Meet the power women behind Kenney’s campaign

Jane Slusser (left) and Lauren Hitt (right), in Jim Kenney´s campaign office on May 28, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )
Jane Slusser (left) and Lauren Hitt (right), in Jim Kenney's campaign office on May 28, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )

LAUREN HITT had picked up and moved from Ohio to Philly to work on the mayoral campaign of Ken Trujillo, the buttoned-down lawyer whom she viewed as a sure thing.

About two weeks later, Trujillo's campaign was dead. He had dropped out of the mayor's race to attend to a family matter. It was late January, just four months before the Democratic primary election, and Hitt, Trujillo's newly minted communications director, was suddenly jobless. Now what? she thought.

Like a backup prom date, there was Jim Kenney, the veteran unbridled member of City Council, waiting in the wings. It was not love at first sight.

"I just never met anyone like Jim Kenney in my life," Hitt recalled, in a tone lacking enchantment.

One month after Kenney's battleship-like voyage to victory in the May 19 mayoral primary, Hitt and Kenney's campaign manager, Jane Slusser, sat down with the Daily News for a post-hoc election analysis. From how to deal with Kenney's raucous, colorful tweets to how to handle his notorious bad temper (hint: think tantrum "time-outs"), the women who propelled Kenney up and over the finish line of the Democratic primary talked candidly about the inner workings of the campaign and their initial trepidation about joining Team Kenney.

But first, a little background on Hitt, 24, and Slusser, 32.

They met while working on President Obama's 2011 re-election campaign in Pennsylvania. At the time, Slusser, who grew up in a small town in Northern California and graduated from Barnard College in New York City, was Obama's campaign field director in Scranton.

Hitt, a Baltimorean who attended the University of Pennsylvania, worked on Obama's campaign-communications team here. Hitt then served as deputy communications director on Bill de Blasio's successful mayoral bid in New York City. From there, Hitt went to Ohio, where she became press secretary for the Ed FitzGerald for Governor campaign. That Democratic campaign shipwrecked after reports surfaced that cops had found FitzGerald in a car at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who wasn't his wife in 2012 and that he'd been driving without a license for a decade.

Fast-forward to Trujillo's mayoral bid. Trujillo snagged Slusser as his campaign manager and she, in turn, coaxed Hitt to join the team.

On Jan. 21, Trujillo formally announced that he was getting out of the race. With Trujillo out and Council President Darrell Clarke's toes undipped from the tepid waters of a possible run, Kenney saw an opening, a shifting of the political tea leaves and the electoral math.

'A little hung over'

Meanwhile, Slusser and Hitt, more than slightly panicked, began to cast around for a place to land for themselves and other "Trujillo refugees," Slusser said.

Oh, and they drank. Heavily.

"We went down to [Los Caballitos, at Passyunk Avenue and Morris Street in South Philly], and had a lot of tequila and a lot of margaritas," Slusser said. "And then we woke up bright and early the next day to go meet Jim [Kenney], and so in addition to the emotional exhaustion, we might have been a little hung over."

It was Democratic political strategist Ken Snyder who suggested that Hitt and Slusser meet with Kenney. On Jan. 23, Snyder arranged a breakfast date at the Courtyard by Marriott across from City Hall. Kenney arrived with Debbie Mahler, his longtime Council chief of staff. Kenney talked - a lot, an overflow of energy and coffee, and a serving of his heart-on-sleeve style.

"I wasn't saying that much because I was kind of just like, jaw on the floor, 'Who is this guy?' " Hitt recalled. "I worked for the Obama campaign, and then I went to work for de Blasio, who, while he is very liberal, is a very formal guy . . . He would like never be sitting down at a table throwing back coffee and emptying seven Sweet'N Low packets."

She added, "Then I worked for Ed FitzGerald, who, while he had a terrible scandalous history, was also very buttoned-up. And Jim is just not that way. So I was just like, 'What the f---?' "

Kenney turned to Hitt and asked what her role would be in a campaign. He wasn't entirely familiar with the concept of pre-speech "prep" or "message crafting." Hitt asked if he had a Twitter account, she said.

Oh, did he ever.

Reining in the tweets

Kenney famously had described New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a tweet as "fat assed." He also suggested in a tweet that Justin Bieber would benefit from a "good beating from his parents." While watching a Viagra commercial, Kenney tweeted, "Is the Viagra commercial with the middle aged British Hottie considered kind of 'soft porn?' " And lots of other random tweets, like "Jasmine smells so exotic," or simply, "So sad sometimes."

Slusser and Hitt told Kenney that he had to stop tweeting for a while, at least until they could figure out how to rein in his potential Twitter bombs. They initially used an app called "Buffer," which could enable them to "preapprove" Kenney's tweets.

"We were trying to be super cautious and we were probably a little overbearing on it," Slusser said.

The app kept malfunctioning, and they quickly gave up on it. Hitt said they eventually decided just "to let Jim be Jim."

"And I realized, too, that the media had a certain tolerance for his shenanigans," Hitt said. "It was like, 'Oh, ha, ha, Jim,' and not, 'Oh my God, like, you are horrible.' "

Meanwhile, Kenney, struck by the magnitude of running for mayor, began to rein in his tweets on his own, Slusser and Hitt said.

Hitt and Slusser said they left the breakfast meeting wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

"We walked out and we go, 'What did we just do? Are we doing this? Are you doing this? I'm not doing this, if you are not doing this,' " Slusser recalled. "It was a very 'Titanic' moment: You jump, I jump."

Kenney had only $75,000 in campaign funds when he got into the race. Slusser hammered out a "conservative budget," with the assumption that "we would raise no money." But with campaign donations, signatures needed to get on the ballot and endorsements, it all came together.

Although Kenney, 56, was old enough to be their dad, he followed their advice.

"As far as gender or age? That never bothered me," Kenney said after he poked his head into the recent interview with Hitt and Slusser. "Any man who acts [as if] women are just inferior, and can't do this or can't do that, is really just an idiot. I followed direction - after bitching."

Kenney then asked, "Can I tell the famous forum story?"

"The forum story is that it's getting to the end of the campaign and I'm hating these things," Kenney recalled. "We had just come from another event and I had had it with these forums, and I was walking down Broad Street and I'm f-bombing and saying, 'I'm leaving. See that cab?' and [Hitt] goes, 'Shut up. Just shut up. Just keep walking.' Literally she was pushing me from behind. And I'm totally like having a meltdown."

The forum was put together by Project HOME, which is run by the tough-as-nails Sister Mary Scullion, who was livid when Kenney and Republican candidate Melissa Murray Bailey were the only candidates to show up in person and on time. The room was packed with about 400 people. Kenney got up on stage and Hitt texted him, "I told you so."

Kenney said Hitt taught him the importance of "staying on message." She told him that "a good offense is a good defense," and eventually he got it, he said.

In the days before the May 19 primary, Slusser had Kenney on a punishing schedule of public events, sometimes eight or more in a day.

"I did not allot time for him to go to the bathroom or eat, and I just figured we could work it in somewhere, and it was pretty grueling and I was not very nice to him about it when he complained," Slusser said.

One day Kenney, in a foul mood, walked into the campaign office and began to grouse in front of the staff. Slusser said she took him into a back office and shut the door. She pointed out that everyone was working hard.

"I totally just bawled him out and I treated him like a kid and I put him in timeout," Slusser said, laughing heartily.

A guy in Scotland

On this late-June day, Kenney's threadbare campaign office on Broad Street was buzzing with staff. There's still the general election, in which Kenney will go up against Bailey, a GOP newcomer. Kenney was there gearing up for a phone interview. But he had a little time to joke with Hitt and Slusser, and to complain. He pointed to his hand.

"I have a new condition. Repetitive-sprain injury from shaking people's hands," he said.

"You might want to become a hugger," Slusser suggested.

"There's a guy in Scotland, who went through the free-state thing," Kenney said, referring to the 2014 voter referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country. "He actually had it. It was diagnosed. It was a condition. It's killing me."

Hitt shot him a bemused look, "You know how tennis players have tennis elbow? Jim has politician's hand."

"I'm serious," Kenney said.

"It's not a real thing," Hitt said, and shooed him out for his phone interview.


On Twitter: @wendyruderman