Johan Wessman/News Øresund
Catching up with Biden deputy campaign manager Rufus Gifford
Gifford, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, is now ready for a return to government work in the Biden administration
“We’re going to win.”
Sitting in his hotel room in Philadelphia, where a small group of Joe Biden’s senior staffers were stationed on election night, Rufus Gifford typed out those four words and unleashed them on Twitter with a certitude that far surpassed the confidence of even the most self-assured forecaster. It was 11:51 p.m., and the vote tallies were slowly trickling in — district by district, state by state — with the agonizing momentum of a molasses drip.
As Biden’s deputy campaign manager, however, Gifford, an ace political strategist and formidable fundraiser whose previous tours of duty include Barack Obama’s two presidential bids, wasn’t sweating it.
So he sent out his tweet, turned off his phone and went to bed.
“Which drove everyone insane,” Gifford, 46, recalled in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. As his tweet was picked up, parsed and prodded by the chattering classes on social media, Gifford’s blackout was perhaps a form of self-preservation. But he also knew there was no way a winner was going to be declared that evening, so why not get some rest? He fell asleep convinced that his prediction would prove true.
“We had a game plan,” said Gifford, who worked on fundraising, outreach and coalition building during the campaign. “We knew our path to victory, and we knew this might take a couple of days to get all of the votes counted.”
Back home in Concord, Mass., four days later, Gifford got word that the TV networks were about to call the election for Biden while he was on a jog. Hurrying home, he arrived just in time to catch the announcement and, in a state of euphoria, immediately ran back outside, tears streaming down his face as he doled out socially distanced high-fives to strangers on the street. “It was emotional as hell, honestly,” said Gifford, sounding choked up as he remembered the moment, which was captured on camera by his husband of five years, veterinarian Stephen DeVincent.
For Gifford, Biden’s victory was a sign that the country had found its moral footing in making Donald Trump a one-term president. But on a personal level, it was also confirmation that Gifford’s decision to return to campaign work had been worthwhile. After a diplomatic posting that ended with Trump’s election — and followed by a failed run for Congress that left him feeling deflated — Gifford found a renewed sense of purpose under Biden.
And as Biden prepares to be sworn in on January 20, Gifford, now working as an advisor on the president-elect’s transition team, is likely poised for a return to government. Whether he will take another position in the State Department or serve in a separate capacity remains to be seen. A Biden transition team spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Gifford, who is still on the campaign payroll, declined to go into specifics about any ongoing discussions, noting that the incoming Biden administration will be taking on a “massive responsibility” as it seeks to tame COVID-19, spur economic recovery and rebuild global relationships.
“There’s a lot of work to do, and I’m excited to be part of that,” Gifford said. “But the role, specifically, is still to be determined.”
The possibility that Gifford may join the incoming administration represents a fortuitous turn of events for the seasoned strategist who says that, until recently, he had little appetite for working on a campaign again or going back into government. The Boston native had assumed that his campaigning days were behind him after serving as Obama’s national campaign finance director in 2012. His role on that campaign led to a diplomatic appointment as U.S. ambassador to Denmark — a four-year period during which he became a minor celebrity as the star of a Danish reality TV show about his life on and off the job.
“I like to call it a documentary series,” he says, chuckling, of the show, I Am the Ambassador, which debuted on Netflix in 2016. “Younger Danes come up to me on the street still and say, ‘You made me care about this work.’”
But when Trump won, “I said we had to go home and fight for the values that I’ve been spending my career fighting for,” Gifford told JI. “Values that Donald Trump did not represent.”
With that pursuit in mind, Gifford decided that he would run for Congress, entering the open-seat race in 2018 to succeed Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) in Massachusetts’s 3rd district. He placed fifth with 15% of the vote in the crowded Democratic primary. It was a disappointing result, but Gifford was nevertheless encouraged that the Democrats had managed to secure a House majority in 2018. With the presidential election starting to heat up shortly thereafter, he began, tentatively, to get involved, donating money to a number of candidates, some of whom he knew personally.
As a gay man, Gifford was particularly moved by the historic nature of Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy, but he ultimately landed on Biden, citing the former vice president’s “decency” and “compassion” as qualities he regarded as the “antithesis” of Trump. He made his endorsement in January, and joined the Biden campaign in April 2020, hired by Biden campaign manager and fellow Massachusetts native Jen O’Malley Dillon.
Despite his confidence that Biden was the best candidate for the moment, Gifford said he took nothing for granted. “It was such an unprecedented campaign,” he observed, due in no small part to the coronavirus pandemic, which mostly precluded the possibility of in-person events. Gifford, sizing up the landscape, found it difficult to draw directly on past experience with Obama — for whose campaign he helped raise more than $1 billion — as often as he would have liked.
Still, virtual fundraising had its own advantages. “It was an opportunity to engage people who really wanted to be helpful,” he said. “They were home anyway.”
Gifford said Biden had an almost $200 million cash-on-hand disadvantage relative to Trump when he came on board as deputy campaign manager in April. “I knew that what I was being hired to do is make sure that we had the resources with which we could compete against what was at the time a behemoth,” Gifford said, “and that was Trump and the Republicans, who had been raising money for more than three years.”
Straight out of the gate, Gifford got to work, organizing an Obama staffer reunion that, he said, well surpassed its desired fundraising goal by racking up more than $1 million for the Biden campaign. “There was this narrative out there that Joe Biden couldn’t raise money and could never compete with Trump, and Trump was going to have this huge, huge, huge, huge kind of organizational advantage because of that,” Gifford recalled. “I feel like I was hired to flip that script.”
In addition to that responsibility, Gifford was intimately involved in constituent outreach, and he drew on his deep well of connections as the campaign engaged with what he estimated to be 190 different groups. One of the first calls he made after starting the job was to Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel with whom he served in the State Department, so that the two could discuss strategies for reaching Jewish voters.
“Among folks in the campaign leadership, he had a special insight into the combination of policy, political strategy, outreach to key constituencies and supporters, and fundraising,” Shapiro said of Gifford in an interview with JI. “For those of us working on outreach in the Jewish community, working with the campaign and giving suggestions to the campaign, Rufus was a critical sounding board and often very effective inside the campaign in advancing some ideas that we felt would be helpful to the campaign strategy with Jewish voters.”
For one, Gifford played an important role in encouraging the campaign to hire Aaron Keyak, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, as its Jewish outreach director. “I tried to be an advocate for the work that he was doing with the community day in and day out,” said Gifford.
Keyak, for his part, said he was grateful for Gifford’s support. “When I faced any major obstacles to doing our outreach as effectively as possible, I could just give Rufus a call, and he would help solve the problem, whatever the problem was,” Keyak told JI. “He has both the 30,000-foot view of how everything operates but then can also dig in and really find the reasons why something isn’t happening and resolve it.”
Alex Goldstein, a strategic communications executive in Boston who advised Gifford on his 2018 congressional run, said that he has always found Gifford “incredibly supportive and receptive to the aspirations and anxieties of the Jewish community.”
“He understands that we are not a monolith,” Goldstein added, “and actively strives to go deeper into the issues we care about by centering nuance and complexity, rather than defaulting to anyone’s preferred talking points.”
Last year, Gifford traveled to Israel for the first time, and drew several lessons from the experience that informed his view of the Jewish state and gave him insight into the concerns of some Jewish community members he interacted with while on the campaign.
“I struggled with it, I was challenged by it, I was frustrated by it, and then I also fell in love with it,” Gifford said of his week-long trip through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“To me, for all of the sort of narratives surrounding Israel that are out there — which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about simply just because I’ve done a lot of work with the community over the years — you don’t have any sense of it until you go and meet the people, talk to the community leaders and understand how rich this country is but also just how complex it is,” he said, “and how the problems which American politicians very often make sound sort of simple to solve are just much, much, much more complex than we have any understanding of.”
Before embarking on a career in politics, Gifford, who grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, lived in Los Angeles and dabbled in acting and producing — a time he looks back on as something of an idle period. “That was such a different chapter of my life,” he said. “My early 20s I consider to be a series of failures. My dad was a banker in Boston, and I went to Brown,” where he earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies. “I wanted to be anything but a banker, so I moved to L.A. to work in the entertainment industry and found it to be sort of vapid and uninspired. And so I quit and worked in politics.”
He worked on John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 and then went on to join Obama’s first campaign in 2008. During Obama’s first term, Gifford served as finance director for the Democratic National Committee and then as the U.S. ambassador in Copenhagen from 2013 to 2017, during which time he married his husband, whom he met in Washington in 2009. And it was during that time that he also became an unlikely TV star.
“In the aftermath of the Iraq War, younger Europeans had become considerably less interested in the transatlantic relationship, and I wanted to talk about diplomacy and the relationship in a way that was accessible,” Gifford said of his decision to let a small Danish TV crew shadow him for the series about his role. “The work of diplomacy,” he added, while critically important, “is very often done behind closed doors, for good reason and important reasons. But when you lose the public, in a democracy, it’s problematic. And so I wanted to talk about diplomacy in a very, very open and honest way.”
That sentiment only intensified once he was back stateside.
When he decided to join the Biden campaign, Gifford said, he was convinced that the former vice president would win despite Trump’s surprise upset victory three years prior. “It’s hard to understate the PTSD from 2016 I think folks have,” he told JI. “I think we were always confident, but we are always concerned about whether or not something could shift.”
A key strategy, he told JI, was to avoid engaging with Trump on his terms. “We knew that people cared about COVID, we knew people cared about the economic recovery from COVID, we knew people cared about health care, we knew people cared about climate change and other issues,” Gifford said. “We tried to focus on the bread and butter issues that won us the election in 2018, and to keep it on that, understanding that there was going to be a separate narrative that Donald Trump would be driving that would not be connected to the narrative we were pushing.”
Biden, Gifford said, “delivered every time he had to deliver.”
And Gifford believes Biden will deliver as president as well, noting that he is well qualified to take on the task of rejuvenating international alliances that have deteriorated under Trump.
“I think, having just gotten back from Europe last week, the excitement that our allies have about a return to normalcy and decency in American leadership is real,” he said. “I hope that our European allies will take that as a sign that this stuff is still fragile, maybe sometimes we take it for granted, and we’ve got to continue to fight for it.”
The past four years have been a “a long slog,” Gifford said. “There were a ton of down times, a lot of anxiety, a lot of sadness about the political direction of the country.” Though he had predicted that Biden would prevail on election night, Gifford looks back on the day the networks called the race as confirmation that the long slog had finally come to an end.
“Nothing,” Gifford said, “was quite as good as that November 7 afternoon.”