When I meet Chris Campbell in his modest office in Hart, the Senate Finance Committee is bracing itself for the biggest trade policy fight in decades—a showdown likely to include a vote on whether to give the president the authority to fast-track global trade agreements. Chris Campbell is the new staff director of the Senate Finance Committee. (Chet Susslin)As the committee's new majority staff director—responsible for coordinating the Republican agenda on tax, trade, and health policy—and the right-hand man to Chairman Orrin Hatch, Campbell will be in the thick of it.The biggest projects on Campbell's docket are tax reform and getting a mutual agreement between the parties on trade; specifically, he'd like to see a fast-tracked version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership passed. "We're becoming more anticompetitive as a country," he says. He believes TPP would help remedy that if passed. (It would also be the largest trade deal in history, involving some 40 percent of the world economy.) Campbell acknowledges the challenges to achieving that goal, including internal disputes across the aisle. "Trade is extremely difficult on the Democratic side," he says. "We recognize that."
But Campbell has never been one to let a little challenge get in his way. He grew up one of six kids, in a relatively poor family, in the small, rural town of Hemet, California—a background that has strongly influenced his worldview. "I have a lot of empathy, a lot of empathy," he tells me. "But I know, with a lot of hard work and education, you can get past the circumstances you were born into." Campbell graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a bachelor's degree in political science and, through a friend of a friend, landed a job as national field director on Hatch's 2000 presidential campaign. Hatch's bid was short-lived, and after it was over, Campbell helped get him reelected to the Senate. Campbell then took some time off to get an MBA and dabble briefly in business consulting before returning to work for Hatch in 2006, this time as his legislative director. In 2011, he became the Republican staff director for the Finance Committee's minority side; he assumed his current role when Hatch became the panel's chairman in January.
But it was that first job with Hatch's presidential campaign, he says, that opened doors to "so many things I never would have been able to see given my background." While he's eternally grateful to Hatch, he objects when I refer to the opportunity as a bit of good luck: "What may appear as luck is a product of hard work and planning," he says. "There is an element of blessing, but you still have to allow yourself to be ready for unique opportunities and challenges. You have a better chance of finding happiness when you're living right."
For Campbell, currently a resident of Arlington, Virginia, "living right" includes regular CrossFit workouts and a carefully monitored diet. (He confides he lost between 70 and 80 pounds on the workout in the years after college and has managed to keep the weight off for the better part of a decade.) It also includes practicing his faith—he and Hatch are both Mormons—and treating people with respect. "Your intern today could be your boss tomorrow," he says. "Even if the intern doesn't become your boss, you should treat them as your boss." Why? Because on the Hill, he says, reputation and relationships are everything.
It's not surprising, then, that even Democratic staffers have nice things to say about him. Sean Neary, who was communications director to the committee's previous chairman, then-Sen. Max Baucus, calls Campbell's team "some of the best in the business," adding that "while we were on opposite sides of the aisle, there was a lot of mutual respect."
The other thing that stands out about Campbell, even to those outside the fold, is the strength of his connection to Hatch. "He's someone who has the chairman's ear and who Chairman Hatch listens to for his counsel and advice," says Jon Selib, a former chief of staff to Baucus, who worked across the committee aisle from Campbell in drafting the health care reform law. "You know that when you're talking to Chris, you're hearing what you're likely to hear from the chairman, which is a very valuable thing as a negotiating counterpart, because you know whatever you negotiate, you're going to be able to take it to the bank."
And Hatch, it seems, can rely on Campbell. When I ask why he made the move from Hatch's legislative staff to Senate Finance, Campbell replies that it was a chance to help a greater number of people. Then he adds, "Also, Chairman Hatch asked me to do it, and I do everything he asks me to do."