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Julia Payne’s résumé shows that she held various public-relations jobs with the Clinton-Gore administration, and most recently she served as press secretary for the former president. So she’s killed a work day or two trying to get out the message that her boss isn’t nearly as bad as the press paints him.
That experience should serve Payne well in her new job. She’s working for Dan Snyder now.
Payne, a Fredericksburg, Va.-area native, was one of several folks from the media wing of the previous administration who were invited by the Redskins to interview for the position of vice president of communications. Experience flacking for professional sports teamsPayne, though a lifelong Redskins fan, had noneapparently wasn’t given too much weight during the job search. Party affiliation, however, may have been: Though Payne will only say “a friend of a friend” recommended her, others familiar with the Redskins job search say that Democratic operative Chris Lehane served as Snyder’s headhunter, sending folks from his side of the aisle to the team. Lehane, who was Al Gore’s chief spokesperson during the 2000 presidential campaignand is as accomplished a Bush basher as there isnow serves as potential 2004 nominee John Kerry’s mouthpiece.
There’s a long paper trail, meanwhile, that establishes Snyder’s Republican presence. He’s a habitual donor to GOP campaigns, having in recent years given big wads of cash to, among others, Steve Forbes ($5,000) and J.C. Watts ($10,000). He contributed $100,000 to George W. Bush’s inaugural fund. In true Washington fashion, access to W has followed: Snyder was reported to be in the company of the president on that day in March when his team snatched free agents Rob Johnson and Jeff Hall.
So why would Snyder go with an applicant from what, in Washington circles, is clearly the other team?
“I know Dan’s a Republican, and we’ve had some really, well, interesting conversations about politics,” says Payne with a laugh. “Dan was teasing me that not many of his friends are Democrats, and I’m definitely in the minority around here. But he just wants to bring in good people, regardless of political affiliation. I think it shows his smartness and savvy that Dan was looking to bring somebody from that [political] world [to the Redskins]. The only thing that can knock the White House off the above-the-fold front page of the Washington Post is the Redskins. I remember times when we’d be doing something important, and [the Post] would be more worried about what the quarterback did on Sunday! I come from an environment where I can certainly understand the pressure and the spotlight that are put on this team.”
Matt Bennett, a former staffer for Clinton and Gore who talked to Snyder about the PR opening, says he doesn’t see the Democrat-laden talent pool as evidence that the Redskins owner is about to pull a Jim Jeffords.
“All the Republicans already have jobs, and Democrats don’t,” says Bennett. “That’s the way it works in this town.”
(Bennett says that before he met with Snyder, he went over the coverage the Redskins owner had received from the local dailies. He was amazed by the brutality. “I think both papers in town are hard on [Snyder],” he says, “but the Washington Times was unbelievable. It’s hard to be harder on anybody than the Times was on Clinton. But, man, are they tough on Snyder. It’s open warfare.”)
Working for Clinton forced Payne to keep up with the goings-on in the sports world. In June and July 2001, Payne accompanied Clinton on an international junket to major sporting events that included visits to the French Open, the Belmont Stakes, a Yankees game, an NBA playoff game in Philadelphia, and Wimbledon. “He would have gone to the All-Star Game that year, too,” says Payne. “But he was in South America. He’s a sports fanatic, and there were all these events he couldn’t go to when he was president. That was some tour.”
Payne replaces Karl Swanson, who came to the Redskins from Snyder’s public-relations firm when Snyder bought the team. In Peter Perl’s must-read profile of the Redskins owner in the Washington Post Magazine last season, Swanson described himself as the Snyder’s “henchman.” Swanson’s relationship with the media was wholly adversarial, and his strategy seemed to be to let no jibe at the Redskins or their owner go unrebutted. Last season, Swanson wrote a letter to the editor of the Post to challenge a fan’s assertion in that same forum that Santa Claus hadn’t shown up to a Redskins game.
Swanson’s replacement knows by now that there aren’t enough hours in the day for that tack. In her post-presidency run with Clinton, Payne had to deal with firestorms regarding his use of pardons, the move to Harlem, and the “Who Killed Buddy?” tragedy. When she resigned from her job with Clinton last year, he issued a release praising her ability to handle “the predictable incoming fire with wit and strength.”
Now she’ll get a chance to place a positive spin on such Snyder-made messes as banning pedestrian traffic into FedEx Field, annual increases in ticket prices, and his inability to leave football matters to the football people. But Payne, as any PR pro should, insists that Snyder’s moves, such as the player acquisitions he’s made this off-season, and the team’s performance next season will make her rookie year in the NFL enjoyable.
And if not?
“Well, the difference between my old job and this one,” she says, “is that if I need a helmet to protect me from the ‘incoming,’ now I’ve got one I can grab downstairs.” Dave McKenna