Buttigieg Gets Closer to a 2020 Campaign

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TOPEKA, Kansas—Pete Buttigieg’s PAC is investing money here — but also in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Colorado. And Iowa, per an announcement coming Tuesday. Next month, he’ll campaign in Ohio.

It’s not happenstance. Nor is keeping on Lis Smith, the hard-charging political operative who makes sure he’s constantly in the news. Or keeping up with Obama strategist David Axelrod, who recommended he hire Smith in the first place for the Democratic National Committee chair race that put him on Democrats’ radar last year. Or quietly building relationships over dinners and drinks with big-name Democrats, or courting national reporters, or wooing donors for his PAC, or digging in on political advertising research.

Buttigieg is getting closer to a presidential race. And serious people are telling the South Bend, Indiana mayor, who’d be the first major presidential candidate who’s either openly gay or an Afghanistan veteran or a millennial, to take it seriously.

“I think it’s maybe a sign of the times. I think it’s telling you that things are kind of wide open in a way that hasn’t been true in a long time. I think it shows that there is an interest in the middle of the country,” Buttigieg told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “I think it shows that there’s at least curiosity, if not appetite, for what a newer generation of leaders is going to look like. And I think it reflects the fact that we’re really living in a season for cities and for mayors.”

Here in Kansas, he spoke to the oversold main room at the Topeka Ramada on a Saturday night for the state Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner. Nobody knew who he was when they announced him, Kansas Democratic Chair John Gibson said, but then they started Googling and ate up the tickets, with a few Westboro Baptist Church protesters on the sidewalk outside tweeting about “their sodomite poster boy @PeteButtigieg (running for prez in 2020).”

There’s no winning 2020 Democratic campaign, Buttigieg told the ballroom, that includes the words “back” or “again.”

“There’s no going back. There’s no ‘again’ to be had. Things are going to be different,” Buttigieg explained later, in the podcast. “There was a liberal era in American politics that lasted 30 or 40 years, followed by a conservative era that lasted 30 or 40 years. And now, we’re on the doorstep of a new era.”

Driving back to the Kansas City airport the next morning before dawn, Smith’s back-up phone alarm went off. Buttigieg jumped, the wheel shook in his hand for a second, with a panicked and very present “oh no.” It sounded just like the siren that went off back in Afghanistan.

Yes, Buttigieg has no clear path forward in Indiana politics. Yes, he would be the first openly gay presidential candidate, let alone president. He really did return to South Bend after Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship. He has a hard name for politics (it’s Maltese, translating to roughly “lord of the poultry.”) Yes, he knows it’s ridiculous to actually think about jumping from a city hall for 101,000 people to the White House, but serious people have been pushing him to run and he is seriously thinking about it.

Nowhere to go?

“I understand where that narrative comes from,” he said. “But again, I think it underestimates the role of surprise in politics.”

At the end of April, after a trip to Ohio to stump for Richard Corday’s governor campaign, he’ll hit the Best Western in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to keynote another state party dinner, but the real work of Buttigieg’s expanding political presence is happening on the PAC’s computers — tracking the traffic on online campaign ads and trying out different messages to see what sticks. Buttigieg listens to Pandora, watches TV on Hulu, keeps up with friends and constituents on Facebook, and he doesn’t understand why Democrats are going to spend the year raising hundreds of millions of dollars to dump on mass-market broadcast TV ads, based off of expensive polls by phone, rather than the real-time hard data that Web sources provide.

“Some of this stuff is new, some of it’s nascent, but how are we not more sophisticated at this as a party?” Buttigieg said. “I think that’s the big thing that’s got to change. And whoever figures it out this cycle will have a lot to contribute in 2020.”

Howard Dean, the 2004 out-of-nowhere presidential candidate and former DNC chair who endorsed Buttigieg for his old job last year on the argument that the party needed younger leadership, said he thinks that same argument could translate in a presidential run — provided the mayor can raise the money.

“The DNC was a more improbable race because the DNC is a very conservative organization. It’s packed with insiders who have been there for a long time. Their feeling is they want to keep things the way they are,” said Dean. “This is a different race. This is a race among voters who hope for something different.”

A lot of Iowa is a lot like South Bend, and Buttigieg could reasonably count on resonating with the kind of voters who put elected him mayor at age 29 by a massive margin, then reelected him in 2015 after he’d come out and spent most of a year on leave to do a National Guard tour in Afghanistan. He could also reasonably expect a rough repeat of the DNC race, being the guy everyone talks about and most think is great, but finishing with everyone else getting the votes.

“He’s got a lot of work to do,” said Axelrod, “but these are odd times in which we have a reality-show host in the White House and serious people look at that and they look around and say, ‘Why not me?’ There’s a real genuine feeling among many in the party for generational change, and I think that the veterans of the wars that my generation has consigned them to have something to say about this.”

Buttigieg knows a lot of strange circumstances have come together right now to make anyone outside of Indiana care about him at all. The chances that this will last are close to zero, and he knows that, said Axelrod, who’s kept in touch — “As I said to Barack Obama in 2006, very rarely in history do people get punished for running too soon. But many get punished for running too late.”

The March for Our Lives in Washington ended on Saturday with a video reminding the demonstrators that 31 million peoples age 19-25 will be able to vote in November 2018. By then, millennials will have surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters. Young people have been lit up in the Trump era, and they’ve been voting heavily for Democrats.

“I don’t think younger leaders will automatically connect well with younger voters, nor do I think you have to be below a certain age to make sense. Look at all the young people who are activated by somebody like Bernie Sanders, right?” said Buttigieg, who spoke at the sister march in South Bend and tweeted “Go ahead, dismiss this generation. I dare you.” “But I do think that people are looking for something new. They’re looking for something fresh and different. And I think that, as a party, we can’t just — first of all, we can’t only trot out people who go to work in Washington every day, as representatives of the party.”

Buttigieg’s second term is up in 2019, and he says he still hasn’t decided about running for reelection. He recently got engaged, and has written about his desire to raise a family. There’s a governor’s race in 2020 too, and GOP Sen. Todd Young is up in 2022. Buttigieg says he’d consider all options except a race for U.S. House.

In Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church protesters knew to come and protest Buttigieg’s speech because his first stop after checking in to his hotel was to drive 10 minutes across town to look at their church, but more importantly, to look across the street at the Equality House, a rainbow-painted home base for local LGBTQ activism and events — like a mock Olympics in 2014 to protest Russia’s anti-gay laws, with events like “overcoming hurdles.”

Buttigieg walked around, taking pictures on his phone, an uncomfortable tourist. Weird, as a gay man, to look at a giant banner reading “GOD HATES FAGS.” Weird, as a veteran, to see an American flag flown upside down.

“I kind of think it would be weird for most Americans to actually be across the street from something like that. … Just because having it your face like that just reminds you that some people—I don’t know,” Buttigieg trailed off. “I mean, the scary thing is that those people think they’re doing everybody a favor. The scary thing is that those people think they’re with God. And that’s just such a different idea of God than mine.”

Meeting with the Kansas Young Democrats who started by asking him to pronounce his name, he told them, “to me, actual victory is when Republicans start sounding more like Democrats … an emerging national consensus.” They needed to run themselves, he told them, but to be ready for what it meant: “your face is your message. You will be viewed as the candidate of technology and innovation and new ideas, even if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At the big dinner, Buttigieg laid out his standard riff to the room of over 500 — the biggest turnout Kansas Democrats had ever had. It’s about freedom: freedom from credit card debt so people can start businesses, freedom from parents worried about their kids’ futures, freedom from government clerks who say which marriages are legal.

But before that, he started with Trump.

“Every day this president is in office, he yanks out a thread of what it means to be an American,” Buttigieg said, “and he will keep pulling one thread at a time, unraveling what it means to be an American, until our republic is just a tangled mess of yarn in his little hands.”

He went on, “Americans already know that lying is wrong. That racism is wrong. That denigrating women is wrong. … They all know about him. They’re waiting to see who’ll be talking about them.”

By 2021, many Democrats assume, this will end with Buttigieg in Washington, one way or another.

“Pete’s going to be a force in the Democratic Party,” said Axelrod. “The question is just whether that’s as a candidate for president, or something else.”

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Legal Pot Is Notoriously White. Oakland Is Changing That.

OAKLAND—On a Friday in January 2017, the night of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Ebele Ifedigbo and Lanese Martin welcomed several dozen people to a cozy office in a marijuana-friendly part of the city cheekily nicknamed “Smoakland.” As folks lounging on comfy couches lit joints and puffed from vape pens, the two business school grads explained they were launching a project of their own, a nonprofit that would do something no one in the nation had ever done.

As they put it, they were going to train black and brown people to start their own legal cannabis companies.

In the audience, Linda Grant listened intently. Grant, who once sold enough weed to help support her children, had gotten out of the illegal drug trade to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Since then, Grant, a 49-year-old mother of six, had watched her hometown become one of the unofficial capitals of the state’s ever-expanding cannabis business—an industry projected to do $6.5 billion in sales statewide by 2020. Oakland, with its decidedly left-leaning political vibe, was rife with cannabis-related businesses, legal and otherwise. But Grant’s dream of becoming the first black female owner of a cannabis dispensary on the east side of the city, where she lived, still felt out of reach. What she was hearing from these two millennial activists was a way forward that she didn’t know existed.

Ifedigbo and Martin founded the Hood Incubator because they saw the recreational cannabis trade not just as a business opportunity but “as a way to correct the injustices of the war on drugs launched in the early 1970s. Though minorities like Grant had played an outsized role in building the marijuana market, they also faced a disproportionate response from law enforcement, as Martin explained to the crowd assembled that night in early 2017. As recently as 2015, Oakland officers arrested black residents nearly 20 times more often than white residents for cannabis-related crimes. Ifedigbo noted that black people had owned or founded less than 5 percent of cannabis businesses nationwide and, across all industries, black-founded startups had received just 1 percent of venture capital funding. For many years, while officials awarded more and more licenses for medical marijuana-related businesses, only one black Oaklander held a dispensary permit.

“The cannabis industry has an opportunity to make equity a core component of the industry’s DNA,” Ifedigbo said later. “Other industries have generally seen social impact [initiatives] as an afterthought.”

Oakland officials were already looking at how to use new regulations to help African-American and Latino residents get jobs more significant than what one longtime City Council member called the “security guard in the parking lot.” But Ifedigbo, 29, and Martin, 32, knew that giving these aspiring entrepreneurs permits without training—or training without permits—would likely spell failure. In January 2017, the Hood Incubator launched the nation’s first cannabis business accelerator for people of color. They began training a dozen or so aspiring entrepreneurs whose business ideas included everything from edibles, like cannabis-infused salsa, to delivery companies hoping to be the Blue Apron or Uber Eats of the weed business.

Over the course of the four-month program, Ifedigbo shared lessons learned in Ivy League classrooms with people who understood how to run a cash business but didn’t speak the formal language of the business world. One year later, the nonprofit’s first graduates are beginning to launch their businesses and it is now in the process of selecting its new class of trainees. It has since attracted multiple five-figure donations—from sources including Harborside, a local cannabis dispensary, and Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs—and is in the midst of a campaign to raise $500,000.

In this blue-collar city of 420,000 people, where officials acknowledge that the benefits of a recent development and jobs boom are not evenly shared across Oakland’s demographic groups, even the efforts of a relatively small outfit like Hood Incubator can help blunt the threat of gentrification that has stirred fears of displacement. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf foresees that cannabis equity measures will encourage new businesses, jobs and development after years of disinvestment. “I’d measure success in the families who have lived under intergenerational poverty come out of that poverty through business ownership,” Schaaf says.

Ifedigbo and Martin, while fine-tuning the Hood Incubator’s strategy in Oakland, have their eyes set on spreading the model to other cities statewide—and eventually to cities like Chicago, Detroit and Memphis. Ifedigbo and Martin believe they can rewrite the rules of corporate responsibility to make diversity more than just a goodwill gesture or publicity campaign.

“The Hood Incubator isn’t just interested in weed—or getting a few businesses off the ground—but in setting national standards,” said William Armaline, a San Jose State University sociology professor who studies drug policy reforms. “They’re interested in changing the power dynamics between communities and those doing business in and profiting from those communities.”

***

Ifedigbo, a “middle-class kid who grew up in the ‘hood’,” never had to look far to see the signs of inequality in east Buffalo, New York. Ifedigbo’s father, a Nigerian-born architect, called attention to the contrast between their neighborhood’s check-cashing stores and bodegas, and the major banks and grocers that served the whiter side of town. By the age of 12, Ifedigbo (Ih-fay-DIG-boh) was encouraged to volunteer with organizations like Meals on Wheels. As a high school senior, Ifedigbo organized a student fundraiser that raised nearly $1,800 for Hurricane Katrina victims.

“Help didn’t seem to be getting there quick enough,” Ifedigbo told the Buffalo News in 2005, “so I decided to do something about it.”

Ifedigbo often thought about how racial justice could be applied to lessons economics major learned at Columbia University. Intrigued by classmates who were eager to work on Wall Street, Ifedigbo interned at Goldman Sachs and Ameriprise Financial. Private sector internships were followed by an NAACP fellowship focused on crafting state-level policies to close the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Ifedigbo, who identifies using the pronouns they or them, also worked as a peer educator with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center’s Gender Identity Project. After choosing Yale for business school, Ifedigbo used the coursework to study whether historically disenfranchised communities could actually benefit from capitalism.

“There was a lot of conversation about social impact,” Ifedigbo says. “But even all that still felt like the same old system with a few tweaks that lead to a few superficial outcomes. [I wanted to know]: Is there a way to shift that on its head?”

As Ifedigbo’s MBA program was wrapping up, hundreds of thousands of Californians had signed a petition to place Proposition 64 on the ballot. Ifedigbo began to read just about everything published on the burgeoning market. Ifedigbo conducted an analysis of Oakland’s cannabis industry on the cusp of it going mainstream. By that fall, with Proposition 64 destined to pass, Ifedigbo had become friends with Martin, an organizer for the progressive advocacy group Oakland Rising, after they were introduced to each other at a potluck. They brainstormed how to prevent the new economy from becoming dominated by older white men.

Martin, a Brooklyn native who had been adopted and raised by a wealthy black couple, understood that opportunity bred achievement. So, she sought insights from community members about what resources they needed to break into the legal weed business. From there, she urged Oakland council members—who were crafting cannabis business regulations—to build a program that provided the resources those residents needed most.

“The historical inequities weren’t going to disappear on their own,” council member Rebecca Kaplan said. “The permits had to deal with that.”

After a year of policy debates, Oakland officials last year created the nation’s first program designed to set aside at least half of its new cannabis permits for residents who had been targets of the war on drugs. To qualify as an “equity applicant,” residents had to make less than 80 percent of the city’s area median income—nearly $53,000 for a one-person household in 2016—and either had to have been convicted of a cannabis crime or lived for 10 years in a neighborhood where officers disproportionately arrested people for cannabis-related offenses.

Ifedigbo and Martin realized that permits alone wouldn’t help former cannabis dealers flourish as legal entrepreneurs. Enter the Hood Incubator’s business accelerator. It would help minority Oakland residents break into the legal industry with a twice-a-week boot camp run over four months. The fellows would be exposed to lessons out of an MBA textbook: the basics of everything from reading financial statements to writing a pitch deck, a snappy presentation used by entrepreneurs as they entice potential investors for funding. And they would hear directly from people in the cannabis industry, from owners to attorneys to advocates.

“It didn’t make sense to work just on policy but not have anyone pipelined in to be ready [to benefit from that policy],” Martin said. “It made sense to tackle all of it.”

***

In many ways, Linda Grant was exactly the kind of person the Hood Incubator wanted to get into the legal cannabis trade. Aside from brief gigs as a bank security guard and McDonald’s cashier, the only way Grant had ever made a living was selling weed, starting back in middle school, when she’d sell dollar joints to her classmates. On her best weeks as an adult she made roughly $2,000—which made life a bit easier for a family that relied on welfare, food stamps and housing assistance. But the risks—three arrests, fines she couldn’t always afford and the threat of at least a decade behind bars if she kept dealing—forced her out of the business by the mid-2000s.

“I didn’t have ambitions of being a nurse; I was never going to do a 9-to-5; I was never going to sit behind a desk and be bossed around,” Grant told me recently as she steered her black Chrysler 200 around East Oakland. “I wanted to sell weed.”

Even though she had attended that open house in January 2017, it took a while longer for her to act on her ambition. Last fall, having watched the first cohort of the Hood Incubator’s business accelerator graduate, she decided she needed her own permit. She already had a company name: Herbin Collective. Eventually, she wanted to start a dispensary, but dispensaries required a ton of capital. So, she started off small with a plan to build a delivery business.

Grant had lived for more than a decade in an over-policed part of East Oakland. But proving residency was easier said than done. Grant had never had property records because she had never owned land. She couldn’t obtain housing or utility records going back more than a decade because those agencies hadn’t kept records that long. Moreover, when it came to proving her income, she had no pay stubs or W2 forms to show city officials.

“I didn’t have that stuff,” Grant says. “Real equity applicants don’t have that kind of stuff.”

Since May 2017, Oakland officials have received nearly 800 cannabis permit applications. More than half are equity applicants like Grant. And while the vast majority have been approved, it has not always been easy to navigate the obstacle course of municipal bureaucracy. This is where the Hood Incubator’s assistance has extended well beyond providing high-end advice on launching a startup. For instance, Grant doesn’t own a printer, but needed to drop off a paper copy of her permit application at City Hall. So Ifedigbo let her use the one at the Hood Incubator’s tiny downtown office. Martin has also arranged for pro bono work from consultants and lawyers, so the program’s fellows can spend their money on other startup costs.

But the most valuable service the Hood Incubator has provided to the equity applicants is to help them overcome a lack of formal business training. Before becoming a fellow, Dejah Fortune had nearly two decades of experience making salts, lotions and oils— including a cannabis-infused product to treat his grandmother’s arthritis—but he had little idea how to pique investors’ interest. He got help tailoring his pitch to identify a specific market (health-conscious cannabis patients), products (organic high-quality cannabis extracts) and funding needs ($25,000). Esteban Orozco, who’d worked as a nutrition coach, had never read a financial statement, much less written one. The program taught him how to “pivot” from his original business idea—a line of cannabis-infused vegan edibles—to one that teaches cannabis newcomers how to integrate pot into a healthy diet.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” said Aanya Gamble Hill, a former University of California-San Francisco employee whose startup, A+ Collective, delivers cannabis products throughout Oakland and caters specifically to seniors. “I left thinking, ‘I could probably do this.’”

The Hood Incubator hasn’t just rolled out a niche program serving a handful of entrepreneurs. It has built a network of more than 2,000 members—some paying $1,000 a yearfor newsletters, clinics and webinars. Half of those come from California; the other half from cities as far away as Atlanta (which sits in a state that prohibits the growing or sale of medical marijuana) and New York. As Ifedigbo notes: “You’re going to get much farther along in this industry if you’re well-connected to the people who help write the laws, issue the permits, or other entrepreneurs within the space who are on the same trajectory as you.” They’ve also created apprenticeships through established companies so that black and Latino residents can be trained on the technical side of the industry.

But James Anthony, a local cannabis attorney, believes the biggest hurdle is the lack of capital available to black and Latino entrepreneurs, even as investors poured nearly $2 billion into the cannabis industry during the first two months of 2018, a roughly fourfold increase compared with the same period the year before. “If there’s no wealth in your community, and if you don’t solve that problem, you’re going to have a [higher] failure rate,” he says. Likewise, well-funded companies seeking permits have started making cash offers—including some that are five or six figures—to people who are eligible to get equity permits in exchange for them becoming token stakeholders who stay out of the daily operations.

“The intentions of a lot of people getting licensed in the Bay Area is more about money than cultural healing,” Fortune says. “People with access to resources, who are jumping ship from their current careers, have never smoked. There’s a disconnect.”

To offset some disparities regarding access to capital, Oakland has allowed larger companies who don’t immediately win “general” permits to get one by providing an equity applicant with rent-free space of at least 1,000 square feet for three years. Those companies could lose the permit, however, if the businesses they’re incubating fail. Beyond that, Greg Minor, assistant to Oakland’s city administrator, says the city will soon make available $3.4 million in interest-free loans to equity applicants.

After Linda Grant obtained her permits in January, she created an account on a city website that resembles a dating app to match investors with entrepreneurs. One potential backer offered $50,000 if she would agree to be a hands-off partner. She rejected it. Ultimately, two men behind an edible company called GummiCares offered her 1,500 square feet of space in their squat warehouse 15 minutes from her duplex. Grant clicked with one of GummiCares’ co-founders, Curtis Ohlson, a bass player who once toured with Ray Charles. Ohlson wanted to help Grant fulfill her dream of opening a dispensary. But first, they’d work on launching her delivery business, which requires less seed money than a dispensary.

“Before, cannabis suppressed her life,” Ohlson says. “Hopefully, now, cannabis will uplift her family’s life.”

***

Next month, Ifedigbo and Martin will announce the next class of Hood Incubator fellows, planting the seeds for dozen or so more cannabis startups to flourish. Of the Hood Incubator’s 10 graduates in 2017, six are still pursuing their business concepts. But the rest are employed in the industry. Ifedigbo says the Hood Incubator graduation rate, around two-thirds of its accepted fellows, is comfortably on par with other kinds of business accelerators.

Now the duo is taking on a broader mission to help other cities follow Oakland’s lead. Ifedigbo says elected officials and academics, hearing about the nonprofit’s work by word of mouth, have reached out for advice. In recent months, officials in Sacramento and San Francisco have looked into creating similar programs. The Hood Incubator’s work was even cited in a case study for the city of Los Angeles as officials there look to build their own equity program.

Keith Stephenson, for many years the only black dispensary owner in Oakland, fears the rising costs of breaking into the cannabis industry business might limit the impact of equity programs. He ultimately hopes these kinds of permitting measures, which he supports, don’t just lead to “photo-op moments.” Anthony, the cannabis attorney, thinks permitting reforms may have the unintended consequence of driving some minority-owned cannabis entrepreneurs out of operation. He believes Oakland’s equity program is “well-intentioned,” but, when asked whether the program would lead to an increase of black and Latino cannabis businesses, he replied: “It’s probably a wash.”

In response, Martin says the equity program wasn’t designed to help those most likely to succeed: “It’s there to help those most impacted by the war on drugs. If we wanted to help the most likely to make it, we’d be targeting a different group [with our services.]”

No matter how far the idea spreads, Ifedigbo and Martin do not expect equity permitting will correct all the wrongs caused by the war of drugs. But it could begin to erase arrest rate disparities and spur legal changes, such as the recent decision by the Alameda County district attorney to start dismissing thousands of pot convictions dating from the 1970s. Ifedigbo hopes the data will someday show that “everyone has an equal opportunity to not only enter the industry but thrive and be sustainable in the industry.”

Grant is waiting for those seeds of change to bloom—slowly. As GummiCares renovates what will soon be Herbin Collective’s headquarters, she is now training her fleet of four delivery drivers and negotiating with a supplier from Santa Cruz. Her drivers, who include friends and a nephew, aren’t the only ones waiting to see if cannabis truly helps their community.

Her 23-year-old daughter, Makala, was inspired to apply to the Hood Incubator’s accelerator program. The young college dropout is now perfecting her edible recipes, including a weed-infused banana pudding topped with Chessman shortbread cookies, for her business that she plans to call Majic, a nod to the #BlackGirlMagic movement that celebrates the beauty and resilience of black women. Like her mother, she sees her business as more than just an income stream.

“I want to make hella money,” Makala says. “But I want to focus on healing people, too.”

GOP scrambles to avert another election dumpster fire

National Republicans are moving to head off another special election fiasco — this time in a deep-red Arizona congressional district teeming with retirees that would never register as even remotely competitive in a normal election year.

Two weeks after the party’s stunning defeat in a conservative district in southwestern Pennsylvania, Republicans are funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Arizona’s 8th District, which President Donald Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016.

The National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday launched a coordinated, $170,000 TV buy with the campaign of candidate Debbie Lesko, according to a source familiar with the purchase. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a deep-pocketed GOP super PAC, is planning to spend about $100,000 on a phone and digital effort aimed at turning out conservative voters. Early voting starts on Wednesday.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is spending about $280,000 on a field operation to bolster Lesko. She’s running to replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks, an eight-term congressman who resigned from his seat last year after reports that he pressed female aides to serve as a surrogate mother. Trump’s political team is also considering a range of options for getting involved in the race.

Republicans insist the efforts are precautionary and that they fully expect to prevail in an April 24 special election. Two senior party officials who’ve reviewed polling in recent days said Lesko held a double-digit lead.

But the fact they feel compelled to spend at all shows yet again the fierce headwinds Republicans are facing in a midterm cycle dominated by Democratic enthusiasm, a scandal-plagued White House and poor presidential approval ratings.

“This is a red seat, so they shouldn’t normally have to spend anything on this race, but Republicans are on defense,” said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster based in Arizona, adding that there has been a “heightened awareness and sense of urgency” after Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania “because you get in trouble when you’re asleep at the wheel.”

Noble said he expects the seat to “stay Republican,” but “the margin will be closer than it would be normally.”

Lesko, a former state senator, is running against Hiral Tipirneni, a physician who’s raised about $300,000 for her bid. Tipirneni has picked up some national support, including endorsements from former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and End Citizens United.

The influx of national GOP help for Lesko shows that Republicans are “obviously very concerned about losing this special election,” said Jason Kimbrough, spokesman for Tipirneni’s campaign.

But Democrats acknowledge that Tipirneni has a steep climb in the central Arizona district, which encompasses a mix of small towns and the western Phoenix suburbs, including Sun City, a large retirement community that served as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s base of support.

A poll conducted by the Democratic firm Lake Research for the Tiperneni campaign found that Lesko leads by 14 points, and that 59 percent of surveyed voters view Trump favorably. A memo accompanying the poll noted that Tipirneni must win over Republican voters by double digits.

During a debate that aired Friday, Tipirneni, a self-described “moderate,” said it will be “tough, but … doable” to win crossover support from Republican voters.

“Trent Franks did not have a strong Democratic opponent in multiple cycles, and we don’t really know how a strong Democrat can fare,” said Tipirneni, who cited her support for “strong and secure borders” as one of her moderate policy positions.

But local Republican operatives predicted that she would struggle in such a conservative district, which favors hard-line positions on immigration and other issues.

"The way that she has articulated her immigration policies hasn’t been moderate because she’s strongly against the border wall and that’s what people want here," said Brian Anderson, a Republican consultant in Arizona. "As much as she says she’s a moderate, it’s not the way that she has come across, and that’s the difficulty for a Democrat running in a red district."

Lesko, meanwhile, made building a border wall the centerpiece of her campaign messaging, airing a TV ad during the GOP primary that called the southern border a “war zone.”

In the first TV ad of the general special election, Tipirneni, a first-time candidate, casts Lesko as “everything you hate about politics.”

The ad attacks Lesko for being "under federal investigation for illegal money laundering to her campaign," a reference to complaints filed by one of Lesko’s opponents in last month’s primary that she improperly transferred campaign funds from a state committee to her federal account.

But in a recent debate, Lesko called the complaint "totally frivolous," and the work of her political opponents.

Lesko faced similar attacks during the Republican primary. But the campaign finance complaints against her were overshadowed by a sexual misconduct scandal involving Steve Montenegro, her Republican opponent who was backed by Franks.

A week before the February primary, Montenegro, a former state senator, acknowledged that he exchanged lewd text messages with a legislative staffer, including a topless photo from the woman.

CIA may have to reveal Haspel’s hidden past

The CIA is starting to share a bit of the covert past of Gina Haspel. But a lot more transparency may be required if the agency veteran is to become its next director.

Senators who hold the keys to her confirmation are asking the CIA to provide more details on Haspel’s role in using brutal interrogation tactics against detainees during the George W. Bush administration. Those requests, made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and three Democrats on the intelligence committee, have so far been met with silence by the nation’s spymasters.

And in a chamber divided 51-49, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) already opposed to Haspel, the degree that the agency tries to tackle McCain’s concerns could prove make-or-break for the nominee.

McCain’s not the only swing vote wanting to know whether Haspel was directly involved in the reported destruction of video evidence of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture. Even the Senate Democrat most friendly toward President Donald Trump is looking for more.

“To get her on the board, I have to see everything that’s available,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a must-have vote for Haspel to be confirmed. “It should be made available to us, absolutely. Because there’s some concerns there and I understand that.”

Manchin would seem to be an easy vote for Haspel given that he’s running for reelection in West Virginia, a state where Trump is highly popular. But last year, he voted against Stephen Bradbury, another Trump administration nominee linked to Bush-era detainee abuse. Manchin was personally lobbied by McCain, who despite undergoing cancer treatment away from Washington is gearing up to closely scrutinize Haspel’s nomination.

McCain’s not the only Republican in the undecided camp on Haspel, who had spent much of her three-decade CIA career operating out of the public eye until she became deputy director last year. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have stayed noncommittal, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) could be another tough vote to win.

But McCain’s judgment, as a decorated veteran who was tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, promises to be critical as his colleagues weigh Haspel’s involvement in detainee treatment that Congress has since prohibited. He sent Haspel eight detailed questions on Friday, including several about her involvement in the destruction of videotapes showing the harsh interrogation of two high-level terrorism suspects.

McCain, whose Armed Services Committee chairmanship makes him ex officio member of the intelligence panel, “has serious concerns about Deputy Director Haspel’s reported involvement in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, and expects her to provide a full explanation during the confirmation process,” spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said.

Another intelligence committee member who’s on the fence about Haspel, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said he wants more information on her role in the Bush-era detainee interrogation program, “and also the destruction of the videotapes.”

“It’s going to be an open session, and I’ve said I want the CIA to declassify as much as they possibly can about that incident so we can talk about it in an open setting,” King, who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview. “Because, frankly, I’m undecided.”

Haspel also supervised a so-called CIA “black site” in Thailand where high-level suspected terrorists were detained and waterboarded. While a recent retracted report clarified that Haspel took over the site after one of the two most controversial interrogations took place, her involvement in the second instance is not publicly in dispute.

The CIA took a unique step in touting Haspel’s bid on Friday by publishing a biographical sketch of the nominee, who by many accounts is well-respected by her colleagues. That followed an earlier roundup of praise for Haspel from intelligence officials appointed by both parties, including Obama-era CIA Directors Leon Panetta and John Brennan.

But however humanizing her official CIA portrayal — Haspel is described as a University of Kentucky basketball fan who found her first overseas posting “right out of a spy novel” and would be the first female CIA chief — senators want to know far more politically volatile things about her.

The intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said last week that “it’s important” for the agency to respond to a year-old request from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) seeking the declassification of specific material about Haspel. They referred specifically to her role in the interrogation program and the destroyed videotapes.

“The more transparency, I think, the better for this process,” Warner said. “People have [got] legitimate questions to ask.”

Haspel’s critics on the left, particularly civil liberties and human rights groups, were surprised by the CIA’s public promotion of her last week.

Katherine Hawkins, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, said the biographical piece was "not really appropriate" given that the declassification request by Wyden as Heinrich, as well as a separate letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have gone unaddressed.

Wyden, for his part, is girding for battle to get more information into the open as part of Haspel’s confirmation.

“If there is any effort to continue this cover-up, that is going to make it harder to have a real debate,” he said in an interview last week. “And I’ll be pushing back with everything I can."

The intelligence committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said that he expects the CIA to provide some more details on Haspel — but that the extent should be up to the agency.

“[C]ertainly, they made a nomination of somebody, they’re going to have to provide some background information,” Burr told reporters last week. “But there will never be enough for Ron Wyden, so I don’t think that anything they do is going to be responding to Ron. It’s going to be responding to what they can do without revealing sources and methods.”

CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said by email Monday that the agency is "aware of the requests relating to Deputy Director Haspel and will be responding appropriately as part of the Senate confirmation process."

While Haspel’s path to confirmation remains fraught, the CIA director she would replace is already on track for a committee hearing next month to lead the State Department. Senior Republicans are expected to steer CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s secretary of state bid to the floor even if he is dealt a negative vote in the Foreign Relations Committee in part because of Paul’s opposition.

Manchin, whose vote could also prove pivotal for Pompeo, described the current CIA chief as "very open, very straightforward, coming across well" during their interactions.

As for Haspel, Manchin said, “I don’t know enough about her. I’m going to find out. … I’m going to ask directly and try to do a little bit of my intel myself.”

How Trump favored Texas over Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As Hurricane Maria unleashed its fury on Puerto Rico in mid-September, knocking out the island’s electrical system and damaging hundreds of thousands of homes, disaster recovery experts expected that only one man could handle the enormity of the task ahead: Mike Byrne.

But Byrne, a widely acknowledged star of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, remained in Houston, which had been ravaged by Hurricane Harvey less than a month earlier.

Today, disaster recovery experts still express shock that FEMA kept Byrne in an already-stabilizing Texas and didn’t send him to Puerto Rico for three more weeks. But now, the decision strikes many as emblematic of a double standard within the Trump administration. A POLITICO review of public documents, newly obtained FEMA records and interviews with more than 50 people involved with disaster response indicates that the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico.

“We have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. We go anywhere, anytime we want in the world,” bemoaned retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the military’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. “And [in Puerto Rico] we didn’t use those assets the way they should have been used.”

No two hurricanes are alike, and Harvey and Maria were vastly different storms that struck areas with vastly different financial, geographic and political situations. But a comparison of government statistics relating to the two recovery efforts strongly supports the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster, and initially greater, effort in Texas, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston.

Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico.

Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims.

During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico.

Nine days after Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria.

It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico.

Seventy-eight days after each hurricane, FEMA had approved 39 percent of federal applications for relief from victims of Harvey, versus 28 percent for Maria.

Those imbalances track with another one: the attention of President Donald Trump. In public, Trump appeared much more concerned with the victims of Harvey than Maria. He visited Houston twice during the first eight days after the hurricane, but didn’t visit Puerto Rico for 13 days. In the first week after the disasters, Trump sent three times as many tweets about Harvey as Maria — 24 about the plight of Texas and eight about Puerto Rico, including a series of comments about Puerto Rico’s debt level and quality of infrastructure that local officials considered insulting and enraging while lives were still in jeopardy.

“Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood! We have an all out effort going, and going well!” he crowed about Texas on Aug. 27, two days after the storm made landfall.

On Sept. 30, 10 days after Maria, and while fielding criticism from Puerto Rican officials, Trump testily tweeted: “[They] want everything to be done for them and it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job.”

Behind the scenes, according to people with direct knowledge of his comments, Trump was focused less on the details of the relief effort than on public appearances, repeatedly using conference calls and meetings designed to update him on the relief effort to direct FEMA Administrator Brock Long to spend more time on television touting his agency’s progress.

In addition, Trump spent the first weekend after the Puerto Rico crisis tweeting repeatedly about NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. Those messages, experts said, send a subtle, yet important signal to the federal bureaucracy.

“On Texas and Florida [during Hurricane Irma], the president was very vocal and engaged in the run-up to the storm. His messaging was frankly pretty good,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, the former top disaster response official at USAID under former President Barack Obama. “If you look at his public messaging on a comparable timeline around Puerto Rico, there’s virtually nothing. … That sends a signal to the whole federal bureaucracy about how they should prioritize.”

FEMA and administration officials defend the response to the storm, saying it posed unprecedented logistical challenges as the agency faced perhaps the most demanding stretch in its 39-year history. Hurricane Maria was the third major hurricane to strike the United States in less than a month. Combine that with an overwhelmed local government and nonexistent communications and it created a fog-of-war atmosphere that made it difficult to determine what resources were needed when and how to get them to an island whose ports and airports were heavily damaged.

In a statement to POLITICO, Long defended FEMA’s efforts, arguing that, unlike in Texas, the agency was forced to take on a greater role in the post-disaster response. “We provided Puerto Rico the same, if not more support, as we have for all presidentially declared disasters across the nation,” he said, “but an optimal response cannot rely on FEMA’s efforts alone.”

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said Trump was “personally engaged” on the response and his “primary directive” to Long was to oversee a unified and effective federal response.

But in that situation, former FEMA officials say, extra political pressure and impetus can make a difference. Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory rather than a state, has just a single, nonvoting delegate in Congress, compared with the 36 representatives and two senators from Texas who loudly demanded proper resources for their state. Likewise, victims of Superstorm Sandy had six senators and dozens of U.S. representatives in the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to demand extra disaster relief, including powerful lawmakers like Chuck Schumer, then the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate.

“After Sandy, [Rep.] Peter King was all over FEMA continuously. So was Schumer,” said Michael Balboni, a former New York state legislator and an expert on disaster response. That constant pressure on senior federal officials, he added, is critical to getting the proper resources after a disaster.

In that vacuum, presidential leadership plays a larger role. But as the administration moves to rebuild Texas and Puerto Rico, the contrast in the Trump administration’s responses to Harvey and Maria is taking on new dimensions. The federal government has already begun funding projects to help make permanent repairs to Texas infrastructure. But in Puerto Rico, that funding has yet to start, as local officials continue to negotiate the details of an experimental funding system that the island agreed to adopt after a long, contentious discussion with Trump’s Office of Management and Budget.

Multiple congressional staffers and people with direct knowledge of the arrangement said White House officials told Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, that if he didn’t agree to the experimental formula, the island wouldn’t get the money, effectively forcing the island to take a huge gamble since it would be responsible for any cost overruns, a requirement that doesn’t exist for Texas. The White House denies making that demand.

“There is no doubt that Puerto Rico gets treated differently to a state. And there is no doubt that it has been true for the disaster response as well,” Rosselló said in an interview at the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan. He added, “Our objective is to eradicate this notion of second-class citizenship in the United States, so that whenever a disaster hits — whether it’s Texas, Florida, New York or Puerto Rico — the federal government responds equally in all cases.”

***

After Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region on Aug. 25, dropping over 50 inches of rain and flooding whole swaths of the metropolitan region, FEMA quickly mobilized, sending out mission assignments to a long list of federal agencies. In less than a week, U.S. Northern Command deployed 73 helicopters and the Coast Guard sent an additional 18. Within nine days, a whopping 30,000 federal personnel were helping an army of state and local authorities with the response, conducting search-and-rescue missions, removing debris and helping victims apply for disaster assistance, among many other assignments.

The response was effective enough that by Sept. 14, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reported that “The risk to lives has now been reduced, if not completely eliminated.”

On Sept. 20, after four days of increasingly dire forecasts, Hurricane Maria made landfall in a Puerto Rico already reeling from Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier.

POLITICO’s analysis of data on Harvey and Maria, pieced together through news releases, internal FEMA documents, revealed for the first time, and numbers supplied by the agency, indicates that FEMA’s response to Maria was much slower than it was to Harvey. Helicopters, which are crucial to rescue people from remote, flooded areas, were slow to arrive. In the initial days, Northern Command had, at most, just a few dozen helicopters on the island and the U.S. Virgin Islands while the Coast Guard deployed just six. By Day 9, just 10,000 federal personnel were on the island, about a third as many as were dealing with Harvey at the same point. Those figures increased over time — Northern Command eventually supplied over 70 helicopters and the government deployed more than 20,000 personnel — but the ramp-up took more than three weeks.

The increase in personnel coincided with the arrival of Byrne. A former New York City firefighter, Byrne has spent his career working in emergency management, serving as a senior regional FEMA officer after 9/11 and as a private sector consultant, helping manage a $10 billion recovery program after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After Superstorm Sandy in 2013, he led FEMA’s recovery operations, a position known as the federal coordinating officer, or FCO. Last September, he was promoted to assistant administrator for field operations, overseeing the entire disaster workforce.

Despite his promotion, Byrne still often goes out into the field to oversee the most important assignments. So it came as no surprise to disaster-recovery experts when Long, the FEMA administrator, announced on Sept. 1, a week after Harvey hit Houston, that Byrne was heading down to Houston to help with the recovery efforts.

The surprise came on Sept. 20, the day that Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, when FEMA named Alejandro De La Campa the FCO, while it kept Byrne in Texas.

De La Campa, a Puerto Rican native who runs FEMA’s local office on the island, has strong relationships with Puerto Rican officials but is not considered one of FEMA’s top disaster response leaders, much less the best person for one of the most complicated and challenging disasters in FEMA’s history. Even at the time, the decision shocked former FEMA officials, many of whom thought well of De La Campa, who goes by Alex, but were expecting Long to deploy a much more experienced official for such a critical job.

“When I started hearing things, I was thinking there are a lot of heavy hitters sitting on the bench,” said Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA during the Obama administration. Fugate acknowledged that it’s difficult to second guess the decision-making without being in the meetings at the time. But he said, “I would have put my heavy hitters in there.”

The storm impacted every part of the island, wiping out the electricity system and leaving even the local first responders as victims, many of whom lost power and first had to protect their families. Even today, more than 5 percent of the island remains without power. While the Houston region has about twice as many people as Puerto Rico, the severity and nature of the damage caused by Maria overshadowed that of Harvey. As such, FEMA eventually both received and approved more applications for individual assistance from victims of Hurricane Maria than of Hurricane Harvey.

“You had almost a perfect storm,” said Jeff Parks, who worked for Honoré on the Katrina recovery effort and traveled to Puerto Rico in a private capacity soon after Maria.

Byrne said he wasn’t involved in the FCO decision for Puerto Rico but that he wasn’t surprised with the selection of De La Campa, explaining that he has a “stellar reputation.” FEMA declined to make De La Campa available for an interview. Asked for further information on why De La Campa was initially selected to serve as the FCO, a FEMA spokesperson said the “question has been answered and addressed.”

FEMA also deployed Justo “Tito” Hernandez, an experienced first responder who previously had served as an FCO on the island, as De La Campa’s deputy. Hernandez, also a Puerto Rico native, did not comment directly on the selection, instead stressing that FEMA’s personnel in Puerto Rico were a team.

Still, he added, “Mike [Byrne] is the best person for the job.”

The best person for the job, though, was nearly 2,000 miles away during the first three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, and he was quickly missed. On Oct. 10, in a five-sentence news release, billed as an expansion of the leadership team, FEMA announced it was replacing De La Campa with Byrne.

Former FEMA officials and disaster response experts said the slow ramp-up in force — from the delay in deploying Byrne to the limited number of helicopters — in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is evidence that the agency underestimated the ferocity of the storm and failed to properly pre-position assets.

“That says that they didn’t have the right footprint in place,” said Konyndyk. “It’s one thing if that’s happening over a week or two. It’s very different if that’s taking a month.”

Federal officials caution against comparing Harvey and Maria, arguing that Texas’ and Puerto Rico’s very different geographic, financial and political situations make comparisons misleading. After POLITICO requested data from U.S. Northern Command on helicopters deployed on certain dates after Maria and Harvey, a spokesperson declined to provide any figures, saying that the only overlap between Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico was that all three experienced hurricanes.

“That’s where the comparison stops for us,” he said.

Byrne and Hernandez offered two main explanations for the limited number of military assets, particularly helicopters, in the first week after Hurricane Maria. They said it was much easier to deploy helicopters to Houston than to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were 1,000 miles from the United States and had no working ports or airports immediately after the disaster. And even if FEMA could get more responders to Puerto Rico, they said, it had no place to house them.

But it still took weeks for FEMA and the Department of Defense to increase their forces in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, even though the main airports and ports were opened within a few days. Disaster-recovery experts also faulted the government for failing to direct the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships, which have their own fleets of helicopters and were deployed off the coast for Florida to help with Hurricane Irma in early September, to help with the response efforts to Hurricane Maria. The Lincoln began to position itself to help with Irma two days before the storm hit Florida. FEMA never requested that the Department of Defense send the Lincoln to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, didn’t even embark from Norfolk, Virginia, to reach Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands until nine days after the storm, despite the fact that few hospitals in the region had consistent power, leaving thousands of patients in dire medical condition.

FEMA directed questions about the Comfort and Lincoln to the Department of Defense, which said that during Irma, the Lincoln was also not requested by FEMA for help with civil authorities but instead helped secure military installations in Florida. A spokesperson for NORTHCOM also said that an agreement between DOD and FEMA to send the Comfort was reached “on/about Sept. 25,” five days after the storm. It then takes the ship roughly four days to assemble its crew, add necessary supplies and start the ship’s engine before it can embark, the spokesperson said.

Other data raise questions about FEMA’s claim that a lack of housing prevented a quicker ramp-up in federal personnel on the island.

According to internal FEMA documents given to POLITICO by a person involved in the response efforts, a week after Hurricane Maria, FEMA had filled only 150 of 250 beds that were set aside for first responders at the Puerto Rico Convention Center. Two weeks after Maria, FEMA had filled only 1,258 of 2,250 beds allotted for its first responders at the convention center and aboard two training vessels from the U.S. Maritime Service.

A FEMA spokesperson did not say why the beds weren’t used but explained that the numbers were fluid during those days as FEMA staff frequently moved to different parts of the island. “During an emergency, deployed staff comes in and out and depending on where they are needed, they are moved around to support federal and state partners,” the spokesperson said.

Nonetheless, Byrne and Hernandez said in separate interviews that FEMA had enough resources to complete its missions, whether conducting search-and-rescue operations or providing food and water to the victims.

“The fact that we ramped up to about 20,000 people in the first month, month-and-a-half, that’s impressive to me,” said Hernandez. “Whoever says it was slow, I ask them where were you. Where were you when we were moving as fast as we could with the resources that we had?”

Byrne added: “We didn’t have any deaths from starving on this. We didn’t have any deaths from dehydration. We got plenty of water and food out to people.”

***

People on the ground, however, describe a different scene, one defined by mass confusion and little coordination among the dozens of different nonprofit groups and federal, state and local officials involved in the response, most of whom had little ability to communicate with one another. They said FEMA was mostly absent during the initial days after the storm.

“For the first couple weeks, right after the hurricane, we were the only thing moving out there,” said Mike Soto, a founder of a Puerto Rican think tank who became a leader in the response effort after the storm hit Puerto Rico. “The government was definitely catatonic. FEMA wasn’t around and when they were finally here, it took them awhile.”

Bernardo Márquez, the mayor of Toa Baja, a municipality of less than 100,000 people in northern Puerto Rico, said just two pallets of water and one pallet of food arrived from FEMA in the first week, forcing local officials to rely on donations from local supermarkets and nonprofits like the Red Cross. “It was slow,” he said.

FEMA did deliver some supplies during the first few weeks: In the first nine days after Hurricane Maria, the agency provided 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to the island. But that was only a third as many meals and half as much water as it provided to Texas in the same time period after Harvey. Within three days of Harvey’s landfall, FEMA had delivered over 20,000 tarps to Texas.

The agency argued that any comparison of the delivery of assistance between Puerto Rico and Texas is effectively impossible. Texas is accessible by roads, making it easy for FEMA to truck food, water and other emergency supplies into Houston while Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles away from the mainland U.S. “We moved stuff. We moved stuff pretty efficiently,” said Byrne. “And the challenge here was getting it by ship.”

According to a document obtained by POLITICO through the person involved in the response efforts, federal officials were also slow to begin installing “blue roofs” on the island, the hard, plastic covering that allows victims to return and live in their homes before permanent repairs begin.

Twenty-five days after the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for installing the roofs, had completed just 260 installations in Puerto Rico out of an estimated 60,000 that were needed, equal to 0.4 percent.

There’s no similar data for Harvey because Texas didn’t request any blue roofs and instead handled temporary housing relief in the first weeks after the storm by itself. But 25 days after Hurricane Irma struck Florida, the Army Corps had installed 1,600 blue roofs, out of 15,000 estimated, or 10.7 percent. A week later, the Army Corps had completed more than a third of the installations in Florida, compared with just 2.8 percent during the same period in Puerto Rico.

Jacqueline Tate, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps, wrote in an email that the agency faced multiple challenges with its blue roof program in Puerto Rico, including locating where victims lived based on their provided address and road closures resulting from landslides and debris.

Experts said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact costs of all these delays.

The official death toll as a result of Hurricane Maria currently stands at 64, compared with 103 from Hurricane Harvey, but a New York Times report in December, using a statistical analysis to compare deaths in the weeks after the storm with a similar period in 2015 and 2016, put the number as high as 1,052. According to the report, deaths from sepsis, pneumonia and breathing disorders jumped considerably. Local officials and experts are suspicious of FEMA’s official death count and also said the delays, if not causing deaths, significantly aggravated the pain and stress felt by many Puerto Ricans.

Eventually, officials agree, FEMA’s distribution of food and water accelerated; since the storm, FEMA has distributed more than 64 million meals and 72 million liters of water, both records for the agency. But the initial delays represented lost time that can never be recovered.

For FEMA, the response to Hurricane Maria put the agency in an unfamiliar position, forcing it to take on the lead role in the response when it typically acts as a support agency, fulfilling requests from state and local officials. In Puerto Rico, the state and local governments didn’t always know what they needed or what they could even request. But after FEMA struggled under similar conditions after Hurricane Katrina, Congress gave the agency additional authorities to send commodities and help with the emergency response even before it receives official requests from local officials. Many disaster response experts suggested that FEMA failed to use those authorities effectively after Hurricane Maria.

“My big mantra is I never get time back,” said Fugate, the former FEMA administrator from the Obama administration, adding that he always erred on the side of sending relief supplies rather than waiting for an official request.

As hurricane victims look to start rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of a storm, many first turn to FEMA to apply for federal assistance. Applicants can receive a quick infusion of cash — up to $34,000, depending on their needs and the severity of the damage — to start fixing their homes, money that also helps jump-start the local economy. But that money was slow to arrive in Puerto Rico.

According to FEMA data on its individual assistance program, the agency processed applications more slowly for victims of Hurricane Maria than victims of Hurricane Harvey. Nine days after Harvey, FEMA had already approved more than $141.8 million in federal assistance, compared with just $6 million during the same period after Maria. In fact, from Oct. 2 to Oct. 9, FEMA approved just $6,008 in individual assistance for Puerto Rico.

A FEMA spokesperson explained that communications were a challenge in the first days after the storm, preventing Puerto Ricans from using the online application and making it difficult for federal officials to follow up with survivors. Many victims also had trouble proving their residency with a deed or title, the spokesperson said.

Still, Puerto Ricans found a way to register in the first two weeks. By Oct. 5, the agency had received 248,281 registrations for individual assistance, rising to 496,418 by Oct. 13.

Seventy-eight days after the two hurricanes, FEMA had received 18 percent more applications from victims of Maria than from victims of Harvey but had approved 13 percent more applicants from Harvey than from Maria. At the time, 39 percent of applicants from Harvey had been approved compared with just 28 percent of applicants from Maria.

“People are grateful for what FEMA was done. Mayors won’t openly say we hate FEMA,” said Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the minority leader of the Puerto Rico Senate. “But if you talk to them enough, they will say it was totally frustrating. It was an absolute mess. No communication, no coordination, no chain of command and certainly no reasonable plans given the magnitude of the problem.”

***

A little before noon on Oct. 3, Air Force One landed at the Luis Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where Trump was scheduled to get a first-hand look at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, his first trip to the island since the storm hit 13 days earlier. He visited Texas twice in the first eight days after Harvey but was slower to visit Puerto Rico, the NSC spokesperson said, so that his trip “didn’t have a negative impact on ongoing response operations.”

Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans were grateful for the chance for national attention, given what they considered the still-daunting magnitude of the crisis.

Quickly, however, they realized that Trump’s visit wasn’t going to include the worst-hit areas, and that Trump didn’t have patience for any complaints.

Instead, the carefully scripted trip appeared to be something of a victory tour, as Trump praised FEMA’s response and gave an “A+” to Long, the FEMA administrator, and touted the fact that the death count at the time stood at 16, compared with nearly 2,000 after Hurricane Katrina.

At a briefing on the base, he indirectly alluded to Puerto Rico’s financial woes, suggesting that the federal response to the storm was creating new challenges for Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director. “Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico,” Trump said, “but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine.”

On a walking tour during the afternoon, Trump visited a neighborhood in nearby Guaynabo, an effort to show the president the damage on the ground. But the area had been one of the least-affected neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, according to multiple Puerto Rican officials, because most of the houses were constructed with cement.

“Nothing happened. Everything was perfect,” said Sandra Rodriguez, a communications consultant who lives eight minutes away from the neighborhood. “The only thing was, it didn’t have any electric power.”

At a church, Trump handed out bags of rice to local residents before taking paper towels and impersonating a basketball player as he shot them into the crowd, whose members scrambled to grab the free supplies. To many Puerto Rican residents, that image — Trump’s arms arched as if shooting a three-pointer — illustrated the president’s cavalier attitude toward the island.

“The president’s visit made it very clear that he did not think this was a big deal,” said Bhatia, the Senate minority leader. “The whole paper towel incident was silly. He was making a joke out of it.”

The NSC spokesperson defended the location chosen for Trump’s walking tour, saying the president was fully aware of the challenges facing Puerto Rico. “Had the president visited areas that were severely impacted by the Hurricane, security measures would have required that rescue and relief efforts be temporarily redirected, which is not what the president wanted,” the spokesperson said.

James Norton, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush, said public appearances and visits to storm-wrecked regions play an important role in establishing priorities within the federal government — as Bush learned the hard way when he was criticized for not getting more personally involved in the Katrina recovery effort.

“Bush made every effort to correct [the mistakes made after Hurricane Katrina] given how many visits he made to the region,” he said. “Compare that to Trump: He made one visit. That type of executive attention drives the bureaucracy. While there might be people working behind the scenes, not having that constant attention and trips to region does have an impact on the level of effort.”

To some aides, Trump didn’t seem to approach Hurricane Maria any differently than Hurricane Harvey. In both cases, he lauded the efforts of FEMA and the military, heaping praise on officials who he believed were reflecting positively on his administration. “He came across as a coach, like Mickey in those Rocky movies,” one person familiar with his comments said. “’You’re killing them, go get ’em.’”

But in Trump’s Twitter feed, a proxy for his daily attention, he didn’t seem particularly concerned with the fate of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. According to a POLITICO tally, he tweeted just eight times about the island in the week after the storm, often to criticize Puerto Rico. In a threepart tweet on Sept. 25, he said Puerto Rico “is in deep trouble,” due to its debt and infrastructure; during that same week, he tweeted 18 times about NFL players not standing for the national anthem. In comparison, in the week after Harvey, he was laser focused on the storm, tweeting 24 times about the relief efforts in Texas and repeatedly praising the first responders.

Trump also got into verbal disputes with local Puerto Rican officials, including the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who criticized the federal response at a Sept. 29 news conference, saying that “We are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency."

A day later, Trump struck back, slamming Cruz for her “poor leadership” and tweeting that she and “others in Puerto Rico … want everything to be done for them.”

“It was a little disheartening to see the exchange between the president and the mayor,” said Michael Coen, former chief of staff of FEMA during the Obama administration. “It doesn’t help morale at FEMA and the staff who are working hard.”

On Oct. 12, more than three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the president suggested that the federal government wasn’t prepared to help the island indefinitely. “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” The next day, he walked back that tweet in another tweet, saying about Puerto Ricans, “I will always be with them!”

To many Puerto Rican officials and disaster experts, Trump’s public comments about Puerto Rico, a territory with no voting representation in Congress, exacerbated the challenges it faces with the federal bureaucracy due to its political status. “There is certainly a different treatment and many of these things, in order to get some reaction, there has to be some pushing,” said Rosselló.

The NSC spokesperson said in a statement that the idea that Trump’s public comments negatively affected the federal response was a “ridiculous insinuation” and “an insult to the thousands of FEMA and other federal employees who were in Puerto Rico before, during and after the storms.” The official added that such criticisms were “partisan political shots.”

But there is a lot of evidence that political pressure can lead to a stepped-up disaster response.

In Texas, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) held up the nomination of the deputy director of the White House budget office for months over concerns about inadequate support for his state in the wake of Harvey. He finally allowed the nomination to move forward in February after Congress passed a bill with $90 billion of disaster relief funding and Trump signed it.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), who leads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency preparedness, told POLITICO that even today, more than five years after Superstorm Sandy, he still has to keep lobbying FEMA to support his constituents on different issues resulting from the storm, such as flood insurance mitigation measures. “We are always putting pressure on them,” he said.

Puerto Rico, with a single, nonvoting delegate in the House, can’t hold up White House nominations. The territory doesn’t have a full delegation of lawmakers — or congressional staffers — to put pressure on FEMA. “Unless you are God, you can’t do the job of six people just yourself and without a vote,” said Kenneth McClintock, the former secretary of state of Puerto Rico.

***

As of March 20, six months after Hurricane Harvey, Texas was already receiving federal dollars from FEMA for more than a dozen permanent projects to repair schools, roads and other public infrastructure that were damaged by the storm.

But for Puerto Rico, FEMA has so far not funded a single dollar for similar permanent work projects.

The gap is a result of Puerto Rico’s decision to use an experimental formula for calculating the federal funds allocated to rebuild its public infrastructure. The new formula gives Puerto Rico significant flexibility during the rebuilding process, but it also requires the island to pay for any cost overruns, a burden that doesn’t apply to Texas, where FEMA will pay for any excess costs. For a cash-strapped territory like Puerto Rico, which is more than $70 billion in debt, the potential for cost overruns is a huge risk, making the decision to use the new formula across all rebuilding projects a somewhat surprising gamble.

But according to multiple congressional officials and people with direct knowledge of the arrangement, the island was forced to take that gamble. According to those people, White House officials, led by Mulvaney and Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, told Puerto Rico that in order to receive money for permanent work projects, it had to adopt the experimental funding formula for all its projects.

That formula, which dates to Hurricane Katrina and was used on a major housing project after Superstorm Sandy, has never been tried on this scale and Puerto Rican officials weren’t interested in being the guinea pig. But in a series of contentious meetings and conversations in late October, White House officials told Puerto Rico it had no choice, according to the congressional staffers and people with direct knowledge of the meetings.

On Nov. 2, with almost no media attention, FEMA published an amendment to its disaster declaration for Puerto Rico that required the use of the experimental funding formula across all projects. It had never been included in a disaster declaration before.

“This is unusual and when it came out, I had lots of phone calls from people,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former senior FEMA official who helped create the program when she was in the Obama administration.

Byrne defended the process, arguing that the administration did not force Puerto Rico to adopt the new formula.

“We made a strong case. We showed them all the pluses to it because of the flexibility you’d have, the increased use of mitigation,” he said. “It speaks for itself. And at the end of the day, the governor put it in writing that that’s how he wanted it done.”

A senior administration official said it was “absolutely false” that FEMA forced Puerto Rico’s hand.

Rosselló said the administration was “not explicit” in ordering Puerto Rico to adopt the experimental formula, which is known as 428 for its section in the Stafford Act, but he added that “they were very adamant about 428.”

Rosselló also argued that the process has slowed down Puerto Rico’s ability to rebuild its infrastructure. The process for authorizing permanent funding for Puerto Rico took 43 days, compared with 10 days for Texas. The U.S. Virgin Islands received that authorization within 15 days.

The senior administration official acknowledged that projects might get rebuilt quicker under the traditional payment method but said the delay reflects the time necessary to build back the island’s infrastructure in a smarter, more effective way. “It does take a little more time to plan that out,” the official said, adding that many emergency projects, including some road repairs and electricity generation, are ongoing. FEMA has already spent more than $1.3 billion on such emergency projects.

Still, today, more than six months after Hurricane Maria, FEMA still hasn’t funded any permanent work projects on the island as Puerto Rico and federal officials negotiate an agreement under 428. The most important piece of those negotiations is the cost estimate. Puerto Rico is on the hook for any overruns, so state officials are very concerned about who is conducting the estimate. According to Rosselló, FEMA agreed in November that Puerto Rico and FEMA would jointly be in charge of the estimate. “We had this explicitly written down in order for us to agree to 428,” he said.

Byrne, however, suggested that FEMA would ultimately determine the estimate. “We’re more than happy to have Puerto Rico engineers and engineering firms be part of this, and they can help us with the estimates,” he said, citing an inspector general’s report after Sandy that faulted FEMA for weaknesses in its financial controls in using the new formula. “At the end of the day, we’re going to do the estimate.” Any disagreements would go to a third-party panel for review, he added. “This is going to be fair.”

Bryan Koon, who served as the director for Florida’s emergency management agency from 2011 to last October, said he supports 428 and thinks it could help Puerto Rico. But if he were in charge, he said, he would object to FEMA conducting the cost estimate itself. “As a state guy, I would be opposed to that.”

The senior administration official conceded that there is “tension” around the cost estimate but said it should reflect a collaborative approach. “We recognize that you don’t want to take the number we’re giving you and you have to recognize that we’re not going to just take the number you give us,” the official said. “That’s the way this works.”

The official also argued that the Trump administration has put Puerto Rico in a better position to use 428 by requesting and receiving from Congress an exemption from the requirement that the cost estimate be based upon the pre-disaster conditions of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. “That’s a big deal,” the official said. The exemption could prove lucrative to Puerto Rico, since FEMA now can now fund permanent work projects without deducting for any pre-existing damage that was not caused by Maria.

Experts on the formula said it could have additional benefits. It is, effectively, a block grant, allowing the island to more efficiently allocate resources to rebuild its roads, bridges and power system. Under the formula, FEMA also distributes the money up front, instead of reimbursing the island for individual projects, an important benefit for the cash-strapped territory that also cuts down on burdensome paperwork.

Rosselló said he was examining the formula before the White House approached him, realizing that it would be a mistake to rebuild Puerto Rico’s outdated infrastructure to its previous condition. “Puerto Rico is in hurricane alley,” he said. “It’s going to come again.”

But Rosselló and other Puerto Rican officials worry that the administration’s position on 428 is representative of a broader White House strategy to limit funding toward Puerto Rico. The governor particularly pointed to the Treasury Department’s decision to withhold more than half of a $4.7 billion loan that Congress authorized for Puerto Rico in an October spending bill. Treasury said Puerto Rico didn’t need the money, which was earmarked to help the island pay for essential services, since it had a cash balance of $1.7 billion at the end of 2017. The two sides reached an agreement over the loan last week.

Rosselló believes the president is committed to funding Puerto Rico’s recovery, but he’s worried that it will not be a priority as the administration moves on to other issues. “When we asked for him a certain set of things … [Trump] has responded,” he said. “My concern is that somewhere along the way, it has sort of fizzled.”

“I don’t know who it is, but there certainly is evidence that they are trying to penny-pinch,” the governor added.

The senior administration official rejected that accusation, saying, “I’m not sure where he is getting that impression” and noting that the federal government has already committed more than $10 billion in funding to Puerto Rico. “Our No. 1 concern is to make sure we deliver for the people of Puerto Rico,” the official said, adding, “Things take longer than anyone would like them to.”

Puerto Rico’s recovery will take many years and will continue to put pressure on the federal budget. The historic 2017 hurricane season and California wildfires have already forced Congress to pass three disaster spending bills, totaling more than $140 billion, and another disaster spending bill could be needed later this year. The Trump administration, led by Mulvaney, has attempted to keep costs down, sending a funding request to Congress in November that Democrats and Republicans both derided as too low. The White House budget office included in that request a list of spending cuts that Congress could use to offset the extra hurricane-related costs, which lawmakers also ignored in February’s disaster spending bill.

Many Puerto Rican officials and disaster-recovery experts fear that the contentious battles over 428 and the Treasury Department loan are just the first of many future fights between Puerto Rico and the federal government. It’s a fear shared by many in Puerto Rico, who, now more than ever, feel like second-class citizens.

“There is a lingering lack of knowledge about Puerto Rico and a lingering tendency to want to treat Puerto Rico differently,” said McClintock, the former Puerto Rico secretary of state, “and always for the worst.”

2 more attorneys turn down Trump

A pair of veteran white collar lawyers have turned down President Donald Trump’s offer to help lead his defense in the Russia probe, marking another setback for a legal team that’s seen its numbers dwindle over the last week while it prepares for a potentially critical interview between the president and special counsel Robert Mueller.

The law firm Winston & Strawn said Monday night that two of its partners — former federal prosecutors Tom Buchanan and Dan Webb — were approached by Trump but declined the job “due to business conflicts.”

“However they consider the opportunity to represent the president to be the highest honor and they sincerely regret that they cannot do so,” the law firm said. “They wish the president the best and believe he has excellent representation in Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow.”

Trump’s legal team is now led by Cobb, who is handling official White House matters in response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and Sekulow, a conservative attorney and talk radio host who has been the public face of the president’s outside legal team.

Sekulow declined comment when asked Monday night about the president’s attempt to hire Buchanan, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, and Webb, a former Reagan-era U.S. attorney from Chicago. Webb led the prosecution of Adm. John Poindexter during the Iran-Contra affair and later served as an independent counsel in 1989 who cleared a George H.W. Bush White House aide of allegations he broke federal ethics laws in failing to repay a $5,000 personal loan.

“We are proceeding with our ongoing cooperation with the Office of Special Counsel,” Sekulow said.

Trump’s legal team has had a rough week. Last week, it lost John Dowd, the president’s longtime lead personal attorney, who resigned after the president tried to hire Joseph diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing.

DiGenova and Toensing had their own problems, and on Sunday, Sekulow cited conflicts of interest as the reason they were not joining the president’s team. The couple are law partners and were already representing two other people in the Russia case: former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo and Sam Clovis, a Trump campaign policy adviser.

But a senior administration official told POLITICO that Trump’s attorneys had pleaded with the president against hiring the couple not just because of the conflicts of interest. There was also concern about their ages (he’s 73, she’s 76), their penchant for extolling unfounded theories, and the president was turned off because they looked disheveled when they came to meet with him last week.

DiGenova is a former federal prosecutor who served as an independent counsel to investigate whether aides to President George H.W. Bush violated federal law by searching Bill Clinton’s passport files during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Trump has been getting informal legal advice from his longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz, a New York-based attorney who originally led the president’s Russia response but stepped down last summer.

Officially, the legal team also consists of about five White House aides who are helping Cobb and four attorneys with ties to Sekulow’s nonprofit, the American Center for Law & Justice: Emory law school senior lecturer Mark Goldfeder; Stuart Roth, a longtime legal partner and a Mercer University law school classmate; former federal prosecutor and Georgia state attorney Andrew Ekonomou; and ACLJ senior counsel Benjamin Sisney.

But Trump lacks an experienced criminal attorney on his personal team, and he’s been gauging interest for weeks from other prominent lawyers. Former George W. Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson recently turned down an offer from Trump, citing conflicts with his law firm.

Olson, appearing on MSNBC on Monday, declined to address the president’s legal situation but said the overall high turnover of staffing at the White House was not helpful.

“I think everybody would agree this is turmoil, it’s chaos, it’s confusion, it’s not good for anything,” Olson said. “We always believe that there should be an orderly process, and of course, government is not clean or orderly ever. But this seems to be beyond normal.”

Census to add controversial question on citizenship status

The 2020 U.S. Census will include a controversial question about citizenship status, the Commerce Department announced Monday night, a move that is set to spark outrage from Congressional Democrats and liberal state attorneys general.

Critics have warned the administration against including the question because they fear that a citizenship question would result in a massive drop in response rate from immigrants who worry the information could be used to deport them.

According to the statement from the Commerce Department, having such data will "permit more effective enforcement" of the Voting Rights Act.

The decision to add the question follows up on a request from the Department of Justice, which ProPublica first reported asked for the inclusion in order to better enforce voting rights law.

Civil rights groups have expressed worries that a drop in participation would result in an inaccurate count of the full U.S. population could have massive ramifications for everything from how federal funds are distributed to how congressional districts are redrawn.

The announcement follows an increasingly tough tact on illegal immigration by the Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who have been spurred on President Donald Trump’s staunch views on the subject.

Democrats have generally opposed including the question.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, Catherine Cortez Masto, Brian Schatz and Tom Carper had said such an announcement would "undermine the accuracy of the Census as a whole" and was even more troubling given the Justice Department’s immigration rhetoric.

In a letter discussing the decision, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he took a “hard look” at the Department of Justice’s request and led a review over including the question, including any possible legal issues.