Saturday, July 7, 2007

Berlin, politics and the Middle East: James Bernsen '94

[Update: Since writing this, James has learned he's shipping out July 20.]

James Bernsen, FTA Class Of 1994 here! Here’s an update on what I’m doing.

I am currently the President, Executive Assistant, Mailroom Coordinator and Errand Boy for Bernsen Consulting, a political public relations company I founded as a part-time gig three years ago, but which went full-time in January. I currently live in the People’s Republic of Austin, doing legislative and political work. My big client right now is the Texas House Republican Caucus.

I served on the Batt from 1993-1995, all of it on the City Desk, where I was briefly assistant city editor. After graduating, I moved to the pinnacle of success very early in my career, landing a spot at the New York Times of the Bosque River (otherwise known as the Stephenville Empire Tribune). From there, I moved to that paragon of journalism, the Uvalde Leader News, and then on to the Brazosport Facts (Clute, Tx.) In 1998, I was selected for the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship, which is a journalism exchange program between Germany and the United States. (I was a double major – journalism and German – at A&M). I worked for the Berliner Zeitung in Berlin, Germany. It was the former newspaper of East Berlin, and even 9 years after the wall fell down, the reporters were oddly dependent on the government for news. They never actually looked for stories, just sat around waiting for a government press release to tell them what to write. They had just hired a West German editor to turn them around, as they were losing subscribers to all the West Berlin papers, with much more cutting-edge journalism. I wrote German-language articles for that paper, and English articles for my paper back in Texas.

After returning to the U.S., I took a weird detour into the fun-filled realm of politics, landing a job in 1999 as Deputy Press Secretary for Sen. Phil Gramm. When Gramm retired, I went to work on two campaigns in 2002, one for Texas Senate (won that one) and one for congress (lost that one). In 2003, I went to work for State Rep. Dianne White Delisi (R-Temple) as her legislative director.

When the Democrats decided to zip off to Ardmore, Oklahoma to bust a quorum and kill the redistricting bill in 2003, I made up a deck of playing cards similar to those showing the Iraqi generals and leaders we were trying to track down. I did this as a joke to pass the time in the suddenly quiet House of Representatives, but my boss showed them to News 8 Austin and the next day they were on CNN. Phone calls promptly poured in, and I suddenly had people from all over (including some of the Democrats themselves) calling to buy these. Trying to avoid ethical entanglements of a house staffer, I established Bernsen Consulting, had the cards printed and hired my cousin, a starving University of Texas student, to sell them for me. Texas Monthly put them in their magazine and that also helped my business.

After session ended, I went full-time, but eventually the furor died down and I had to find a real job to support myself. That’s when I got back into journalism, taking a job as a senior correspondent at the Lone Star Report, a free-market oriented political newsletter covering Texas capitol politics. I worked there through a regular session and a bunch of special sessions on redistricting and school finance.

In 2006, I was hired as the Press Secretary for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s re-election campaign. It was a fun and exciting six months, working directly for a senator who by chance was the first political person I ever interviewed way back during her first race, when I was a new reporter at the Battalion. Our race last year was under the radar compared to the governor’s race, but we had an active opponent who always kept it interesting. When the campaign was over, I decided to make a second attempt at being self-employed and re-launched Bernsen Consulting, this time as a full-fledged political P.R. company. I got a couple of clients in time for the legislative session and was in business.

All along the way, I’ve done lots of cool things on the side. For two years, I was a volunteer crewman on the Elissa, a restored 19th Century square-rigged sailing vessel homeported out of Galveston. We restored the 130 year old ship and sailed her out in the Gulf of Mexico. I got to climb up in the rigging and furl and unfurl sails 80 feet off the deck. Up there, it is surprisingly calm and peaceful.

However, the biggest change in my life came after 9/11. After the attack on our country, I was moved to do something to serve, and, after two years of soul searching, in 2004, I was commissioned as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. I have since been promoted to LTJG and am currently preparing for my first deployment to the middle east in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Still waiting for my orders to come through, but it looks like a August or September date, with at least a year Boots on the Ground in Iraq. I’m looking forward to going, because I want to give back to this country that’s been so good to me, and I know that my skills can make a difference and hopefully bring more of our guys and gals back safely.

My hope is to be back in time to pick up some more clients for the next legislative session and begin building my company, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, unexpected opportunities come about all the time, and it’s good to have the flexibility to take advantage of them.

James Bernsen
james (at) bernsenconsulting.com