One of the most influential Maine political figures you’ve likely never heard of soon will tie the knot with the woman who will soon be the most powerful politician in the state.
Sometime next month, somewhere in Maine, Thomas Daffron, 73, will wed three-term Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins, whom he hired as a 21-year old intern in former Sen. Bill Cohen’s congressional office in 1974.
In years between, Daffron first acted as a mentor, giving the ambitious and capable young staffer opportunities to use and hone her talents and to learn the often arcane inner workings of Senate. He advised her as she entered electoral politics in her early forties, won their old boss’s seat in Washington in 1996, and quickly rose to be one of the most influential members of a closely divided Senate.
Their personal union crowns a longstanding professional relationship spanning nearly four decades. It will be her first marriage, his second.
“Somebody once said that the best person to marry is your best friend,” says Daffron. “This evolved from a working relationship to a friendship when I was working on her campaigns and now to husband and wife.”
“I’ve known her for a long time, which I think will be beneficial to us in the long run because there will be few surprises, as we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” he adds.
Among insiders, Daffron is a powerful behind-the-scenes force in Maine politics, a man whose political advice is greatly valued and keenly sought after, and who mentored many of the state’s political movers and shakers. Though he was Sen. Cohen’s right-hand man for nearly two decades — and a consultant for Maine congressional candidates for twice as long — Daffron has remained out of the public eye.
“Tom is well known in political circles, but isn’t a household name,” says Ted O’Meara, a former Cohen staffer and state Republican Party chair who is among those who counts Daffron as a mentor. “He’s one of those people who is in the background, but if anyone on the Republican side is thinking of running for office, Tom is on the list to talk to, both for his insight and wisdom and humor.”
“I’ve always said I wish he was on our team because he is a very thoughtful, deliberative strategist from the old school,” says senate minority leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, a past chair of the state Democratic party. “He has influence in Maine’s politics, but he doesn’t leave fingerprints.”
Sen. Cohen puts it this way: “Tom shuns the limelight as avidly as many in this business seek it out.”
Family of journalists
Daffron was born and raised in New York to a family of journalists, rather than politicos. His father was an editor at The New York Times.
One uncle worked in newspapers, another in magazines. Daffron enrolled at Columbia Journalism School and went on to report for the Miami Herald and write editorials for the Wilmington News-Journal.
“I think I had some interest in politics, but it wasn’t that strong until I started writing editorials,” he says. “The whole process was intriguing to me, not only of how people got elected, but how Congress functions.”
In 1969, he won a prestigious American Political Science Association fellowship, which placed young journalists and academics on short-term assignments on Capitol Hill. He served with both a liberal Democrat, Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, and a moderate Republican, Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois.
“What I saw with Tom from the beginning was that he was absolutely dedicated to public service and was a terrifically nice guy who exuded confidence,” says fellowship classmate Norman Ornstein, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
At the end of the eight-month stint, Percy offered him a job. “I had three small children at the time and it was for (what seemed) an outlandish sum of money at the time,” Daffron told an interviewer for Bowdoin College’s George J. Mitchell Oral History Project. (He had married his college sweetheart, Margot Cory, in 1962; they are now divorced.) “You can imagine how much they paid me writing editorials if a government job seemed like an economic bonanza.”
Worked for Cohen
In 1973, Daffron accepted a job with Cohen, a newly elected, little-known 32-year old congressman from Maine. He would remain with him, off and on, for nearly two decades.
As chief of staff, 34-year old Daffron was the young congressman’s office manager, hiring recruiter and closest adviser. And he and the young staffers he hired were promptly swept into the national spotlight as Cohen emerged as a pivotal figure in the Watergate hearings.
“There are a lot of people in politics who don’t want people around who are too smart. Bill always wanted me to find the best, smartest people I could because he was personally secure and wasn’t concerned he’d be outshone,” Daffron says.
Many of Daffron’s hires were young, inexperienced and remarkably talented. Dick Fallon was a 22-year Yale senior looking for a job after graduation. Instead, Daffron convinced him to take a full-time job as Cohen’s press secretary starting immediately. He took a leave of absence and moved to D.C.
“The whole thing was typical for Tom in so many ways,” says Fallon, now a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University. “No congressman on the House Judiciary Committee doing the (Nixon) impeachment investigation wants to have a 22-year old press secretary with no experience!”
Cohen’s office was cramped, with desks squeezed tightly together. Fallon was soon joined by Bob Tyrer, a volunteer who had yet to attend college, but had been captivated by a speech Cohen had given. “Tom has a willingness to let young people try to prove themselves in a situation where it would be a bit of a coin flip as to whether you should try it or not,” says Tyrer, who has stayed with Cohen ever since, following him to the Senate, Defense Department and The Cohen Group, which advises corporate clients in overseas ventures.
Collins arrives on scene
Susan Collins arrived after graduating from St. Lawrence College that spring, just a few months after Daffron discovered her internship application in a pile forgotten in a desk drawer. Both of her parents had supported Cohen and were mayors of Caribou, which her father represented in the state Legislature.
Collins survived for 10 weeks on her $500 stipend, living in a dormitory and subsisting on sandwiches. At the end of the internship, Daffron hired her as a junior legislative aid. By age 26 she was minority staff director of the oversight committee on governmental affairs, a committee she would one day chair as senator.
“She had a really uncanny work ethic as well as a relentlessness about her in terms of getting to the correct answer or the nth degree of over-preparation for a particular meeting,” Tyrer recalls. “It was remarkable from what one would expect from someone so young.”
“She seemed to me as nice a person as I’d ever met,” says Fallon. “She was totally unprepossessing and at the time I never would have predicted for her what she has achieved. Hindsight being 20/20 I can now see the roots: she’s warm, considerate, decent, and is never bullied into coming to a conclusion before she reaches it.”
Daffron was a mentor to them all, having Friday beers with Fallon (who counts him as his “first friend who was a grown-up”), reassigning Tyrer to the Bangor field office with the strong suggestion he enroll at the nearby University of Maine, and giving Collins ever greater responsibilities.
Later staffers would include future Bangor mayor Tim Woodcock and his wife, Susan, now a member of Sen. Collins staff; recent U.S. Senate candidate Rick Bennett, a former Republican national committeeman; O’Meara (Snowe’s onetime chief of staff) and future U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire.
“Every one of us who worked for Tom felt he was interested in us, that he was fond of us, that he valued us as people and wanted the very best for us,” says Woodcock, who joined the office in 1979, right after Cohen was elected to the Senate. “He instilled in us all the same kind of work ethic that he and Bill had.”
The office was also pointedly un-ideological, with nobody ever quizzed on their politics. “There was no litmus test of any kind,” Tyrer recalls. “We would learn over the years that so-and-so was a liberal Democrat or that someone else was a more conservative Republican than we thought. In our office, their ideology just wasn’t that important.”
Daffron describes himself as a moderate Republican, a social moderate and economic and foreign policy conservative. “There aren’t any more Rockefeller Republicans, but if there were, I would be one of them,” he says. “I’m where Percy was, where Cohen was, where Susan was and is.”
Collins was among those who benefited from his mentoring. After 12 years in Cohen’s office, she joined Gov. John McKernan’s cabinet. In 1994 — with Daffron as a consultant — she won the GOP nomination for governor, but lost the general election to Angus King. When Cohen stepped down from the Senate in 1996 to serve as Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary, Collins ran and won his seat, and has said that Daffron “was the driving force behind my campaign.”
Just days into her tenure, she became the first freshman senator in history to secure the chair of the powerful subcommittee on investigations. One of her aides told the Bangor Daily News that this coup should be credited to her intimate knowledge of Senate procedures, and to the fact that Daffron was then chief of staff to Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, who chaired the overall committee to which investigations reported.
Daffron has also run Collins’ political action committee, Dirigo PAC, since it was created in 2003, but is now stepping down. Daffron had left Cohen’s office twice by the time Collins was elected: once briefly to work for International Paper in Augusta in 1988, and again in 1990 to become senior vice president of the Baltimore Orioles, a job that tapped on his other obsession, baseball. He stayed until 1993, when his boss, Eli Jacobs, sold the team.
“He moved seamlessly from being a major figure in the Senate to running a baseball team, and he really ran that team,” says Ornstein, who was friends with Jacobs. “When Eli sold the team, they cleaned out everyone including the secretaries, and Tom went back to the Hill … It took the Orioles 20 years to come back from the changes” the new owners imposed.
After four years with Sen. Thompson, Daffron was hired as the manager of Elizabeth Dole’s 1999 presidential campaign.
Since then, Daffron has been a senior executive at two D.C-area political consultancies with lobbying arms. He was executive vice president of Chesapeake Enterprises from 2001 to 2004, and registered as a lobbyist for Monster.com and other companies. He also worked with American Defense International, where he represented several companies seeking Pentagon and Homeland Security contracts. At Jefferson Consulting Group, where he is now chief operating officer, he registered in 2006 as a lobbyist for Unisys and in 2007 for database giant LexisNexis.
Some of these firms were lobbying on Pentagon appropriations bills for contracting issues with Homeland Security. Collins is ranking member of the homeland security committee and serves on the Senate’s armed services and appropriations committees.
Daffron says that while he has registered as a lobbyist in the past, in reality he has done very little lobbying and none of it before his fiancee.
“As a practical matter, I run the shop, and what I do here isn’t that much different than what I did on the Hill,” he says. “I hire and fire people. I look at budgets. I try to make sure they show up on time. I advise people. I can’t think of five meetings I’ve had on Capitol Hill.”
“We do very little lobbying at Jefferson as a general rule, and I don’t do any and haven’t for at least five years,” he adds. “I’ve never lobbied Susan and would not because I think it would be inappropriate.”
The couple has been guarded about exactly when and where their wedding will take place, saying only it would be in Maine during August when Congress is in recess. They already own property together, a four-bedroom rowhouse on Capitol Hill purchased Jan. 3.
“They deserve great happiness and are wonderfully matched,” Cohen says of the betrothed. “They bring out the best in each other.”