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.