Communications director does not communicate

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Posted 5/29/18 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in American politics.
Legislative aide, policy analyst, communications coordinator, campaign manager, pollster, media strategist, researcher, chief of staff, assistant chief of staff.
You get the picture. The list goes on and on.
In one respect, people who aspire to such jobs aren’t much different from the rest of us.
They get an entry level job, try to make a name for themselves, and then begin moving up the ladder to bigger and better and more consequential positions.
You’ve got to pay your dues, and even then it usually takes a big break, being in the right place at the right time, to get to a top level job.
For a guy named Jahan Wilcox, that big break came when he hitched his wagon to Doug Burgum’s campaign for governor of North Dakota.
As everyone now knows, just a couple short years ago Burgum was a long-shot even to be a candidate for governor.
He had no political experience, was pretty much shut out in an attempt to get the Republican nomination, and was given little chance to upset popular Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
And yet he did, and now he’s governor.
Wilcox joined the Burgum bandwagon as communications director.
That was his big break. It propelled him straight up to the communications director position at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, working for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Prior to the Burgum gig, Wilcox had no connection to North Dakota.
He’d graduated from a small, private liberal art college in Wisconsin, then went to work as a staff assistant in the Washington office of Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.
He took a couple other gigs in Washington, then spent half a year as communications director for the Nevada Republican Party. Then it was back to Washington to work for the Republican National Committee, then the Republican Senatorial Committee, and then off to help a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia as “rapid response director.”
After six months there, he spent seven months more as director of rapid response for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, then caught his big break with Doug Burgum.
Prior to his six months in North Dakota, Wilcox had 11 different jobs in 11 years. I guess that’s how you earn your chops.
He was rewarded with a job for Pruitt, though I’m not sure it’s that much of a reward to be communications director for a cabinet member who does everything possible to avoid communicating.
The next time Wilcox surfaced in North Dakota was last August, when his boss held roundtables in Fargo and Grand Forks that included invited guests, Sen. John Hoeven, Rep. Kevin Cramer, and Gov. Burgum.
Pruitt, through Wilcox, decreed no press and no public allowed. In Grand Forks, Wilcox even threatened to call police on two newspaper reporters who resisted demands that they leave public property while Pruitt was there.
Shortly thereafter a University of North Dakota police officer kicked the reporters off a public sidewalk area. The university later apologized, saying it shouldn’t have happened. So did Hoeven, saying the public shouldn’t have been totally excluded.
Pruitt, of course, is famously known for huge spending on a security detail, exorbitant renovation of his office, and extravagant travel.
All of which seems to have contributed to Wilcox to being the communications director who avoids communicating.
Over the past year, EPA has built a record of refusing to release basic information, blocking reporters from attending events and attacking journalists.
It won’t even respond to requests by the Society of Environmental Journalists to talk about ground rules for access.
The blog Media Matters has documented more than 20 examples of EPA ignoring or mistreating the press, notably two weeks ago when reporters from the Associated Press, CNN, E&E News and Politico were blocked from attending a summit on water contaminants, one of Pruitt’s own top priorities.
Wilcox said the reporters were excluded because of space constraints, but reporters who were allowed in said there was plenty of space, and a senior EPA advisor later said oops, it shouldn’t have happened, and the summit was later opened.
It all raises a question. If Wilcox continues up the political ladder, will his next job be uncommunications director?