Paul Teller was raised by liberal Jewish parents on Long Island, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a highly influential conservative aide in Congress. Teller is Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, a position for which he is both praised and scrutinized – The Hill recently described him as Cruz’s “agitator in chief.”
A member of Temple Sinai in D.C., Teller lives in Chevy Chase with wife, Maxine, and two children, Aviva and Joshua. The 43-year-old, who received his undergrad and graduate degrees in political science from Duke University and American University, talked to WJW about what it’s like working for one of the most colorful, conservative characters in Congress.
You were raised by liberal Jewish parents from Long Island. How are you a conservative working for Ted Cruz?
We still haven’t figured it out in the family. My mom is a very committed liberal, she’s always been. My dad I would say was more of a right-of-center moderate when I was growing up in the house. He introduced me to certain right-of-center thinkers on TV. He has moved strongly to the left, especially since I’ve been out of the house. Honestly, no one knows how it happened. It’s not that I had a mentor, some cousin or someone who was guiding me. We have a couple of conservative family members, but no one who was necessarily taking me under their wing saying ‘Here’s how you should think politically.’ It just kind of developed. We did this political simulation in seventh grade public school. We answered this questionnaire. Based on your answers, they grouped you into political groupings. There was the radical group, liberal, moderate, conservative, and I was in reactionary—this far-right group. At least then, it had already started to set in that I believed in this low government type of thinking, and it grew from there.
How do other Jews react when they find out you’re a conservative who works for Cruz?
Most in my life have started sentences with, ‘How could you?’ [Laughs] ‘How could you work for so and so, how could you believe in this, how could you vote for that.’ That was especially when I was a teenager. Not only because my views were forming, and suddenly this conservative person was emerging. As a teenager, you’re a little bit more in peoples’ faces about it. I would get into arguments at Thanksgiving dinners and Passovers. Now I think it’s much more accepted in the family and amongst friends. The arguments are much less frequent, and if things do start, they’re very quick to end. We do have some political conservatives in our family and some political conservative friends from Jewish circles, so they’re OK.
Why do you think Cruz is very openly pro-Israel?
Honestly, it just comes from his heart. Some of it is his faith. He does believe that is the biblical Jewish homeland and should be. But he also sees it politically. That is our strongest ally, if not in the world, then certainly in the region. It is the true democracy in the region. It’s also an economic superpower in the region, considering its small size, especially. He just believes in it and frankly, he grew up in the Houston area—so I’m told, this is all through his words—with Catholic and Jewish friends. It’s also somewhat personal to his upbringing in that he knew and loved Jews all his life. So he believes it from his heart, to the point where, he has a few other Jewish staffers, sometimes we have to be like, it’s OK to not do everything related to Israel every week. It’s OK to let a week go by without a pro-Israel statement, bill or coalition meeting. We joke with him about that, but he feels about it very passionately. That’s inspiring, too, because obviously I do as well. There’s no daylight between the Jewish staffers he’s got and his views on Israel.
How many Jewish staffers does he have?
It’s me as chief of staff. He has two deputy chiefs of staff and one of them is Jewish and fairly religious. Nick Muzin, he’s Orthodox. We have a junior staffer David Milstein, a research assistant. He does way more than that, but he’s particularly active in the Jewish community. He’s a good social organizer. He’s organized this group called something like Young Conservatives for Israel. He’s got some advisors on the outside, not on the official staff, who are Jewish as well. I joke that there are non-Jews in the office who are as pro-Israel, if not more pro-Israel, than some of us. I actually can’t think of a staffer here who has any problems with what we do regarding Israel. It’s a pretty robust pro-Israel office.
How important is Judaism and your Jewish identity to you?
The honest truth is I’m a political conservative first, a republican a distant second, and then a Jew a distant third after that. It’s there. It’s important. We’re raising our kids Jewish, they’re going to Hebrew school, they’re going to get a bar and bat mitzvah. I was bar mitzvah’ed. In terms of meaning day to day and in life, my politics are much more what I live and breathe. Which frankly is also why I’ve had a little bit of a cold relationship with the Jewish community as a whole over the stretch of my life, especially when I was living in New York. Because my politics were primary. When your politics are primary and they’re not liberal, when you’re in Jewish circles, you’re not people’s best friends. I don’t wear some big Republican T-shirt when I walk into a synagogue, but in conversations it comes up and you see people’s reactions and they’re not thrilled with it. Some are tolerant of it but most are perfectly happy to turn around and walk into a different room.
For many people, the words “shutdown” and “Cruz” go hand in hand. How did people in D.C. and Capitol Hill staffers react when you told them you were a high-level staffer for Cruz?
First I should clarify that I wasn’t on Cruz’s staff during the shutdown. I started this past January. Having said that, I was a House conservative staffer, very much looking this way at the Cruz operation, at Sen. Cruz and everything he was doing, and loving it. There were a lot of arrows being aimed at him and his office from Republican circles, and frankly sometime even conservative circles, who maybe hated Obamacare, but didn’t like the tactics that were pursued. It started with the notion of defunding it, that we shouldn’t fund the implementation of Obamacare. Which is funny because that was something I was working on on the House side. I got to know Sen. Cruz and a lot of his staff through that bicameral House-Senate collaboration on defunding Obamacare and other issues. To this day, there’s still a little bit of jealousy on my part that I wasn’t here to go through all of that, his 21-hour filibuster. It’s almost like the soldier who joins the platoon just after a big battle. It’s like yeah, you’re there, you’re a soldier, you’re fighting, you’re one of us now, but you weren’t here with us. No one has ever gave me that impression, but that’s what I feel internally.
Is Cruz a tough boss?
I would only use the word tough to describe the fact that he is not a fan of idleness—the notion that we should just take this recess to just think and come up with things two weeks from now. No, that’s not him. In that sense you could say he’s tough. But he’s not tough in the sense that he doesn’t micromanage us. He doesn’t expect the unrealistic. He understands there are natural timeframes to things and things could insert themselves and disrupt it. You might be on the roll to get something done, and all of the sudden there’s a world event that disrupts what we’re doing and he understands that.
He’s very funny. When we have staff meetings we’re laughing the entire time. He’s great with pop culture. Always throws in good pop culture references. He knows exactly what YouTube videos to find that are substantively relevant to the conversation we’re having about policy. Movie lines relevant to the discussion. And he’s hard-charging, in a good way. If you’re a staffer who wants to everyday feel there’s meaning to what you’re doing and purpose to your day, purpose to your week, purpose to why you’re even here, this is a great job.
Did your high school civics teacher teach you about filling the tree and passing bills by
Definitely not. No you don’t even have to go back to high school to answer that question. you can even go back to… not even just college, graduate school. I went to graduate school right here in town, at American University for political science, and no offense to them, but there was no teaching of Senate procedure, congressional procedure.
I think that was seen as beneath a Ph.D. program, an academic program shouldn’t have to learn tactics. Which is a shame, because when i came to the hill, I thought I was all ready to go but i kind of wasn’t. I needed to learn basic procedure and basic practice. So that was kind of a shame.
I wish they would teach that because frankly, some people write of tactics as meaningless. I don’t think so. I feel like tactics, frankly, are how people win their policy fights. In other words, winning a great argument might be nice sitting right here in a conference room, but that doesn’t get a bill into law, that doesn’t block an amendment, that doesn’t allow for a reconsideration of a vote. You have to have your tactics to get your policy into law or to stop things from becoming law. In fact, I would argue the people most successful in this town are the ones who have mastered tactics and procedure and stuff like that — and frankly willing to use the things they know exits. Sometimes it’s a little Machiavellian or a little tough but then you get your victories.
Will these professors be shocked if you told them what these processes were?
No. Not necessarily. I’m hoping that they know what it is. They probably just are told by some curriculum somewhere or some administrator not to teach those things, because yeah, it’s “just tactics.” And the irony is too is that can actually inspire a lot of folks to get into politics and public services because you can have a whole course or unit or whatever on just tactics. It could be very exciting — political tactics and strategy. It’s like you know — ‘if this group wants to do this and this group wants to do that, OK, come up with a strategy for getting it done tactical. And if these people do this, how do you respond here. It could be really exciting, almost like a game theory kind of thing. But it seems to not be thought of as a legitimate thing to focus on. Which is a shame. Because then a lot of folks get here, they may know a lot of the arguments, a lot of the issues, but don’t know how to enact anything. So…maybe that’s something I’ll work on.
So you learned this all through experience?
Yeah. Learned tactics and procedure mostly through experience. I mean, some studying up. You read, this, that. Talk to folks. I’ll take people out to lunch say, ‘alright, I want to accomplish this. I’m going to take notes, tell me how to do that.’ I’ve done some of those over the years. But yeah. Sometime by just by living through what you learned, you learn what you need to do. Or you call someone in the moment. Call a parliamentarian, and say: ‘Hey, I want to do “X”. How do I do that?’ And they’ll tell you right there. That kind of thing. So learning on the fly on some of these things.
What position do you want to have if Cruz runs for president?
No one believes me when I say this, but I’ve given it absolutely zero thought. He hasn’t decided yet. He’s leaning toward it. That’s pretty obvious. But he has not decided yet. He’s still meeting with as many folks as he can, testing the water. Since he hasn’t decided, I can’t let my brain go to ‘Gee, maybe I’ll go to the White House.’ We’ll see what he wants, and what the future holds for me.
Do you ever plan on ever running for office, for any position?
Nope. No plans, because of two reasons. One, just my politics, there’s nowhere even close to here where I could possibly get elected. We’ve pretty much grown some roots here. We have a house, we have like the house. The house that we could spend the next 50 years in. Kids’ schools, kids’ synagogue, wife’s friends, etc. We really are growing a lot of roots here. To just suddenly move would be a disruption, and I don’t see that happening. Also, our families are in Long Island and Connecticut, so again, we don’t necessarily want to pick up and move to Utah. Second reason, I’ve now worked on Capitol Hill since March of 2000. We’re closing in on 15 years. The closer and the more you work for members of Congress, the more you realize how hard their life is. The average citizen doesn’t realize that, but they have a tremendously hard life. Constant time pressures. Voting, reading, meeting with people, fundraising, traveling. Some of these members are on four or five or more airplanes every week. Media interviews, and even just walking through the hallways. You just can’t walk through and grab a sandwich. You run into people on the way, they want your autograph, they want your picture, they want to ask you something. It’s an exhausting life, and as exhausting it is to be a staffer, at least folks don’t know me when I’m walking down the street. I can turn off things at times and be me, as opposed to a public figure.
Ian Zelaya is a staff writer and Dmitriy Shapiro is a political reporter.
[email protected], @IanDavidZelaya