BY KARL EVERS-HILLSTROM – 06/29/21 06:00 AM EDT
Jonathan Kott will never forget sprinting alongside Sen. Joe Manchin to catch the underground subway train that connects congressional office buildings — just minutes after sitting down for his job interview with the West Virginia Democrat.
The two were running late to a meeting on Capitol Hill, and Manchin didn’t want to wait for the next train.
“At that point I was thinking, ‘This guy seems like a fun person to work for,’” Kott said.
He would serve as Manchin’s communications director and senior adviser from 2013 to last year as the centrist emerged as a key player in nearly every legislative battle from immigration to gun control.
“If you want to be involved in every issue all the time, he’s the person to work for,” Kott told The Hill in a recent interview. “If there’s ever an opportunity to get a deal done, he wants to be involved in it.”
This month, Kott joined lobbying firm Capitol Counsel, leaving Capitol Hill after more than a decade of public service.
He most recently served as senior adviser to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). His deep connections to the senator known as the most popular lawmaker in Washington — not to mention President Biden’s closest ally in the upper chamber — added to K Street’s substantial interest in him.
“I had been on the Hill for a number of years and I was looking for a new challenge and to find a new area to work in,” Kott said. “Given that Manchin and Coons seemed to be in the middle of a lot of the debates from different perspectives, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it.”
In Capitol Counsel’s release announcing the hire, Manchin called Kott a “trusted senior adviser” with a “true understanding of the importance of bipartisanship.” Coons said he “relied heavily on [Kott’s] candid advice, strategic insights, and vast media and political network.”
Their praise doesn’t come out of the blue. In 2016, Manchin and Coons worked out an unprecedented agreement on the Senate floor in which Kott would serve as the communications director for both of them at the same time.
“I had two Blackberries, two desks and I did about 40,000 steps a day between Hart and Russell,” Kott said, referring to the office buildings that housed the two lawmakers.
Kott led communications for both senators for nearly a year. He vividly remembers his first day on that job, when Washington reacted with horror to the news of another mass shooting, and his last day, when President-elect Trump announced his plan to nominate then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as his attorney general.
Manchin and Coons “took wildly different approaches” on Sessions, underscoring the difficulty of simultaneously crafting a distinct message for both senators, who ultimately took opposing sides on the nomination.
A New York City native, Kott found his passion for politics as an intern at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where he worked to tackle homelessness in the city.
“When I went to HUD, I realized I could help homeless people get a place to live, and that’s what I thought I would spend my time in politics doing,” Kott said. “But I got drawn into the press side, and that’s where I wound up.”
Kott got his first press experience as an intern for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). He didn’t leave his home city until 2004, when he took a one-way trip to Des Moines, Iowa, to be a press aide for then-Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) presidential campaign.
After a battle with shingles and Lieberman’s early exit from the presidential contest, Kott reached out to Jonathan Cowan, who ran HUD when he interned at the agency. Cowan hired Kott to work at his think tank, Third Way, bringing him to Washington for the first time.
Kott had stints with former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and former Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) before joining Manchin’s office in January 2013.
Right away, Kott was thrust into the biggest legislative battle in Washington. Following the devastating Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, Manchin teamed up with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on a bill to expand background checks on gun sales. The proposal quickly drew opposition from the influential National Rifle Association and GOP leaders.
“Manchin-Toomey will always stick in my head as the most memorable moment,” Kott said. “It was one of the hardest things we did and one of the bravest things I’d seen somebody do in politics.”
Manchin’s team worked hard to whip support for the bill. But it ultimately failed to garner 60 votes in the Senate, falling apart after Democrats couldn’t find enough Republican backers and some of the party’s moderates who faced reelection in red states defected.
“It was emotionally and politically crushing,” Kott said. “We felt like we let the families down.”
Kott became Manchin’s right-hand man as they together tried to overcome gridlock in Washington. The 2018 election posed another challenge: winning a state that Trump carried by more than 30 points.
Kott accompanied Manchin on an aggressive campaign schedule across the Mountain State and ended one night in the countryside singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” together. Manchin won reelection by 3 points as other red-state Democrats lost.
Since leaving Manchin’s office last year, Kott has watched him emerge as the Senate’s top power broker. He says the national media’s nonstop coverage of Manchin’s comments and countless interview requests makes things hectic for the press team.
“I imagine it’s crazy and nonstop, and there’s more attention on him now, but he has always been the guy in the middle of all the talks, so the way you operate doesn’t change much,” he said.
Unlike some press aides who stick to communications work when they join the private sector, Kott will register as a lobbyist for Capitol Counsel. He expects to work closely with moderate Democrats as the party negotiates key spending packages.
“I think the best way to make a difference and have some influence is to just go all in and do it,” he said. “You have to do the communications side and the government relations side and if you’re not doing both, I don’t think you’re being as successful as you can.”