Top Democratic Strategist Robert Zimmerman: ‘Record Level Activism Will Save Our Democracy’

A conversation with two politicos who are ready to fight

Media mavens, moguls and boldface names congregate at Michael's.
Michael's

In light of the head-spinning events of the past 10 days, I was primed and ready for some serious conversation with my ‘Lunch’ dates this week. Robert Zimmerman and Joan Gelman are both passionate politicos who have lent their voices –as well as their time and talents to numerous Democratic campaigns. Robert, co-founder of the public relations/marketing firm Zimmerman/Edelson, is the Democratic National Committeeman from New York and one of the most sought-after commentators on cable news. He’ll be talking politics with Martha MacCallum on Fox News tomorrow night on her new show, The First 100 Days.

Joan, a successful television producer who has been a political activist since junior high school when she worked on Adlai Stevenson’s campaign, (“He was a god!”) and later canvased the country for Robert F. Kennedy, arrived first, brandishing the political button she’d just made. It boasted an iconic image of pioneering feminist Bella Abzug marching with a group of women with ‘Marching ALT-LEFT’ in large red type. She and I traded stories about how our lives are now consumed by cable news. “I’ve got a huge stack of books on my nightstand that I want to read,” she told me. “But I just can’t. I’m watching MSNBC nonstop.”

Robert Zimmerman, Diane Clehane and Joan Gelman at Michael's.

Robert, who is always the best dressed man at Michael’s, joined us minutes later, having made a few stops to offer ‘hellos’ around the dining room. I hadn’t seen him since before the election when he, along with pretty much everyone else, thought Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious. I had so many questions for him, I barely knew where to start.

“The night of the election, one network told me they were calling Florida for Hillary at 8:30 [p.m.], another told me 9 [p.m.],” he said before I could even utter a word. “One executive told me they were probably going to call the election at 11:30 [p.m.].”

So what happened? “There’s no one soundbite answer,” he began. “To me, the FBI [investigation into Hillary’s emails] and the third-party candidates were clearly critical factors.” Then, he added, “The anger and angst [in the country] were building for years and Democrats were not listening and connecting with it. Too many Democrats took the Obama years for granted.”

But that’s in the past. “I’m done worrying. Group therapy can only go so far and I’ve put the Häagen-Dazs back in the freezer,” he said. Instead, he’s focusing on the here and now and showed surprising optimism. “I feel empowered by the fact that 2 million women marched [in The Women’s March] and this weekend, spontaneous protests were organized. The real challenge now is how we come together as a country.”

But how? “The events of the past few weeks and the protests rise above party politics and partisanship. The fact that we see so many people coming together not as Democrats or Republicans but as citizens is what counts.”

He does, though, give his party high marks. “I’m proud of the way the Democrats have conducted themselves in Congress.” He also had some praise for the other side of the aisle. “Over 40 Republican members of Congress have now spoken out opposing the Muslim ban. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have shown real leadership and Chuck Schumer is exactly the kind of leader the Senate and the country needs right now.”

We all agreed between watching the news nonstop, a little political humor, courtesy of SNL, is something of a balm for the brain. “I have a newfound respect for Alec Baldwin,” said Joan of the actor’s performances as the president on Saturday Night Live. “Lorne Michaels is the Mark Twain of our time,” added Robert.