with my 12-year-old, who had had a pretty spotty year of contact with his father.


What drew you to the law in the first place?

My father was a lawyer. For as long as I can remember it was something I thought I’d want to be.


What kind of lawyer was he?

He was a lawyer overseas, as a matter of fact. He came to the United States as a political refugee in 1940, but before that time he was a politically active lawyer in his native city of Vienna.


Was he a refugee from the Nazis?

Yes. He was an active member of the anti-Nazi movement and very disappointed that National Socialism and a passion for annexation was far more prevalent among his countrymen than he thought possible.


What do you know today about the practice of law that you didn’t know when you graduated from law school?

How fun it could be.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

[Pause] I’m 56 years old and I’ve had a lot of pieces of advice over the years. [This one] is pretty obvious but it’s rewarding to keep in mind: Assume nothing, expect everything.

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