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February 1st, 2008

Local Jews work behind the scenes for Doyle

By Austin Greenberg
of The Chronicle staff

You may not realize it, but you know Matt Canter’s work. If you follow local politics even a little bit, you have probably read his words dozens, if not hundreds of times.

“I was the principal author of the ‘State of the State’ address this year,” said Canter in a telephone interview from his office in the State Capitol.
Director of communications for Gov. Doyle, Canter is often identified in the news media as a spokesperson.

But, as evidenced by his work on the “State of the State,” he is much more than a conduit for the governor’s message; he helps craft the message also.

“That was a huge undertaking,” Canter said of writing the speech, which began around Thanksgiving with one-on-one chats with Doyle.
The speech went through about 28 drafts and nearly 100 people were involved in it, Canter said.

Canter and his friend, Jordan Primakow, who has worked for the governor in various capacities since 2004, form what Canter called, “sort of the Jewish voices in the office.”

Though both are dedicated public servants, they took very different roads to the capitol.

A political education

Canter, 27, has always been politically active. His family attends Congregation Shalom, where Rabbi Dena Feingold then served as assistant rabbi. When he was 12, Canter would accompany his family, grandparents included, to the campaign office of Dena’s brother, Russ, in his first run for U.S. Senate.

“We would lick stamps, stuff envelopes, enter info into a database…that was my first introduction to it all,” said the Whitefish Bay High School graduate in a telephone interview from the capitol.

Cantor enriched his political education by volunteering for the campaigns of State Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who was then a U.S. congressman running for re-election), and again for Feingold in his 1998 re-election campaign for U.S. Senate.

After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 2002, Canter became the program director at Madison’s Hillel Foundation, where he continued his political activism.

“At that time the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian issue was so heated and emotional,” said Canter. “People were confused, myself included,” he added. So Canter developed a group that allowed students to learn about the conflict, discuss their political opinions and broaden their views.

Along with the student group, Canter also developed a political advocacy initiative, an ethics project and worked with director Greg Steinberger to coordinate all the communications of the Hillel.

“My time at Hillel really defined my Jewish identity,” Cantor reflected.

After fundraising for Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign, Canter was hired as the research director for New York congressman Anthony Weiner’s fledgling campaign for New York City mayor.

When Canter joined the campaign, Weiner was polling around 2-4 percent of the electorate, according to Canter. Then, with the primary aproaching, lightning struck.

“In two weeks we shot up 20 points in the polls,” prompting the New York Daily News to proclaim “Weiner is Sizzling” on Sept. 10, 2005.

Weiner narrowly lost the democratic primary, but he kept Canter on board as his press secretary. For about six months, Canter traveled with the congressman between Washington, D.C., and New York.

Though Canter enjoyed working in Weiner’s Brooklyn office, he was “anxious to get back and help” in his home state, he said. When he learned about an opening on Doyle’s staff, he jumped at the opportunity. Doyle appointed him deputy communications director in February 2006, and promoted him to his current position about one year ago.

Canter enjoys his job in the governor’s office, though it requires long hours. It keeps him on his toes, as well.

“There is not a typical day, hour or minute,” he said, noting he often has to deal with five or six different issues in as many minutes.

Canter works very closely with the governor, and can go to him whenever he has a question. “He’s a great boss, a great leader, and an even better teacher,” said Canter, noting that Doyle frequently offers advice to those around him on how to deal with “any issue.”

Though he has enjoyed working in the governor’s office, Canter is ready to tackle a new challenge. Canter is moving to Oregon this month to be the communications director for Democrat Jeff Merkley, who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Gordon Smith.

As for Canter’s future, he is uncertain. He enjoys working for politicians, but said, “I can’t do it forever…. I love Wisconsin, I wouldn’t mind coming back here,” he said.

One thing he is not interested in, however, is running for elected office. “Then I wouldn’t be able to fight with the press anymore,” he said.

Novice quickly finds his way

In contrast to Canter, Jordan Primakow was not politically inclined growing up. “I voted, and I always supported the governor, but I was never particularly active,” said Primakow, 24, in a telephone interview from Madison.

During his senior year at UW-Madison, Primakow received an e-mail from his history professor that said Doyle’s office was looking for interns. “I thought that would be a good thing to put on my resumé,” he said.

Through both semesters of his senior year, Primakow worked about 12-15 hours per week in Doyle’s Appointments Department.

Following his 2005 graduation, Primakow was hired as a caseworker in the Constituent Services Department. Primakow acted as a liaison between constituents (any citizen or group in Wisconsin) and state agencies.

“I loved it. It was a fantastic job because it introduced me to state government, and how it works,” he said.

Primakow said he gleaned new appreciation for the people that work in government. “They have a tremendous work load. There are [over 5 million] people in Wisconsin” and it’s not easy meeting all their needs, he added.

In fall 2006, Primakow moved to Green Bay to work as a field staffer for the governor’s re-election campaign. This work, which was technically for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, was a learning experience.

“I’m glad I did it, [but] … campaigns are tough,” Primakow said. “People who do it wear it as a badge of honor … and we did it and we won,” he added.

Following the campaign, in December 2006, Primakow was hired as an assistant to Katie Boyce, who is the deputy chief of staff for Gov. Doyle.

Primakow said he really enjoyed this work, and every once in a while he reminds himself of how lucky he is. “I get a kick out of working in the capitol…. My desk was 20 feet from the governor’s office.”

Three weeks ago, Primakow began a new position in Doyle’s administration. He now works as a fundraiser in the Doyle for Wisconsin office. Doyle has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, and Primakow looks forward to working as a liaison between Doyle and the Obama campaign.

“I’m a huge Obama supporter,” said Primakow. “Hopefully I’ll get a chance to meet [him].”

Tribal connection

Both Primakow and Canter enjoyed their roles as the point people for Jewish issues in the governor’s office. They would be consulted whenever a Jewish opinion was needed or to make sure certain public events would not conflict with a Jewish holiday.

Primakow noted that it also didn’t hurt that both of their mothers — Sharon Canter and Sheryl Primakow — are very active in the community. “We could consult the ‘Jewish mother’s network,’” he said.
Primakow and Canter were also very complimentary of each other.

“Matt is an unbelievably talented guy,” Primakow continued. The press is “always trying to get him to slip, to say something” that would put the governor in a bad light, but “he does an incredible job,” said Primakow.

“He’s fantastic,” Canter said of Primakow. “Now in the campaign office he’ll have an opportunity to engage in the community, which I think he has a real talent for,” said Canter.

“Both Jordan and Matt are extremely hard workers,” said Boyce, adding “They brought a lot of life and laughter to the office, too.”