Wolf in chic clothing

From Senate intern to media maven, Karen Hanretty relishes her role as the GOP’s secret weapon

Tough love: Karen Hanretty is very much at ease in the world of political roughhousing.

Tough love: Karen Hanretty is very much at ease in the world of political roughhousing.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Karen Hanretty is a self-proclaimed conservative attack dog. She likes letting loose on political opponents, accusing them of being Marxists or of having positions so absurd as to render them worthy of a Monty Python caricature. She seems to like it when they let loose on her in return. She likes appearing on national news shows to needle those with whom she disagrees and to put a rosy hue on all things GOP. And she likes talking about the important issues of the day. But Hanretty doesn’t want to be an elected politician.

“It just doesn’t appeal to me,” the 34-year-old communications director for the California Republican Party said, her teeth flashing in a perfect smile, her light brown hair carefully coifed and falling down over her shoulders onto her beige suit jacket. “I like doing communications. I like the political aspect more than the policy aspect. I’d rather be the person behind the scenes than running for office myself.”

Hanretty has shot up the state’s Republican Party hierarchy over the past five years, rising from Senate intern to spokeswoman for Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall campaign against then-Governor Gray Davis, to her current communications-director position. One of the most visible faces of the California GOP, she has become a mistress of the fine art of schmoozing journalists and opinion makers. Hanretty is always on the phone or dashing off a quick e-mail—carefully manicured nails clattering away at the computer keyboard—or getting ready for a meeting with another journalist. Early in the morning, while most normal people are deeply asleep, she might be preparing for a radio show already. After office hours, she might well be sitting in one of the many bars frequented by journalists and politicos, making sure her party’s message gets out.

One might expect such an operative’s desk to be a paragon of order. It isn’t. Papers and folders and clipped articles are splayed across the surface. On the mantle is a wedding photo of herself and her husband, John, more than 20 years her senior (she became a stepmom to two teenagers when she was only in her mid-20s), along with another photo of a casually dressed Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a white short-sleeved shirt and cream-colored slacks, next to Hanretty, and a video of the Robert Mitchum movie The Winds of War.

Off to the side, a slightly deflated helium balloon floats toward the ceiling of her downtown office, its front emblazoned with the message “Thanks for not resigning.” It was, she says, part of a joke bouquet she sent to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, to remind him that his ongoing woes were only helping the GOP. Shelley’s staff refused to accept the balloon, so it adorns her space, a reminder of recent Democratic Party woes, a trophy in the world of capital-city back-stabbing and roughhousing.

The balloon is a perfect example of Hanretty’s in-your-face style. “She does an effective job, in an Ann Coulter-like fashion,” said Steve Maviglio, deputy chief of staff to Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, laughing. “At points, it crosses the line. She talks about people’s hair and height. It’s part of her charm and personality to be fire-breathing on a daily basis. Her skin is as thick as— I can’t come up with anything that thick. She can take it as well as she gives it out. People in this area tend to be very passionate about what they believe in and take things personally. She does a very effective job at getting under your skin.”

A chess and gardening enthusiast, Hanretty tells people that she got interested in state politics because she likes to “fight the good fight.”

“California is ungovernable, but it doesn’t need to be that way,” she said. “I just like things to work. So, when I see something doesn’t work, it drives me crazy,” whether that something is hydrangeas refusing to grow in the backyard or a political process geared toward stalemates.

But it is, of course, more than just about making sure the clocks tick and the buses run. Hanretty, a preacher’s daughter, is an ideologue, and her vision is firmly that of a conservative Republican. In the 1990s, a few years after she’d driven her car from rural Washington state—where her parents had moved the family from the Sacramento suburbs when she was a young girl—back to her hometown, she idolized then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and then-Congressman Bob Dornan, two of the most right-wing politicians to make their mark on the decade. Of the latter, Hanretty admits that, at a certain point, her hero simply went “off the deep end.” But she recalled, her voice full of conviction, how Dornan had inspired her earlier on with an abiding belief that “politics is a way to serve your country.”

Obsessed with C-SPAN and current-affairs magazines, and fixated on watching politics and policies unfold, the young Hanretty started studying political science, looking for theories to back up her instinctive fiscal and social conservatism. In the mid-1990s, after years spent bouncing between a host of jobs ranging from working in an art center to running a T-shirt shop in Mendocino, she enrolled at Sacramento City College. Then she transferred to the University of the Pacific, in Stockton. She graduated, with a Bachelor of Arts and a healthy dose of ambition, in 1999.

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. At nearly 30, Hanretty interned for the moderate Republican state Senator Bruce McPherson; got introduced to the thrills and frustrations of working behind the scenes at the Capitol; and, after a brief diversion working for the California Trucking Association, decided to dedicate her professional life to promoting Republican personalities and policies.

“Considering it’s a party of old white men, she puts a different face on right-wing policy,” said Maviglio of his political sparring partner and after-hours drinking buddy. “She’s more than a talking head. What she does is entertainment. She does TV well. She’s a witty writer.”

These days, the communications director is leading the charge to promote the governor’s suggested “reform” of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, firing off tirades to reporters about those who stand in the way of change.

“I can point out all the shenanigans of the Legislature and the political motivations behind what they’re doing," Hanretty explained gleefully. "The governor takes the high road; I take the low road."