As one of the Republican Party's top advisers, alumnus Jim Wilkinson has shaped communications strategies for some of the most powerful people in Washington
When Jim Wilkinson needs to counsel the nation’s top economic policymakers, he draws on a source that’s a little off the wall. Or more precisely, off his shelf.
He pulls down the text book from his UT Arlington statistics class, a course, that, he said recently, “has been or more use to me than any class I’ve ever taken.”
It comes in handy since Wilkinson (’93 BBA in finance) is chief of staff to Henry Paulson, President Bush’s treasury secretary. He had been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior policy and communications strategist, a deputy assistant to the president and the deputy national security adviser for communications before moving to his current job in July.
In other words, Jim Wilkinson is plugged in.
He was a member of the team that helped arrange Bush’s visit to ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In the war, he was chief spokesman for Gen. Tommy Franks (another UT Arlington alumnus) and following the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch delivered the memorable quote, “America doesn’t leave its heroes behind.”
Wilkinson has been communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He oversaw political communications for the House of Representatives, worked in Congress for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and has held a host of other positions, including legislative assistant, political director, director of member relations, deputy floor assistant and press secretary.
He sums up the list: “In the last six years, I’ve enjoyed some very rewarding professional experiences.”
‘My best experiences were at UTA’
Growing up in tiny Tenaha (pop. 1,046), a clearing in the East Texas piney woods, Wilkinson never would have tabbed himself to one day be a Beltway insider. But then he never expected to be a Maverick, either.
His father went to Texas A&M University, but “he and the dean made the arrangement that there were probably better schools for him.” That school was UT Austin, and years later, Jim Wilkinson followed his father into The University of Texas System.
He was also a fish out of water—his first class had more students than his entire high school—who dived in to campus life. He became a resident adviser in Pachl Hall, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a regular at Mavericks basketball games.
While student life gave him his bearing, academics gave him his compass. It was in UT Arlington classrooms that he discovered the power inherent in statistics and economic theory—principles he’d take all the way to the Treasury Department.
“I love statistics, and I always have, starting with sports box scores,” he said. And, as he learned, box scores and ballot boxes aren’t so different.
“In politics you have quantifiable questions and generalizable questions with no answers. Using stats, you can get to the core of the issues. That changed the way I viewed the world. … My best, most relevant, most useful experience has been my educational experience at UTA.”
In fact, Wilkinson said he still heeds the advice of his favorite political science professors, Tom Marshall and Allan Saxe, and business law faculty member John Dowdy. Case in point: “Saxe taught me that how you play the game matters. I used that this morning in a speech.”
Dr. Saxe takes no credit for molding Wilkinson, calling the business major a natural political scientist.
“So much of politics is economics,” Saxe said. “Business coupled with politics … it works, and that’s what I think he’s done. But it’s not just his studies, it’s him. He’s just so good. He’s bright, responsible, he’s terrific.”
Wilkinson the student was “exactly what you’d think in preparation for this job—professional, studious and very focused.”
Trey Yelverton, Arlington’s deputy city manager for economic development, was a resident adviser in Pachl Hall with Wilkinson and remembers his pal’s “aw, shucks” personality.
“To be honest, I didn’t know that he had the political stuff in him until it started happening to him later on,” Yelverton said. “But you knew he’d do well in whatever he was going to do. … He had a quiet confidence about him.”
A future that’s ‘wide open’
To catch Jim Wilkinson, you get up early. Like 5 a.m. And you need to be fast. An avid marathoner, he completed the 2006 Paris Marathon in 3 hours, 39 minutes, 10 seconds.
Each day, he’s up before the sun for a morning run. He’s at work by 6 and meets with Secretary Paulson at 7. Much of the rest of the day he’s reading editorials (“because that drives what’s going to happen”), attending staff meetings and meeting with market leaders.
“I’m really here to focus on the secretary’s time,” Wilkinson said, “and I’m part of a much larger team that does that.”
He expects to keep this role until the administration changes in 2009; beyond that is undetermined. But Saxe says, “He may become secretary of the treasury himself someday, and I’m really serious. He’s a smart guy and has a future ahead of him that’s wide open.”
Maybe Wilkinson would like something a little more behind the scenes. “I want to be director of communication for the witness protection program,” he says with a smile. “No press releases!”
Or perhaps he’ll return to Texas to teach public policy or communication at his alma mater. He has already taught public policy courses at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In many ways, Wilkinson remains a Maverick. Besides consulting the old textbook, he wears his UT Arlington class ring. He considers his professors his mentors, and his classmates and dorm buddies his lifelong friends.
“I love UTA. I want to be a resource for UTA. I want to help in any way I can,” he said. “I was just some kid from Tenaha, Texas, whose dad got kicked out of A&M. So UTA was pretty good to me.”
— Danny Woodward