After Ushering the Trump Circus Into The White House, Brad Parscale Is Turning His Megaphone on San Antonio

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DAVID FITZGERALD
  • David Fitzgerald
Less than a week after helping win the 2016 presidential election, Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale showed up at the launch for then-mayor Ivy Taylor’s re-election bid.

Amid the crowd gathered outside CAST Tech High School, the 6-foot-8, billy goat-bearded Parscale was hard to miss. Television cameras shifted away from the stage for shots of him towering above the crowd. After Taylor’s speech, he held court with reporters, hinting that he planned to sprinkle his digital fairy dust on her campaign.

In truth, Parscale built Taylor’s re-election website, but the campaign recognized the image problem of working with someone so close to the polarizing Trump. They turned down Parscale’s offers to fundraise and help turbocharge Taylor’s online presence. Their reticence only increased when, on his own, he snatched up domain names potentially associated with opponent Ron Nirenberg and pointed them to her campaign website.

“On the team there was this sense that [Parscale] just loved the attention,” said a source familiar with Taylor’s campaign. “How do you in bring somebody that wants to be onstage the same way the candidate is?”

[Full disclosure: Current Editor-in-Chief Greg Jefferson worked for Taylor’s re-election campaign as communications director.]

Since the presidential election, the San Antonio-rooted Parscale has stepped out of the shadows and into spotlight, emerging as a Trump surrogate eager to ape his boss’ bareknuckle, headline-grabbing style. Last month, it was that same Brash New Brad who trolled Nirenberg and other local officials for not aggressively chasing the 2020 Republican National Convention, bestowing them with Trumpian nicknames like “Weak-Kneed Ron” and “Phony Tommy Calvert.”

It’s a sharp contrast to the behind-the-scenes work Parscale, 42, did during the campaign, using social media and online data to target messages to voters at almost an individual level. And it’s no surprise to political observers that his sharp shift in tone coincides with his February promotion to Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.

“Right now, Brad is creating his own brand within the Trump circus,” campaign consultant Laura Barberena said. “Now that he’s in this new role, he has to. He’s the ringmaster. He’s going be out there on Fox. He’s going to be out there on MSNBC.”

What’s also clear is that Parscale is interested in using a portion of his newly acquired political capital in San Antonio, where he’s spent roughly half his life — and which he’s frequently criticized for not being friendly enough to business interests. What remains to be seen is whether the Alamo City, not exactly a Trump stronghold, is willing to put up with his bluster.

Parscale, who frequently voices his disdain for the press, did not consent to be interviewed for this profile. (“#1 lesson I’ve learned,” he tweeted last May. “The media is the enemy of this country.”) However, he did provide a five-paragraph, on-the-record statement in response to interview questions emailed by the Current.

“I will not sit idly by when I observe politically-motivated decisions by the City Council to pass up economic development opportunities such as competing to host the Republican National Convention,” Parscale said.

Project Alamo

As recently as last week, Parscale was still stoking the fires about the 2020 convention, which council decided to take a pass on during a closed-door session. “The snowball has started for weak-kneed @Ron_Nirenberg and @COSAGOV city council,” he tweeted. “Businesses and citizens who care about their economic future have seen your true colors.”

He’s also used Twitter to complain about San Antonio’s airport and told the Express-News last summer that its lack of direct flights was the reason he’d moved his political consulting business to Fort Lauderdale. (Never mind that the new location puts him a two-hour drive away from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club.)

But he hasn’t just complained about San Antonio. He’s been happy to collect local accolades when they come. Parscale attended a gala thrown by the San Antonio Business Journal to collect his prize when the 7,000-circulation business paper named him 2016 Businessperson of the Year.

“His success was born in San Antonio,” said Matt Egan, head of search-engine optimization firm Image Freedom, who knows Parscale from San Antonio’s tech circles. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s still interested in the city. It’s what he knows.”

Despite the controversial nature of his work for Trump, Parscale sees it as a contribution to the city’s economic wellbeing.

“Throughout my years in San Antonio, I have employed hundreds of people,” Parscale said. “Many of them have struggled because of the lack of economic opportunities in our city. As a business owner and entrepreneur, I have been disappointed in the poor support of the business community from our public officials.”

To be sure, Parscale’s billings for the Trump campaign alone are impressive.
DAVID FITZGERALD
  • David Fitzgerald
During 2016, Trump-aligned political action committees, or PACs, paid about $94 million to Giles-Parscale, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, although Parscale has frequently said his firm used the majority to place ad buys.

Indeed, Parscale located the nerve center to Trump’s digital operation here, in a cookie-cutter office building on Loop 410. In addition to 100 staffers, interns and volunteers, the group hosted workers or assets from the companies whose tools they used — Facebook, Google and Cambridge Analytica, the conservative data analytics company that improperly collected info on more than 50 million Facebook users.

“[The San Antonio center] was called Project Alamo based on the data, actually,” Parscale’s digital content director, Theresa Hong, said while providing a video tour of the space to the BBC. “That was Cambridge Analytica. They came up with the Alamo Data set, right, so we just kind of adopted the name Project Alamo.”

In his written statement, Parscale denied the location was ever called Project Alamo, but in other interviews, he acknowledged bringing some of the smartest and most powerful analytical minds to town to pull the levers.

“I was the megaphone,” Parscale told conservative radio host Joe Pagliarulo during one of his post-election victory laps. “And what I needed to do was to find smart people, and those came from, again, the Republican Party, the RNC, or from other companies that were subcontractors and my own company and say, ‘How do we find these people, individual voters, and find the exact right ones?’… I didn’t need a gut, because I had the data.”

The difference this go-round is that Parscale — one of the few people allowed to tweet on Trump’s behalf during the campaign — isn’t just the megaphone. He’s one of the people screaming into it.

Taking it apart

Parscale grew up in Topeka, Kans., a city of around 125,000 that makes San Antonio look cosmo by comparison. His unusual height destined him for the basketball court, but his sharp mind drew him to geekier concerns, said his father Dwight Parscale, a politically conservative lawyer and businessman who relocated NewTek, a software company he headed in the ’90s, to San Antonio while his son was playing hoops here.

The younger Parscale caught the tech bug during an elementary school computer camp, and Dad made sure to keep him in the best gear available. Once, after a $5,000 Gateway machine was delivered to the house, Parscale’s mother came home to find the teen dismantling it.

“He said, ‘Mom, if I’m going to use this, I’ve got to take it apart to see how it works,’” Dwight Parscale said.

In 1994, Parscale landed in San Antonio to play basketball at UTSA. He transferred to Trinity University for his sophomore year after a knee injury cost him his sports scholarship. For what it’s worth, both he and Nirenberg graduated from Trinity the same year, although Nirenberg, through a spokesman, said the two had “no contact whatsoever.”

After graduation, Parscale made an ill-timed move to California to chase dot-com dreams with his dad. But, by 2003, the tech bubble burst and he came back to the Alamo City, where his wife had family. He launched a Web-design business, approaching people in the computer section at Barnes & Noble to see if they needed a Web guru to go with their copy of Java for Dummies, according to several published reports.

Eventually, business grew enough that he’d been paired on contracts with Jill Giles’ respected design firm. He’d work on the nuts-and-bolts part of sites while Giles was hired to make them look good. After that happened enough times, the two decided over lunch at Il Sogno to partner as Giles-Parscale.

Giles — who’s since made moves to put herself at arm’s length from Parscale (more on that later) — saw the partnership as a means to survive the digital wave that was drowning other traditional design firms. Parscale struck her as an apolitical techie who spent 99 percent of his time with his hands on a computer keyboard.

“I never even got the sense that he’d voted before,” said Giles, a Planned Parenthood supporter who donated to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “He had three computers in his office and could talk to somebody while working on all three at once. You’ve never met anybody like Brad. He’s a fascinating character, but I’m glad I have my distance now.”

Around that time, Parscale also appeared on the edges of S.A.’s burgeoning tech scene, showing up at mixers, doing web-design presentations and becoming one of the 70 founding members of the Tech Bloc industry group. The latter membership gave him his first taste of politics as he lobbied to change the regulations that prevented rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft from operating in the city.

Parscale’s knack for negotiating on the rideshare issue impressed Tom Cuthbert, a business coach whose tech company Adometry was acquired by Google. Cuthbert recalled watching Parscale work at the bargaining table with disparate stakeholders, from cabbies and cops to millennial early-adopters. The experience likely came in handy as he mediated between the Trump and Republican National Committee staffers who worked side-by-side on the digital campaign.

“Rideshare wouldn’t have happened in San Antonio if it hadn’t been for Brad,” Cuthbert said. “He’s a really smart guy, an excellent negotiator and an excellent communicator.”
Longtime San Antonio lobbyist Frank Burney pointed to Parscale’s use of Twitter to help draw 1,400 people to a pro-rideshare rally at the Pearl as evidence of his early understanding of the medium.

“Even then, [Parscale] understood the grassroots power of social media,” Burney said. “The work he and those others did got city council to understand the influence millennials had in the city.”

But not all of the tech community’s reviews are favorable. Most of the industry insiders interviewed for this article remember Parscale as smart and deeply knowledgeable, but several they were put off by an assertive style they say bordered on arrogance.

“He seemed like the kind of guy who would suck the oxygen out of the room,” Geekdom co-founder Nick Longo said. “It’s all about what he thinks.”

What’s more, Longo said he’s bothered by Parscale’s more recent claims that his work is about bringing economic vitality to the city. The digital marketer had ample chances to help on issues other than ridesharing, but he was largely absent from the volunteer work that marked the scene’s early days.

“Everybody knows that when Brad was in San Antonio he had no footprint,” Longo said. “He wasn’t there founding Geekdom with us. He wasn’t going to the meetups. He wasn’t around helping other people with startups. If you’re the one who’s all about S.A. now, where were you, bro?”
DAVID FITZGERALD
  • David Fitzgerald
Loyalty test

Lobbying for Uber may have awakened Parscale’s political side, but it was an out-of-the-blue call that pulled him into Trump’s orbit.

In 2010, shortly before he’d thrown in with Giles, he got an invitation to bid on the website for Trump International Realty. His $10,000 quote won him the work, and the sites for the Eric Trump Foundation and Trump Winery followed. The family was happy with the work, so when Big Daddy launched a presidential exploratory committee, Parscale got the call and slapped together a site for $1,500.

Once the campaign caught fire, Trump did as he has done so often, relying on loyal insiders instead of political veterans. Parscale found himself being tossed more and more responsibility.

To be sure, Parscale’s public face is that of an absolute loyalist — and one who appears to understand the president’s need for constant validation. In interviews, he refers to the president as “Mr. Trump.” His tweets include a litany of praise for the prez, his family members and advisors, referring to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner as “a genius” and “the nicest guy ever,” and saying he has “never met a more honest and intelligent man” than Treasury Sect. Steve Mnuchin.

In media interviews, Parscale has also made efforts to ensure Trump — famously quick to turn on those who upstage him — knows that he’s still the man in charge.

“Maybe my job made 0.1% of difference, but Donald Trump did 99.9% of the work, and anyone who tells you different doesn’t know Donald Trump,” Parscale said in a statement he supplied for a Buzzfeed profile.

Parscale’s father took the relationship a step farther: “Brad’s part of that family. He knows that family very well, almost like he’s an adopted son.”

Blowback

San Antonio is normally eager to celebrate native sons and daughters who do well. But there’s a question just how eager largely blue, largely Hispanic San Antonio is for the kind of “help” Parscale is eager to dole out. With a disapproval rating hovering between 55 and 60 percent in Gallup polls, the president he helped elect remains a toxic figure to many, especially after his numerous rhetorical cheap shots at immigrants and Hispanics.

Former Parscale partner Giles, who likely saw financial gains from the influx of the Trump work, sold her firm last summer to California-based digital marketer Cloud Commerce Inc. to extricate herself from Parscale’s political efforts. The connection cost her at least one significant client and led to people “slagging her off” in the tight-knit art and design community.

While she and Parscale both serve on Cloud Commerce’s board of directors, he’s no longer involved in her new company Giles Design Bureau, and Parscale’s political consultancy is not connected to Cloud Commerce. She hasn’t spoken to her former partner in months, she added.

“I didn’t want blowback from the companies we worked with,” Giles said. “(Parscale) is a very volatile name right now.”

But the damage may already be done. One longtime Giles friend and occasional business collaborator said he’s still waiting to hear her apologize for the company’s involvement in promoting Trump.
“I’d still like to know if [the separation] is about the bottom line and salvaging her business contacts, or whether this is an ethical dilemma about the real people their work affected,” said the friend, who asked not to be named.

Even Parscale’s alma mater found out how radioactive his name can be.

Trinity — which Parscale once blasted on Twitter for being “too PC or liberal” to invite him to speak — last month posted a video of the digital maven on its Facebook page talking up the benefits of his liberal arts education.

Nearly 300 comments followed, many scathing, some threatening to withhold donations. By comparison, most other recent alumni profile videos rated comments in the single digits, usually of the “congratulations, job well done” variety.

Trinity staff anticipated controversy over the post, said Tess Coody-Anders, vice president for strategic communications and marketing. But the alumni and donor anger reached an unusually high level.

“People reached out to (Trinity President) Danny Anderson directly, and he had a lot of one-on-one communication,” she said.

Not to mention, Parscale’s recent Twitter lashing of “Weak-Kneed Ron” didn’t exactly make fans of the mayor or city council that held the ultimate decision-making power whether to bid on the convention. Parscale could have turned to more conventional, less public, ways to make his case, political observers point out.

But Dwight Parscale said that criticism misses the point.

“It wasn’t a matter of making the case,” he said. “It was a matter of letting the people of San Antonio and the business community know what was going on in secret.”

To the elder Parscale’s point, controversy can be an effective political tool. And there seems little doubt Parscale will court it again as the 2020 campaign kicks into high gear.
DAVID FITZGERALD
  • David Fitzgerald
Repeating the miracle

In the meantime, the former San Antonian is on the hook to deliver big for Team Trump. It appears he’s got an early start moving beyond his role as a background player.

Early last year, he and other top Trump campaign aides minted America First Policies, a “dark money” Super PAC delivering on Trump’s agenda, according to the Associated Press. The group has already spent $2 million in 2018 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect dollar figure for PAC spending.)

One of Parscale’s partners in America First — at least at its formation — was Rick Gates, the one-time deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, both of whom were swept up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s net. Gates pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and lying, and Manafort stands accused of bank fraud and other crimes.

For his part, Parscale has denied having any involvement with Russia, dismissing such charges as a “joke” in a 60 Minutes interview. Democratic lawmakers, not so eager to take him at his word, have accused him of stonewalling during his July testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

Regardless of how those investigations play out, there’s still the question whether Parscale can replicate his 2016 miracle — especially now that the Democrats are busy deconstructing his playbook. Political campaigns integrate and build on previous winning strategies, so using Facebook and digital analytics the same way won’t work for 2020.

The Dems have access to plenty of smart folks in Silicon Valley, who often ally themselves with progressive agendas, said Mike Cohen, director of the political management program at George Washington University. But it’s not wise to underestimate Parscale, he added.

“We won’t know what will win the next campaign until it’s all over,” Cohen said. “Most often, it’s something the other side didn’t anticipate.”

But looking at Parscale’s recent track record, it’s not a sure bet he’ll be able to one-up the innovative work he did for Trump.

His efforts on Taylor’s behalf, small though they were, certainly didn’t enable her stay at City Hall. And after publicly throwing his support to former Bexar County Republican Chairman Robert Stovall’s campaign to represent the 21st Congressional District, Stovall secured sixth place with an anemic 5 percent of the vote in the GOP primary.

But regardless of how the big game plays out in 2020, Parscale shows no sign of stepping away from his newfound role of showman. And as long as he has a megaphone in hand, he’ll almost certainly continue to point it in San Antonio’s direction.

“I continue to keep a home in San Antonio, especially since my family and my wife’s family call it home,” Parscale said in his statement. “Since San Antonio will always be in my future, I will continue to advocate for increased wages and economic opportunity for all of its citizens.”

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