Ever since Patrick Gaspard joined the Obama presidential campaign as political director in 2008, the 45-year-old New York fixer has been known for working long hours and keeping a low profile. The hours may remain long, but Gaspard will no longer be behind the scenes: Gaspard is President Obama’s pick to succeed Donald Gips as U.S. ambassador to South Africa.
Obama aides have confirmed the selection, and the president is expected to officially nominate Gaspard in the next few weeks, sending the Democratic National Committee executive director from Washington to Pretoria, where the U.S. mission in South Africa is based.
Gaspard’s roots to the continent run deep. His parents moved to Zaire from their native Haiti following an appeal from prime minister Patrice Lumumba for French-speaking academics of African descent. Gaspard was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1967 and was three when his family moved New York.
The appointment culminates more than two decades at the top levels of national politics for Gaspard. He attended Columbia University, but left college early to work in politics. He worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign and helped David Dinkins become New York City’s first African-American mayor. He led a trip to South Africa for Dinkins’ cabinet members to meet with Nelson Mandela in 1992.
“He was smart and loyal and really knew his way around,” Dinkins told the New York Observer in 2009.
The stint with Dinkins helped launch Gaspard as an influential player in New York politics. He advised New York Democratic mayoral candidates, organized the protests after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo and served as a top official at the SEIU in New York.
In 2003, Gaspard served as deputy national field director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. When Dean left the race, he worked as national field director for America Coming Together.
Regarded as a devoted husband and father, in 2006 he cited raising two children of color in America as his most important accomplishment. When asked what he wanted to accomplish two years hence, he said, “begin to repair the imbalance in the Supreme Court by electing a Democratic President.”
Despite that desire, Gaspard initially turned down a chance to join the Obama campaign in 2007 but was instrumental in getting the SEIU to endorse the Illinois senator. In June 2008, he signed on as political director. When Obama moved into the White House, Gaspard followed as director of the office of political affairs, where his job was to assess the political implications of key decisions and push the president’s agenda.
“He’s become a real player in the White House, the president himself told me,” Rep Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said at the time. “He’s a low key, behind-the-scenes, no-fingerprints kind of guy. He’s close to the president.”
When the White House closed the in-house political operation early in 2011 to gear up for the reelection campaign, Gaspard served as executive director of the Democratic National Convention. He dropped his low-profile veil briefly last year when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, tweeting triumphantly, “It’s constitutional. Bitches.”
A few minutes later, he apologized for letting his excitement get the better of him.
Gaspard says much of his inspiration comes from his father and his involvement in the freedom movements in Africa during the 1960s.
“I think my father was always completely inspired by just how wide open [the] democratic discourse is in this country, and he instilled in me from my earliest years a sense that I had an obligation to give back to my community and to serve to the greatest degree possible,” Gaspard told the Grio last year.
Returning to the African continent in service of this administration brings him full circle.