Florala native aids Biden

Published 9:24 pm Friday, September 5, 2008

When Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden addressed the Democratic National Convention earlier this week, the Scranton, Penn., native and Delaware senator spoke with influence from South Alabama.

His speech was not peppered with traditional Southern vernacular. It was, however, laced with one of the core values of the South — the love of home and family. Partial credit for that can be attributed to the creative skills of Mark Gitenstein, a Florala native and current Biden advisor.

“There are two things about Biden that make me like him. One, he is a very bright guy,” Gitenstein said. “Secondly, he’s not a very ideological guy. He has strong feelings about family and how we need to build on America’s strength.

“There was a great line in (former president Bill) Clinton’s speech the other night that said we should lead by example not by the power of our example,” he said. “America is a place where anyone can get ahead if they work hard.

“He’s a real family man who almost didn’t take the oath of office years ago when part of his family was killed in a traffic accident,” he said. “He wanted to be with his sons and raise them. I was so impressed by his sense of family. And that has stuck with me.”

Family is a key issue with both Biden and Gitenstein. In Covington County, one cannot mention the name “Gitenstein” without it conjuring images of sewing machines and cutting room tables.

Gitenstein’s mother and father, Anna and Seymour Gitenstein, were owners of the former Franklin Ferguson sewing factories in Florala. The family is credited with establishing the Florala Memorial Hospital and has touched countless lives through scholarships and philanthropic donations.

He lived in Florala until the age of 14 when he moved to Birmingham to complete high school.

He went on to attend Duke University and later earned a law degree from Georgetown University.

His resume is a laundry list of several senior-level government positions, including Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee (1987–1989); Minority Chief Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee (1981–1987); and Chief Counsel for the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Criminal Justice (1978–1981). He also served as Counsel to the US Senate Intelligence Committee (1975–1976 and 1976–1978) and, from 1972 to 1975, as Counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights.

He is a partner in the Washington law firm of Mayer and Brown, specializing in issues of government relations. He also represents corporations and associations before the U.S. Congress and federal agencies; prepares legislative strategies and analyses of pending and potential legislation; and monitors and drafts legislation on behalf of corporate clients.

He is also one of the few people who knew Biden “back when.” Currently, he is on a leave of absence from his law firm and is spending his time handling public relations and press inquiries for Biden’s campaign.

“Early in my career I did a lot of work on intelligence issues, especially those relating to civil liberties and national security,” he said. “I had testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about how to write a statute. Sen. Biden was a member of that committee. I remember seeing him there.

“One day, not too long after that, he called me up and said he wanted to talk to me,” he said. “I didn’t realize he was interviewing me for a job. He called a week later and asked me if I wanted to work for him. And I did, for 13 years from 1976-1989.”

That was the first monumental phone call between Gitenstein and Biden. The second came about two months ago when Biden called Gitenstein and said he needed his help.

“He called me up and said Barack Obama had just called and asked him to consider being his running mate. Biden asked if I’d be the liaison between him and Obama’s selection committee.

“I said absolutely,” he said.

It was a very intensive period, Gitenstein said, before word came down on Sen. Obama’s selection.

“Last Friday night, Joe called me at 9 (p.m.) and told me he had been selected,” Gitenstein said. “Since then, we’ve been going nonstop. I’ve been involved with a number of press inquires, the majority of which have been related to personal issues with his family.

The two, along with Biden’s son Beau, spent a good deal of time working on speeches heard Wednesday night during the Democratic National Convention.

“The other night, Biden gave a major speech and his son Beau introduced him,” Gitenstein said. “I helped write both of them. The greatest part in (Beau’s speech) is where he said he knows his dad will be a great vice president. He talked about how his dad has always been there for him and his family. But because he’s about to be shipped to Iraq, it won’t be possible for him to be here this fall to stand by him the way he stood by Beau.

“The greatest line is, ‘So I have something to ask of you’ — talking about the American public. ‘Be there for my dad like he was for me.’ And he meant it.”

Gitenstein said he plans to be there for the duration of Biden’s campaign.

“Biden’s not a down the line liberal. I’d say a moderate Democrat, and he always wants to know the sustenance of an argument and no one tells him what position to take,” Gitenstein said. “I want to be a part of American history.”