Who Is Mike Donilon?
Political consultant and adviser Mike Donilon began working for Delaware Senator Joe Biden in 1981 and rose to prominence by contributing to the historic election of Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder in 1989. After helping Bill Clinton reach the White House in 1992, Donilon consulted on winning Senate campaigns for John Edwards and Bernie Sanders and aided presidential candidates in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Donilon rejoined Biden as chief strategist for the Democrat’s successful 2020 U.S. presidential campaign before becoming senior adviser to the president-elect.
Early Life and Education
Michael C. Donilon was born on December 25, 1958, and grew up in the Elmwood section of Providence, Rhode Island. His parents, Ed and Theresa, were both involved in local politics, the former serving as head of the Providence School Board.
Raised in a tight-knit Irish Catholic household, Donilon became an altar boy at St. Michael's Parish. He and his three siblings were also encouraged to develop their musical interests, with Mike learning to play guitar.
After matriculating at Providence's La Salle Academy, Donilon attended Georgetown University, where he roomed with fellow future political insider Mark Salter. Donilon later earned his J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1991.
Donilon has worked with Biden since 1981 when the Democratic politician was in his third term as a U.S. Senator from Delaware.
After serving as Biden's traveling adviser and assisting with debate preparation during the 2008 presidential campaign, Donilon was appointed counselor to Vice President Biden. A few years later, when much of the Democratic establishment was rallying behind the 2016 presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, Donilon created a 20-plus-page memo that outlined why his boss was a superior candidate before Biden decided not to run.
By the time Biden formally launched his 2020 campaign in April 2019, Donilon was by his side as chief strategist with oversight of television advertising, speechwriting, polling and research. Tasked with shaping the campaign's messaging, Donilon pushed a strategy which contrasted Biden's persona as an empathetic everyman with that of the combative president, Donald Trump, and framed the election as a fight for the soul of the nation.
After Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, were declared winners of the election by most major media outlets on November 7, 2020, Donilon was named senior adviser to the president on November 17.
Political Consultant and Campaigns
As of 2020, Donilon has been involved in the campaigns of every Democratic presidential nominee since Clinton in 1992 and contributed to the election of more than 25 U.S. senators and governors.
He first rose to prominence in his field as a pollster for Virginia's Douglas Wilder, who was elected the first African American governor in 1989 and assisted with Harris Wofford's come-from-behind Senate victory in Pennsylvania in 1991, before joining the Clinton war room.
After teaming with veteran political consultant Bob Shrum in the early 1990s, Donilon rejoined Shrum and Tad Devine later in the decade to focus on messaging for the successful Senate campaigns of North Carolina's Edwards, New Jersey's Jon Corzine and Wisconsin's Herb Kohl. The trio also consulted for the losing presidential campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, drawing criticism for the exorbitant fees charged for their work.
During these years, Shrum, Devine & Donilon displayed their international clout with contributions to the presidential elections of Colombia's Andrés Pastrana Arango in 1998, Peru's Alejandro Toledo in 2001 and Bolivia's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2002. They also branched out from the political arena to deliver ad spots for Pizza Hut and telecommunications company MCI.
After founding D&D Media with Devine in 2005, Donilon helped Corzine claim the New Jersey governor's mansion and delivered winning Senate efforts for Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse and Florida's Bill Nelson. The duo also created advertising for the independent expenditure campaigns for Senate hopefuls Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and continued their work abroad for the elections of President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine.
Between stints as an adviser to Vice President Biden, Donilon returned to campaigning as a member of President Obama's 2012 reelection team. The following year, he joined AKPD Message & Media as partner and head of the consulting firm's office in Washington, D.C.
Director and Professor
Prior to joining the 2020 campaign, Donilon was managing director of the Biden Institute, a research and policy center at the University of Delaware, and an assistant professor at UD.
The father of two children, Donilon retains close ties to his New England roots with a summer home in Narragansett, Rhode Island. He has also been a regular presence at Georgetown basketball games alongside his old college roommate, Salter.
Donilon's older brother, Tom, is a longtime political operative who joined Biden's 1988 presidential campaign and served as President Obama's national security adviser from 2010-13. Tom's wife, Cathy Russell, also worked for the '88 campaign and was second lady Jill Biden's chief of staff during the first term of the Obama administration.
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