Barb-wired: Ari Adler deploys his rhetorical firepower for House Republicans

  Becky Johns Photography  for Dome Magazine

Becky Johns Photography for Dome Magazine

Dome Magazine, 2/11/11

On Ari Adler’s desk, you might just stumble upon a coffee mug that says, “If you can’t say something nice, at least say something funny.”

“I think that’s a description of my style,” said Adler, press secretary for new House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall). “I pride myself in being able to turn a phrase and get us quoted and get our message out there.”

The Waterford Township native hasn’t been typically a bomb-throwing type of spokesman, first in the service of former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema and now with Bolger. Instead, Adler is known for sharp quotes that elicit a chuckle, like when a Democrat complained last week that Bolger shut down the chamber for the blizzard.

“Apparently, House Democrats were told to go home and throw political snowballs at the speaker,” Adler quipped.

But Adler, 43, says he’s been able to maintain good relationships with his counterparts on the other side, notably Liz Boyd, Gov. Granholm’s former press secretary, and former Senate Democratic spokesman Tom Lenard.

“It got to the point that Tom and I would joke about the barbs we’d send each other’s way,” Adler recalls. “…We would chat behind the scenes and it had a different tone than what we were doing publicly.”

When he was with the Senate majority leader, Adler recalls the media always came knocking about Granholm’s initiatives, as Sikkema was the highest-ranking Republican in the state. The situation is different with Bolger because he’s mostly on the same page with Gov. Rick Snyder. Messages have to be coordinated with the administration and the Senate. There’s also the challenge to create headlines for the speaker in his own right.

“Jase Bolger isn’t afraid to say we need to talk about difficult things,” Adler says of his boss. “I think he sets the right tone.”

Since joining Bolger’s transition team in December, Adler has jumped right into the job, sending out a flurry of press releases on everything from a new, stricter dress code on the House floor (sorry, no jeans or sweats) to issues like alleged Bridge Card fraud.

Adler’s new gig comes after a four-year hiatus from state government, last working as communications administrator for Okemos-based Delta Dental. He also was director of public affairs for the former John Bailey & Associates public relations firm.

“Some people might be surprised that I would come back,” he says. “I was very frustrated about what was going on [before] at the Capitol, with people not working together…But I was very excited about the potential for change. I was happy about the election — not just for the party, but in terms of leadership.”

Although he’d never even met Bolger before their interview in November, Adler did have a pretty big in with his chief of staff, Suzanne Miller Allen. Allen served in that capacity for Sikkema when Adler was his press secretary and deputy chief of staff. Luckily, he and the speaker-to-be hit it off, and he “had a job offer within a couple hours.”

Wiry with squarish glasses, Adler looks the tech-savvy type. And as his frequent Facebook posts and tweets will attest, he is. He fell in love with social media while working in public relations and still advises organizations about using it. Adler also says it has transformed politics.

“Social media is the new grassroots,” he says. “We used to deliver a message door-to-door. Now it’s computer screen to computer screen.”

That’s a big part of his job with Bolger, and Adler spends a lot of time perusing social networking sites and reader comments on news hubs.

“You can gauge where the public is on an issue,” he says, although he admits he “filters through some of the nuttier comments.”

In his free time, Adler writes for two blogs — neither of them political — Digital Pivot and Here Comes Later, his own creation (his last post was on his hectic schedule), as well as authoring a monthly column on social media in politics for Dome. He does try to squeeze in time with his wife of a year-and-a-half, former Senate staffer Jessi Wortley Adler, and his two daughters, Lainee, 14, and Kenzie, 13.

For the last 10 years, he’s been an adjunct instructor for Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, from which he earned his B.A. in 1989. Adler started out as a cops and courts reporter, working for papers including the Owosso Argus-Press and theHolland Sentinel.

Six years into daily reporting, Adler says, he was “pretty burned out” and applied on a whim for a job with the House Republican caucus central staff. Adler says he was always a Republican, although he was most conservative while in high school.

“If anything, I’ve moved more to the center,” he says. “I’m a pragmatic Republican. Although I lean right, I understand that you sometimes have to make compromises.”

He got the job with the House Republicans in 1995 and eventually moved over as a spokesman for the Department of Transportation (MDOT) under Gov. John Engler. Adler was on Senate GOP central staff when Sikkema tapped him as press secretary.

Now he’s back where he started with the House GOP. One of the biggest challenges is just acquainting himself with not only the 60 freshmen, but all the new staff. He’s worked on the first caucus priorities, $25 million for Pure Michigan funding — which passed this week — and getting rid of the state’s item pricing law.

Of course, Adler expects the budget and business tax debate to dominate, especially after Snyder’s budget presentation next week.

“It’s a round-the-clock job,” he says. “I don’t think a typical day exists.”

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.