Although he said a couple of years ago that he was going to retire from running campaigns, reports of Mitch Kates departure from the political arena were obviously greatly exaggerated.
The latest move for the 51-year-old political strategist – who made a huge splash in the Tampa Bay Area for a short period of time in the mid-to-late aughts – is his recent ascension to becoming the political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
It’s a big responsibility heading into the 2016 elections, as Pennsylvania, like Florida, is a swing/battleground state currently dominated in their legislative and congressional delegation by Republicans. The GOP currently control the state Senate by a 30-20 margin and state House 119-83 (with one seat vacant). Their congressional representation is 13 R’s to 5 D’s.
“It will be a very competitive cycle for sure,“ Kates acknowledges. “One of my goals is to make sure that when the big show shows up (meaning the presidential election), that we have infrastructure and candidates on the ground so there’s a better opportunity to have a coordinated campaign.”
The Pittsburgh native earned respect statewide from Democrats this past fall after he successfully helped Superior Court justice David Wecht get elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Yes, the Keystone State has popular elections for their Supreme Court, and Wecht was one of three Democrats who swept the three open seat’s for the high court last November. National court-watchers called it the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history, topping $15 million, giving Democrats majority control of the seven-member court starting this month.
Kates said it was important that the three justices run as a ticket, and he helped coordinate vote-local message that he says he and St. Petersburg-based Democratic strategist Larry Biddle employed while working on elections in 2008 and 2010 in the Tampa Bay area.
“I felt that this type of ‘ticket’ campaign was perfect for this election cycle, so I had a local designer friend mock up a “Vote Local PA” program that was launched statewide for this past election,” he says. “It was a small part, but it helped promote the message that you help to vote for the ticket. So there was a little Florida in this race,” he says.
Kates was recruited to help get Democrat Charlie Justice elected to the Senate District 22 Pinellas/Hillsborough in 2006 in a bitter battle over Republican Kim Berfield. He then helped Mary Mulhern stunningly defeat Shawn Harrison in a Tampa City Council seat less than six months later, and then served on the team that saw Kevin Beckner became the first openly elected gay official in Hillsborough County with his victory over Brian Blair in a 2008 County Commission race.
Although it’s been well documented how Kates ended up working on the successful political campaign in Georgia (that’s the Eastern European nation, not the state hovering above Florida) for Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012, he told Paul Wilborn in a piece for the Tampa Bay Times two years ago that he thought he was probably finished with politics.
In fact, he was just getting started.
In early 2014, Kates traveled to Washington to meet up with some old colleagues at Penn Schoen Berland and realized he wanted to get back into the game. The next day he got a call from longtime mentor Craig Smith saying, “We’ve just got the Kosovo gig.”
That “gig” was working on the re-election campaign of Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who was struggling badly in the polls in third place when Kates was called in – with 70 percent of the nation saying they wanted significant change.
Kates says he had only three months to change things around and convince voters that change needed to happen, “But (Thaci) was the guy who could bring that change.”
”All of the campaigns that I’ve worked on – Kevin’s, Charlie’s, they were important ones for me, but the Kosovo campaign is as close to a perfect campaign as anybody could imagine,” he says, still awestruck when recounting some of the events that went on there.
Kates said he told Thaci and his advisers that he had to start doing events involving his family – so he could use those photos to put up on a Facebook page to let the voters get to know their leader better than they had up to that point.
“That was awesome dude,” Kates recounts, saying that while his winning campaigns for Justice and Beckner were important ones for him, the Kosovo campaign was “close to a perfect campaign as anybody could imagine.”
Thaci ended up winning that unexpected third term in June of 2014.
Fresh off of that success, Smith then dispatched Kates to the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius, where he faced the exact same situation as was the case in Kosovo. Two-time elected incumbent Navin Ramgoolam was looking at a difficult reelection campaign.
This time, the magic didn’t work however, as Ramgoolman suffered a crushing defeat.
“That was a disappointment,” Kates says in retrospect. “They decided that they weren’t taking any advice.”
Now it’s on to his new job – getting Democrats elected throughout Pennsylvania in 2016.