At first blush, it’s hard to figure how the prim and polite young woman before me could be the media mouthpiece for America’s most polarizing politician, Texas Republican Ted Cruz. But if Cruz has been the bull in the Senate’s genteel china shop, his press secretary, Catherine Frazier, is the opposite: cheerful, friendly, even a bit reserved. No bomb thrower, she.
First off, Frazier apologizes for having thrown a wrench in our meeting plans — we’d swapped outfit descriptions so we could spot each other in the crowded Senate cafeteria. But she’d spilled coffee on herself that morning, she explains, and had to change tops, from white to polka dots. She still looked impeccably put together, not a blond hair out of place.
“I certainly strive to get back to people and be accessible,” she says, earnestly. The Houston native, who grew up in a conservative family, has a Texas twang and that warm Southern manner. Those who’ve worked with her aver that she’s very diligent about responding to reporters, a heavy lift given the press crush Cruz has generated from his first day on the job. Frazier is the type of press secretary, congressional reporters say, who makes a point of building relationships, who will grab a beer with you after work. As opposed to the kind who constantly tries to spin you, or the kind — and there are many of these — who bawl you out in expletive-laden emails if they don’t like what you write. “She’s not the type that tries to intimidate,” says one fellow Cruz aide.
In other words: Frazier is Cruz’s media diplomat, his good face, the soft sell. She builds rapport with the press corps in Washington and taps her deep relationships with contacts back home in Texas to ensure that the senator, and his message, are heard far and wide. She also helps humanize her boss, whose confrontational style has won him plenty of enemies, just in the 21 months he’s been on the Hill. “I’m not a sixth-grader,” octogenarian California Democrat Dianne Feinstein sniffed after the 43-year-old Cruz lectured her on the Second Amendment just three months into his new job.
Cruz’s aggressive persona works well now in his role as congressional crusader. “He promised he was going to come shake up Washington and he certainly did,” says Frazier, who says that kind of attitude is what attracted her to Cruz. But his brashness might not fly so well in 2016, when voters size up presidential candidates on likability, who they want to have a beer with.
Which is why Frazier comes in handy. In that, she’s not so unlike star press secretaries of the past, from George Stephanopoulos to Tim Russert. They serve as foils, disarming envoys, reporters’ compadres. And they are chosen for their grace under pressure. Indeed, Frazier recalls another friendly Texan who helped to humanize her boss: Karen Hughes, a communications adviser to George W. Bush. Call it a Texas Two-Step.
Frazier’s had a quick rise in national politics. As a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, she volunteered for Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign and after graduation returned to the governor’s office full time. She climbed the ladder from press assistant to press secretary in three short years. When a colleague in Perry’s office moved over to join Cruz’s staff in 2012, just after he was elected, he recruited Frazier to join him.
“I’d always wanted the opportunity to work in D.C.,” Frazier says. And her husband’s job in Austin was flexible enough that they could make the leap. The pair met at their Austin-based evangelical church when both were still undergrads, and married shortly after graduating.
She was thrown right into the deep end. Just days into the 2013 congressional session, Cruz was making headlines with his opposition to President Barack Obama’s defense secretary nominee, former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel. Cruz raised the specter that Hagel may have “received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” prompting howls from Democrats. As someone just learning the Senate ropes, and all the pomp and protocol that come with it, there was no time to get acclimated. “I jumped right into the middle of it, like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Frazier recalls. “Just hit the ground running.”
She and Carpenter now head a team of five media staffers, plus an intern, in Cruz’s Senate office, a sizable operation for a freshman member with no leadership post. And while Carpenter and others on Cruz’s staff are known to dish to reporters and mix it up on social media — Carpenter, in particular, has drawn attention for her razor-sharp Twitter commentary — Frazier is not. She’s straightforward. Disciplined. On-message.
In that way, she’s more like Cruz than one might think. For all the rhetorical jabs he throws, very few are off-the-cuff. “He’s very disciplined,” Frazier confirms. That can be frustrating for reporters who come up to talk to him, hoping for a conversation rather than a press release. And so, Frazier’s initiated off-the-record gatherings with Cruz and a group of D.C. reporters They get a bunch of Shiner Bock, everyone kicks back and the reporters get to question Cruz, though none of it can be used for their reporting. It’s more about building relationships.
And, just like her boss, she’s no pushover, even if her demeanor is warmer and chummier. “My job is to defend the interests and standpoint and the job he’s doing on behalf of Texans,” she says. “And if that means having an argument to make sure our side is included in the story or make sure that people understand where we’re coming from, then that’ll happen.”
Many presidential aspirants have already built up political staffs ahead of a 2016 run, including a separate press team. But Frazier continues to juggle both the Senate and political media duties — with separate email addresses and phone numbers to comply with campaign finance laws.
That’s bound to change next year, when Cruz will have to decide whether he’s really going to throw his hat in the ring. Frazier will have some decisions to make, too. Stay on in Washington on Cruz’s Senate staff? Stick with Cruz, if her former boss, Perry, decides to run again, as well? All she’ll say is, ”I love working for Ted Cruz and plan to continue doing so, regardless of what happens.” Given the way her star is rising, it’s safe to say she’ll be in demand.