A White House Defender in the Trenches of the Swamp
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the swamp will not be drained, but it will have new kings.
By Daniel Malloy
David Urban’s inbox is jammed. If you don’t mind, he just needs a moment to make sure there are no crises requiring his attention. The burly lobbyist settles into his office chair overlooking glass-paneled downtown Washington office buildings and sifts through the missives, which these days are heavy on Trump administration access seekers. “Can you give me Steve Mnuchin’s email?” he reads aloud — a note from someone seeking the Treasury secretary’s contact.
A lobbyist for American Continental Group, Urban has long been well-connected, but he’s one of few downtown denizens who keep up with Trump’s inner circle by text message. He slugs a Gatorade as he lays out why he was one of the few high-priced lobbyists in town to believe in Donald Trump in late 2015, explaining how he helped engineer Trump’s triumph in Pennsylvania. Thanks to such a narrative, the man who has represented the likes of Comcast and Raytheon now can be even choosier about clients. Political consultant and friend John Brabender says Urban “is one of the most powerful people in America who’s not inside in the administration.” And while he says he’s not working at the White House “for a variety of personal reasons,” Urban gives off a clear desire to be in the fray, a wistfulness for a campaign he says was more intense than serving in Operation Desert Storm.
Urban is the son and grandson of steelworkers from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a riverside town northwest of Pittsburgh that shriveled when the local mill closed. Urban’s way out was football. Out of high school, the lineman had offers to play at Harvard and West Point. He chose the latter, and after school he made his way to the 101st Airborne Division. After living through the brutal sun and scud missile attacks in the Persian Gulf, he found himself working as a bond attorney in Philadelphia, “chained to my desk.” His pile of billable hours paid off in an unusual way: He was always free to play squash with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who craved partners at odd times. A bond on the court led to a job as Specter’s state director. Eventually, Urban became the moderate Republican’s chief of staff. Specter, a perpetual swing vote, often exerted his bipartisan leverage for parochial priorities. Urban’s takeaway: Things get done in Washington “at the fulcrum” — which he demonstrates by making a hinge with his pointer fingers.
As he comes across an invitation to a big Republican fundraising dinner, Urban says he would prefer a ‘hot poker shoved up my ass.’
The application is evident in Urban’s ego wall, a Washington accessory in which one displays photographs of oneself with famous and powerful people. Urban can be found with George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden; Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu. He loved the job with Specter, but a bigger paycheck (“I needed to have, literally, some dental work done”) lured Urban into lobbying.
Congressional staffer to influence peddler is an age-old swamp tale. But Urban is eager to defend his (stereotyped-as-sleazy) profession: He’s merely helping educate lawmakers, connecting them to the concerns of their constituents. And … sometimes those constituents are corporations that pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the service. The sell goes down easier because he’s approachable and gregarious and dominates a room, sprinkling conversation with “dudes” and profanities. Scott Hoeflich, who worked under Urban and later became Specter’s chief of staff himself, recalls Urban’s lobbying pitch as always laying out the benefits for the senator as well as the political pitfalls. Urban called them “where you get T-boned,” or rammed by another car.
“He’s got a strong personality,” says Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican. “I don’t think anybody who walks away from talking to David Urban says, ‘I don’t know where that guy stands.’ ” For example, as he comes across an email invitation to a big Republican fundraising dinner, Urban says he would prefer a “hot poker shoved up my ass.”
Urban tracks moderate, and like most members of the swamp relishes getting a deal done more than the ideology. But Urban, more than most, appreciates Republicans like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — a hard conservative with a blue-collar economic sensibility. Last year, when he started to smell a Trump victory based on his hometown’s responses to the bombastic pitchman, coworkers and friends warned, “You’ll destroy your reputation.” Nonetheless, he returned to his home turf to pull off the upset. His calculation for backing Trump, despite all the risks, was based not on a love of any particular Trump agenda item: Urban saw a winner. Not long after midnight on election night, the networks were hesitating, but Urban brags that his correct prognostication earned him a slice of history. He called campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who put him on speaker. “Go ahead, David,” Trump said. “Mr. Trump,” Urban recalls replying, “with 99.2 percent of the vote in, we’re like 52,000 votes up. We’re going to win Pennsylvania. Congratulations, you’re the next president of the United States.”
Urban’s name often pops up on lists of Reince Priebus replacements in a never-ending Washington parlor game — or for another White House gig. “I’m the next chief of staff, allegedly,” he says, imitating reporters with supposed sources calling him about a job that does not seem available. Then again, Urban’s dismissal is not exactly forceful: “That’s really nice, but you know, I’m not certain that I’m going to be the guy,” he says in early March. The consummate insider acknowledges that Trump crusaded against people like him. For now, he’s a friendly face on CNN, enjoying the Beltway banter as he defends the Obamacare replacement plan and dismisses all things Russia. The emails and phone calls continue as the sun sinks into another swampy evening.