On a sunny october afternoon, David Simas ’95 is standing on the front lawn of the White House, peering straight into the TV camera, and telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that President Obama’s troubled healthcare.gov website was overwhelmed by an unexpected flood of 8.6 million users in its first three days. But “the good news,” Simas says, is that the site is rapidly improving every day.
On the CNN split screen, Tapper furrows his brow. “David, you are not still saying this is just a volume question, right?” He pushes Simas to acknowledge a huge mess of frozen computers, software glitches, design malfunctions, and failure to test properly. “You are not actually still saying it’s a question of volume?”
Above the TV caption identifying him as “White House Deputy Senior Advisor,” Simas, dark-haired, slender, and earnest, admits it has been “a bumpy three weeks.” But he calmly, earnestly assures Tapper and his millions of viewers that it very soon will be a “good consumer experience.”
Tapper cuts him short, frowning. “David, can you promise that the website will be fully functioning” by the deadlines set by the Affordable Care Act?
“So, Jake,” Simas replies, touting an 800 phone number and countless “assisters and navigators” who will help sign people up. “We’ll be ready.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Tapper insists, his voice rising, “Will the website be up and running?…Can you promise?… Yes or no? Can you promise?”
“So, Jake, yes…” Simas begins.
“Yes…” says Tapper.
“Yes, between the website and all the other ways people have to sign up…”
“But that really wasn’t the question,” Tapper snaps.
Simas, eyes fixed on the camera, remains unflappable, unrelentingly positive.
“Okay…,” Tapper finally says, quietly. As the four-minute segment ends, Tapper has a weary smile, knowing he has been outdueled. When this exchange gets posted on YouTube, its headline says, “Jake Tapper Fails to Get WH Adviser to Promise Obamacare Will Be Ready for Deadlines.”
Meet David Matos Simas, a forty-four-year-old first-generation Portuguese-American, the son of two immigrant factory workers who never made it past fourth grade, and now a rising star who has become the face of the Obama administration on several key issues. Simas, (pronounced SEE-mas) a native of Taunton, Massachusetts, and a 1995 graduate of Boston College Law School, has had a meteoric ascent from the Taunton school board through Massachusetts state government to become Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
Just weeks earlier, Simas had been giving PowerPoint presentations all over Capitol Hill, optimistically envisioning a healthcare site as easy to use as Travelocity. Now, he found himself the target of withering political and media attacks. It would have been easy to become defensive, combative, even angry toward his critics, but, according to his colleagues and friends, that is not who Simas is and that is not why he has rapidly ascended to an office in the West Wing, playing a crucial role in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections.
“I have the honor and privilege of walking through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every day,” Simas said in an interview at his comfortable White House office. He is thin, darkly intense, and looks tired, with bags under his eyes and a five o’clock shadow. He usually talks rapidly, but he never loses eye contact with his interviewer, nor does he ever lose his modesty. “I am still—every day—humbled by the opportunity that this kid from Taunton, Mass., who is the son of Antonio and Deolinda Simas has every day. The president demands this of us: ‘Are you doing something every day to help people?’ And so I am sitting here and just completely honored.”
Simas’ single-minded devotion to the Obama agenda, his tireless work habits (twelve-hour workdays, skipping lunch, fueled only by coffee and water), and his ability to articulate a message and fire up an audience have given him something of a celebrity status among Democratic Party insiders.
“He is just a really grounded guy who knows who he is, where he is, and where he is from,” Jim Messina, the 2012 Obama campaign manager, said in an interview. “It’s not about ego, it’s about helping people and doing a job, and it’s a reason why people love Simas.” If Simas were to ever run for higher office, as many have suggested, Messina said, “I would donate the maximum amount the next day, and if he asked me, I would work for his campaign.”
Simas’ rapid rise in Washington was officially validated on March 1, when the New York Times published a profile of him on the front page of the Sunday paper. The Times described him as becoming a key behind-the-scenes force at the White House thanks to his qualities of being “driven, data-obsessed, and a relentless salesman.” Simas, who is consistently described by friends and colleagues as naturally self-effacing, characteristically declined to be interviewed for the high-profile story in the Times. But a variety of prominent fans sung his praises for his uncanny political instincts and his natural, personal touch, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who appointed Simas as his deputy chief of staff in 2006. “There’s a big part of successful politicking and policy thinking which is about people feeling that you see them,” the governor said. “Not that you just see them as a data point, but you see them in human terms. David really gets that.”
“He is one of the very top people in the White House but he still maintains a real sense of humility and an openness to ideas,” James Kessler, vice-president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic research organization, said in an interview. “A lot of people come into a meeting and think they have all the answers, but he is not one of those guys. He has an amazing reputation.” Kessler said a top administration official recently told him “everyone loves Simas. In a world where everyone is seen to be part of a snake pit, he is not seen as a snake.”
“There’s a big part of successful politicking and policy thinking which is about people feeling that you see them. Not that you just see them as a data point, but you see them in human terms. David really gets that.”
—Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick
The political roots of David Simas trace back to the living room of the modest, white two-bedroom home of Antonio and Deolinda Simas in a working-class neighborhood of Taunton known as “Portuguese Village.” It was here, in a household where hardly any English was spoken until David started school, that his father instilled in him an avid interest in the human impact of political policies and decisions.
“I remember sitting in the living room and Dad would watch the news religiously every night, and read the Taunton Gazette, and we would have conversations about what we read and what was on TV,” Simas recalled in the interview. “Our discussions were always very tangible, never abstract. It was an important lesson—not ideological or theoretical, but ‘How does this help me, how does it hurt me’” and other people in the community?
“So, for me, politics was something that was very connected to the day-to-day lives of people around me.”
A formative event shook Simas at the age of four, when his mother, working in a silverware-making factory, lost two fingers when a malfunctioning iron press crushed her hand. Family lore recalls that day in September, 1974, when David had picked a bouquet of flowers for his mother’s return from work, only to throw them away and cry hysterically when he heard the news.
“It is one of my first memories. I remember how our entire extended Portuguese family rallied together,” Simas said. “This horrible thing happened, but yet all of a sudden this group of people, your family, just surrounded you and lifted everybody up. So I say this to my daughters frequently: At the end of the day, what you have is your family. Period. And for me that initial experience was pretty significant in terms of seeing how people can come together.” The Simas family remains very close-knit today, according to his only sibling, younger sister Melissa Simas Tyler, a television journalist who lives only a few miles from the family’s original home. “We believe that David is such a special person. He has been inspiring people for as long as I have known him,” Tyler said. “In our family, we want him to go further in his career.”
The other pivotal outcome of his mother’s injury was that it inspired his career choice. The Simas family, with few resources or language skills, was greatly assisted by a Portuguese lawyer “whose job was to fight for my mother,” he recalled. The young boy accompanied his parents to many of the lawyer visits over the five-year course of a lawsuit, and by the time it ended in a relatively modest settlement, the lawyer had become the youngster’s hero and a model for his future.
Young Simas blossomed into a politician and a star at Coyle and Cassidy High School, an academically and religiously demanding Catholic school whose motto is “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.” He was senior class president, a football running back, and captain of the baseball team. Soon after graduating Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and BC Law School, he launched a law practice and political career in his home town. Handling criminal cases, evictions, divorces, and other needs of his mostly Portuguese clientele, he also led a political demonstration of some 15,000 people, the largest in the town’s memory, to successfully demand that the local cable company carry the Portuguese-language channel for free.
His law school education at Boston College is central to everything that he has done since. “The ability to quickly dive into an issue, make sense of it, and then formulate it into a discussion either advocating or opposing a position…That is absolutely core,” Simas explained. He also said the Law School’s commitment to public service helped inspire his subsequent path. Simas’ success is no surprise to Associate Professor Francine Sherman, director of the BC Law’s Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, who taught him in first-year research and writing. “I have taught a lot of students, and he is definitely memorable,” she said, describing him as “a really smart guy, and very open and warm and connected to people.”
Simas’ political acumen led to a successful campaign at age twenty-three for the Taunton School Committee, during which he recruited his mother and much of his extended family to knock on thousands of doors. Then came the Taunton City Council, then election as county registrar, and then an unexpected invitation in 2005 to become Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial debate partner, playing the role of Democratic and Republican challengers. This led to a key role in Patrick’s administration, and thanks to the governor’s strong recommendation, to the White House. Simas worked for the president’s closest confidantes, including David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who became mentors and advocates, leading Simas to a central spot in the 2012 campaign.
Moving his wife and two daughters to Chicago, Simas coordinated the use of polling and focus groups to help constantly refine the message that would be delivered every day by nearly two million volunteers working in local communities in the Obama “ground game.”
“David oversaw more data and more information during the 2012 campaign than probably anybody else ever has,” said Dan Balz, chief political reporter of the Washington Post and author of a major book on the race. “He was overseeing a huge research operation that was looking at every piece of data they possibly could, and he was a central cog in that whole operation. He was the traffic cop.” Simas said he had never focused on data and polling until he saw its tremendous importance in telling the human stories crucial to the campaign.
He said the polling data taught him that the key national issues in 2012 were essentially the same as the local issues he encountered twenty years earlier in Taunton. “People did not want to talk to you about policy” but rather about what Simas calls “five pillars” of politics. “They wanted to talk about their work and having a job, about the schools and giving their kids a chance to do better than they did, about their home and having a safe neighborhood where their kids could go and play, and their health, so when I get sick, I want to be taken care of, and about their retirement.”
He also drew on his personal background to help hatch the highly damaging attack on Republican Mitt Romney for his previous role leading companies that outsourced thousands of American jobs. “My parents, my aunts, and uncles were factory workers and we had experienced the effects of outsourcing on people,” Simas said. Obama polling and focus groups surfaced those same anxieties. “You would hear a story in Ohio, you would hear it echoed in Iowa, and you would hear it the next night in Denver and southwestern Pennsylvania. And all of those discussions sounded just like what I had heard from the folks in Taunton, folks who worked in silver factories, curtain factories, shoe factories. So this was real, because this is what I had heard.”
In his high school yearbook, Simas wrote that his ambition was “to marry, grow old, have ten children, and die a happy man in the mountains of New Hampshire.” He laughs at the memory, and reflects on how fortunate he has been to marry his high school sweetheart, Shauna, and have two daughters, Payton, fifteen, and Rowan, eight. Simas said he felt a bit bad because he has moved his family five times since embarking on his political career, “but they have been wonderful. They have thrived and been wonderful.”
Messina, the 2012 campaign manager, said that Simas’ passion made him remarkably effective at firing up Obama campaigners, both internally and externally. That charisma was on vivid display when Simas bounced on stage to loud applause at the 2013 convention of “Generation Progress,” a political organization aimed at millenials. “You in this room will transform this country!” he shouted, striding back and forth, deploying the expressive voice, distinctive hand gestures, and soaring rhetoric of a veteran campaigner. Speaking for eleven minutes without notes, he challenged the twenty- and thirty-somethings to change the world “and make sure that we turn over a planet to our children and grandchildren that is worth turning over to them.” He waved his arms and strode off to hoots, hollers, and passionate applause.
Such performances are vintage Simas, according to Messina. “David would give these amazing presentations about where the American family was, who they were, and what their values and hopes and dreams were… and he would never forget why we were doing this.
“And invariably people would walk out of the room in tears because of the stories that David had told them. Or they’d be so jazzed that they would want to go out and knock on more doors. By the end of the campaign, David had kind of surpassed Ax [David Axelrod] as our best speaker.” Messina concluded, “America needs more David Simases.”
Peter Perl, a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked for the Washington Post for thirty-two years berfore retiring in 2013.