WASHINGTON -- The man who cut a deal on House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) behalf to avoid a government shutdown Friday night wasn’t originally supposed to be there.
Barry Jackson had spent a year away from Washington politics when, in January 2010, Boehner’s chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, died of a heart attack.
Jackson was Boehner's obvious first choice to fill the role. Current and former colleagues describe him as a key political asset whose wide range of executive- and legislative-branch experience is second perhaps only to that of Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama chief of staff and current Chicago mayor. And coworkers say Jackson's deep ties with Boehner granted him a rarefied place in the speaker's esteem and trust.
In 1990, Jackson left Daisy Rental, his family's equipment-leasing business in Ohio, to work on then-state Rep. Boehner's congressional run. After Boehner won, he tapped Jackson to be his chief of staff, a post he held for a decade before becoming a top political adviser to President George W. Bush.
Last year, though the 50-year-old Jackson was enjoying his post-Bush as an independent political consultant, he was heartbroken by Nowakowski's death. When Boehner asked, he came back.
It wasn’t a decision Jackson seemed all that happy about in the first few months, colleagues said. The jowly, book-loving Cincinnati Reds fan and Pink Floyd listener tends to recoil from the Beltway culture of self-promotion, dishonesty and backstabbing, especially when it’s Republicans going after other Republicans.
But Jackson is also loyal -- fiercely so, say many of his friends and admirers. And his return to Boehner’s side paid dividends long before last week's shutdown showdown ended with the speaker's position strengthened.
Since before Republicans won control of the House last fall, Jackson has been at the center of the party’s strategy-making. Renowned for his knowledge of policy and his careful adherence to a realist’s political lens, his was a key voice dissuading the GOP from taking a position on entitlement reform during 2010's campaign season.
Jackson also oversaw the planning and rollout of the House Republican “Pledge to America” last fall. It wasn't the first time he'd orchestrated the promulgation of a legislative agenda -- in 1994, he served as executive director for the Republicans' "Contract with America," an agenda which helped spark the Gingrich revolution that delivered the House into GOP hands for the first time in 40 years.
“There are few staff people now or in history who bring to the table, literally, what Barry Jackson does,” said Ed Gillespie, a top GOP strategist who was a senior adviser to George W. Bush and has worked with Jackson for many years.
“He’s the guy who designs the roadmap to get things done,” Nowakowski said in a 2007 interview, adding that Jackson has "the ability to see around the corner."
Jackson was a central player throughout the budget talks. He helped restart negotiations on Tuesday of last week, inviting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to Boehner’s office after a conversation at the White House “went nowhere,” according to Democratic aides. He walked out of a Thursday meeting at the White House “even angrier than Boehner” over President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to budge on the GOP attempt to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood.
And Jackson was the one who shook hands with Rob Nabors, the White House's head of legislative affairs, and David Krone, Reid's chief of staff, to seal the deal averting a shutdown -- with less than two hours to spare before the Friday-night deadline.
Reid even mentioned Jackson during his remarks on the Senate floor after negotiations ended.
“I never met him until we started this,” Reid said. “But he is a real professional. It’s been very difficult to work through all this stuff, but I admire his professionalism.”
Boehner communications director Kevin Smith called Jackson “calm and unflappable, but relentless when it comes to achieving the objectives of the speaker and our members.”
To those in Washington even aware of him in the first place, Jackson is most known for being unknown. He rarely talks to reporters -- he declined to be interviewed for this article -- and works hard to stay out of the press.
But the budget showdown on Capitol Hill promises to be overshadowed in the coming weeks by the fight over raising the government’s debt ceiling.
Jackson is likely to be in the middle of those discussions, as well. Staying out of the spotlight may prove more difficult.