From Brighton High to the heights of U.S. politics

Print More

In a meeting room next to his office at the Blackstone Group on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., Rochester native Wayne Berman and I sat down to talk. On the coffee table between us were glasses of water. Under each glass were coasters that bore—I couldn’t help but notice—the signatures of Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.

“How does that happen?” I ask, pointing to the coasters.

“Oh, I went to a small dinner party and that was the little gift they give you at the end,” he says.

“We’re a long way from the Brighton High School cafeteria,” I say.

“We are,” he agrees. “And the food’s better.”

Berman and I both went to Brighton High, but since we’re four years apart we didn’t know each other. I wanted to learn about him, though; of all the Rochester natives now living in D.C., he’s had one of the most successful careers, both as a lobbyist and political operative.

In our recent conversation, Berman shared his predictions for the 2020 presidential election, his thoughts on Rochester’s economy, and his favorite hometown restaurants—one of which he says is as good as any in D.C. But first some background on Berman and a remarkable career. 

Significant roles

Wayne Berman

Berman today is senior managing director of the Blackstone Group, a multinational private equity and financial services firm based in New York City. As head of global government affairs, he manages political and legislative risk for the firm and its portfolio of companies, including Kodak (it owns nearly 21 percent of common shares) , ServPro, Service King, EQ Office, and many, many others. 

But Berman also has worked at the highest levels of national Republican politics including nine presidential campaigns. He was chairman of the Rubio for President campaign (2016), senior adviser to Romney for President (2012), national finance chairman for McCain for President (2008), and vice presidential campaign director for Dole-Kemp (1996). He also held senior positions in the Bush-Quayle campaign (1988), the Reagan-Bush transition team (1981), and the Reagan-Bush campaign (1980).

Berman’s one stint in government service was as assistant secretary of commerce, appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

If the rewards for his political work have been largely in terms of influence and familiarity with power, the rewards for his lobbying and work in finance also have been substantial. He and his wife, Lea—who served as White House social secretary during the George W. Bush administration—live in Kalorama, one of Washington’s most elegant neighborhoods. Kalorama is where the Obamas moved after the White House.

In 2016, the Bermans sold their five-bedroom, 13,000-square-foot Kalorama home—two houses from Bill and Hillary Clinton—for $10.4 million. The buyer was a “minister within the Saudi government,” reported the Washington Post.

Living history

The Bermans’ current home in Kalorama is historically significant; in fact, it’s the oldest house in Washington, D.C. 

“It was originally built in Massachusetts in 1754,” Berman told me, “and in 1934 a very wealthy Virginia family bought it, had it dismantled, and shipped it down to Washington on rail cars.”

“The Lindens,” Wayne and Lea Berman’s historic home in Washington, D.C..

The six-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot house, known as “The Lindens” for the trees that surrounded the original location, was recently the focus of an article in Architectural Digest. “(E)ven among the rarefied real estate here,” noted the magazine, “there is one house that has no equal.” The Bermans’ reported purchase price: $7.1 million.

Lea Berman

Wayne and Lea Berman have two adult daughters: Alice Berman, a fiction author whose newest audio book, “I Eat Men Like Air,” was published in September; and Elizabeth “Liddy” Berman, an art market analyst, curator, and collections adviser.

Given his busy work and family demands—and that he rarely gives interviews at all but instead prefers to work behind the scenes—I appreciated Berman’s willingness to sit for a wide-ranging interview with the Beacon. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Tell me about growing up in Rochester.

WAYNE BERMAN: I loved Brighton and enjoyed my growing-up years. We lived at the Clintwood Apartments off Elmwood Avenue. We had a basketball court, a swimming pool; I could never have enjoyed those amenities other than that we were apartment dwellers. I was a B student—not a spectacular academic record. And I didn’t play sports. I was one of the least athletically capable people in school. But I had a very tight-knit group of friends. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: What would somebody have had to know about Wayne Berman in high school to have forecast your political and financial success? Was there something that wasn’t evident to others but that you felt inside?

Brighton High School class of 1974

BERMAN: Well, it wouldn’t have been evident that I felt pretty comfortable just being in the world that I was in. I always felt comfortable in any situation and with any group of people—and a lot of that came from watching my Dad. He enjoyed people and was pretty comfortable. He sold cars at Bonenblust & Buckman, an Oldsmobile dealer.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You went to the University of Buffalo and years later worked for former Buffalo congressman Jack Kemp’s vice presidential campaign. Did you connect with Kemp in Buffalo and is that how you got started in politics?

BERMAN: It isn’t. It was a good guess, though, and it’s what most people believe. I started in politics because the summer I got out of college I didn’t know what to do; I was directionless. I’d majored in history and thought of graduate school but was tired of sitting in classes. I liked to work, though—had no allergy to work—and my dad knew Vincent James “Jigsy” Chivaroli, the Republican elections commissioner for Monroe County and Jigsy hired me as his assistant.  

It was Jigsy who got me excited about politics. He took me to the county meetings; it was fantastic. These people were really doing stuff, were in a competitive environment. Later, I did go to graduate school at Georgetown and got a job working at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. There I met David Abshire, founder and head of CSIS, and he introduced me to three men: Hank Greenberg, then head of (insurance company) AIG; Robert Mosbacher, a very successful oilman—a magnificent man—who became secretary of commerce under Bush 41, and Bill Timmons, who invented modern lobbying. The three mentored me and helped my career along; Hank and Bill still do.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Since your early work with Jack Kemp’s vice presidential campaign, you’ve worked on major national campaigns, including chairing Sen. Rubio’s presidential campaign.

BERMAN: I really enjoyed the campaigns. Government work—I’m not perfectly cut out for. Campaign work is urgent, immediate, and measurable. Government work is deliberative, detail-oriented, and requires patience and a very long-term outlook. My personality and skills were always more suited to the campaign side.

ROCHESTER BEACON: I’ve read you’ve been short-listed for current White House chief of staff?

BERMAN: That was a while back. I’ve been around so long, I get mentioned a lot. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve been in the Oval Office?

BERMAN: Many times. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: How’d that come about, and what was it like?

BERMAN: Let’s see, the first time was with President Bush 41. I’d been assistant secretary for commerce for six or seven weeks and I was managing an issue that was being briefed to the president, so I went to the Oval Office. It takes you back for a second—you just realize where you are. One of the things Bush 43 used to say, “The Oval Office is the greatest home-field advantage in the world.” You do get a sense of awe.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Over the years, you’ve been at the top level of Republican politics nationally, but you’ve kept a very low public profile. Why?

BERMAN: Three reasons. First, I have a face for radio—I’m not a natural communicator on television and for national politics today you have to be comfortable in that medium and I’m just not. Second, while doing all this I’ve worked as a lobbyist and being in the lobbying business is inconsistent with being a public personality: you’re a paid advocate and it’s just more appropriate to work on jobs that aren’t public facing. And third, my experiences dealing with the press behind the scenes have been very positive because I’ve never been a talking head or public personality—I haven’t even been quoted on the record very often.

Talking about Rochester

ROCHESTER BEACON: Well, then I especially appreciate your talking with the Beacon.

BERMAN: You’re talking about Rochester—one of my favorite topics!

Look, speaking of Rochester, one thing I’ve seen in politics, which I think gets lost in the haze of our current politics—whether it’s in Rochester or anywhere else—is that it seems always to be about disputes, but my experience starting with Jigsy Chivaroli in 1978 is that most of the people in politics are there because they want to accomplish something and they’re trying to contribute to the public good. They may have different views about what is the public good and how to get there, but most people are there for the right reasons, not for corrupt reasons or self-aggrandizement. 

I particularly find that to be true of people I worked with in Upstate New York. I think of Bill Paxon, longtime congressman, and Tom Reynolds, who succeeded him, and now Tom Reed, one of the finest people I know. Most people I’ve encountered from the Rochester area are not cynics; they’re hardworking and they want to contribute.

ROCHESTER BEACON: The city of Rochester’s been under Democrat leadership for a long time now. Would a Republican city administration offer Rochester anything it hasn’t been getting?

BERMAN: I think Republicans could provide struggling medium- to small-size cities like Rochester a new framework for economic development, one that is more focused on getting people to work and less focused on providing government services paid for by taxpayers. 

Rochester’s a fantastic place to live, a great place to raise a family, has great schools, and it could be a terrific incubator, but I see lots of people who worked at Kodak and Xerox—engineers and others—started small businesses in the suburbs rather than in the city because that’s where they like to live and as a result, while the surrounding area is doing well, the city continues to struggle. 

My party, which I’m committed and devoted to, has a challenge: We have to find a way to appeal to voters who live in the city, have a difficult environment in terms of crime, of schools, of raising a family, and have few job prospects. You don’t get people to vote for you because they come to the conclusion on their own that your ideology is good for them. You’ve got to sell it to them and the Republican party is looking hard at these issues. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: Are you part of that conversation within the party nationally?

BERMAN: I would say—there’s an inner circle made up of some of the elected officials and others in the current administration. I’m probably in the next circle of influence. Over the years I was more involved in these kinds of discussions about where the party was going, but I joined Blackstone in 2012 and my team is now the Blackstone team. My job is to be an advocate for Blackstone and not so much party politics.

Election predictions

ROCHESTER BEACON: Does the president win re-election in 2020?

BERMAN: Even with the impeachment inquiry now in the headlines, I think he’s very likely to get re-elected. It’s still about the economy and the economy is strong in the U.S.  We had a slight dip in the early summer, but I think we’re seeing now most of the trends are strong.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Who does the president defeat in the election?

BERMAN: I think the president will run against Sen. Warren and I suspect Sen. Warren will pick a running mate who is either African-American or Hispanic. The Democrat party’s politics are very much driven by different cultural identities and the Republican party’s politics tend to be driven by different ideological identities. I’m not saying one’s better than the other; they’re just different.

People think Sen. Warren will be easy to run against because she’s so far left and she’s talking of spending trillions of dollars and some of her ideas seem to border, if not on socialism, certainly on a collectivist mind-set rather than the way America has functioned since we’ve been America in 1789—we’ve always been focused on self-reliance and individual freedom rather than the collective. But she’s a formidable candidate. She’s fast on her feet and extremely articulate, and while I don’t agree with her views, after nine presidential campaigns I think I can judge presidential talent.

ROCHESTER BEACON: In her speeches, she presents a lot of policy proposals. How do you think people respond to that?

BERMAN: She is a Harvard professor who is lecturing you when she’s speaking, but the great politicians are those who bring you into a conversation. One of the things people don’t realize about President Trump—because they say, “Oh, my gosh, he said some outrageous thing or he tweeted some outrageous thing!”—is that the way President Trump speaks is very much the way people speak when they’re talking to each other in a conversation, and he is inviting voters and citizens into a conversation with him.

And think about this: The billionaire son of a multimillionaire who grew up in Queens, went to Wharton, and lived his adult life in midtown Manhattan, in 2016 won the election because he was the voice of the voiceless. He was the voice of moderate-income Americans who felt left behind and forgotten by all the elitists and experts that dominated policy making during the Obama years. People resented that and the true political magic of Donald Trump is that despite all the advantages he had growing up he has the sensibilities of an Everyman and Everywoman. I think people miss that because it’s lost in all this mishegas (hysteria).

ROCHESTER BEACON: Predictions on the Electoral College?

BERMAN: I think the president’s going to win every state he won last time with the possible exception of Wisconsin, which I think will be challenging for him. If he won them all, he’d be at 306. If he lost Wisconsin, he’d be at 296, but I think against Sen. Warren he’s got a very good shot at winning Minnesota, and Minnesota has 10 electoral votes, so he’s likely to end up right about where he was.

A frequent visitor

ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you get back to Rochester much?

BERMAN: Yes, regularly. Blackstone has an interest in Kodak. People there are developing some extraordinary products that would have exceptional uses—some industrial, some military—and then there’s Kodak Park itself. I think the right technology company looking for a highly educated work force with superior continuing education opportunities at schools like UR and RIT—I think you could turn Kodak Park into quite an incubator.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Where do you stay in town?

BERMAN: At a Hilton off East Avenue. The Strathallan. I stayed there many years ago. It was a little down on its luck, but Hilton took it over, redid it, and it’s gorgeous. Rooms are spectacular and the food is exceptional.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Favorite things to do in Rochester?

BERMAN: Well, gosh, this is going to tell you why my waistline looks like it does. My favorite thing is to go to Tom Wahl’s on Monroe Ave. It used to be Don’s Original. And I love the Charbroil, too. My two favorite Rochester restaurants—right across the street from each other! Charbroil’s fantastic; I think the people who own it are lovely. I love Grinnell’s—been going there since I was a little boy—and last time I was in Rochester I had dinner with my sister Lana, a lifelong Rochesterian, at Black and Blue at Pittsford Plaza. It was excellent—as good as any restaurant in Washington.

Peter Lovenheim is Rochester Beacon Washington correspondent. You can reach him at [email protected]

8 thoughts on “From Brighton High to the heights of U.S. politics

  1. Hi Peter – thank you for sharing the thoughts of one of Brighton’s high fliers who also seems to be unpretentious and connected to his roots. I was curious when the interview took place.

  2. Hi —-so happy for Wayne Berman, who has had such an interesting career —- we had a fun-loving , joking, high school friendship —- both being in the class of ‘74 —- would be great fun to catch-up with him in person !

    All the best —- this was a great article !!

    Dave Hargrave
    Brighton High School ‘74

    • Hi Dave— hope all is well with you and your family. I’ll be sure to connect before my next visit home. Warm wishes, Wayne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *