Voices
November 04, 2020

This veteran political consultant ditched Tuesday's Election Day circus to focus on his other passion: caddieing

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David Cannon

When he's not doing his day job as a political consultant, Oxman often moonlights as a tour caddie, having worked his first loop back in 1972.

Neil Oxman had a lovely day on Tuesday. He spent the afternoon walking the golf course at Phoenix Country Club to prepare for the start of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the final event in this year’s truncated PGA Tour Champions schedule.

Oxman will be caddieing for Fred Couples, whose regular caddie, Mark Chaney, is home dealing with a family issue. Oxman’s presence on the golf course Tuesday did not escape the notice of players or caddies who were also there prepping for the tournament.

“Yeah, a number of guys came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here TODAY?’ ” he said by phone on Tuesday night. “I just told them this was a perfect excuse for me to get away from it all.”

Oxman likes to tell people that he’s a professional caddie—which is accurate, since he first caddied on the PGA Tour in 1972 while a rising junior at Villanova. But that answer is extremely incomplete. For the last 40 years he has run one of the most successful political campaign organizations in the country—The Campaign Group—based in Philadelphia, which has run more than 750 campaigns through the years for Democrats. Oxman has worked on gubernatorial and senate races, as well as congressional, mayoral and state legislative races. More than 75 percent of his candidates have won their elections.

Oxman has written and produced thousands of ads—for TV, for radio and for print. He has made a lot of money ever since he and partner Thomas (Doc) Sweitzer started their business after working together in a gubernatorial campaign in 1979. “Some wins you can’t really count,” he said. “They’re walkovers. No real competition. But we’ve won our fair share.”

Like a lot of people, Oxman is burned out on the polarizing political atmosphere of 2020. That’s one reason why he was glad when Couples called last week and also glad when both Couples and Jeff Sluman offered him chances to work this summer.

“Some of it is that I’ve done [politics] for 40 years,” he said. “But, no question, some of it is the atmosphere we’re living in and working in right now. I’m much happier being here right now than being back in Philadelphia.”

If Oxman had been back home, he would have gone about his normal Election Day routine.

“Our work in November is really over the Friday before the election,” he said. “We finish our last scripts for our last ads and get them where they need to go so they can air the last few days before Tuesday. We check up on them through Monday, just in case something changes in a race and we need to update something or even pull an ad. Doesn’t happen very often, but we have to be aware.

“Then, Tuesday morning, we do our purge in the office. We take every scrap of paper that relates to that year’s races and we throw them out: memos, newspaper clippings, ad copy—anything you can think of that’s on paper. There’s still a LOT on paper. Takes us (Oxman’s office usually includes about 20 people in an even-numbered year) the entire morning. We’ll purge about 50 LARGE trash bags before we’re done.

“Then we go to lunch and celebrate.”

Lunch is always at the same place: The Famous Fourth Street Deli in downtown Philadelphia. Once, the crowd consisted of two people: Oxman and Sweitzer. These days, it’s closer to 30 to 40 people and includes politicians, such as former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a long-time Oxman client, and those who work in politics around the city. They will eat and trade stories for a while and then head off to prepare for the night ahead.

What does Oxman do?

“I usually go to the movies,” he said. “There have been years when the ABC affiliate here asked me to sit on their news set to do analysis of local races, but more often I go to two movies—one at 7 and one at 9. Then I go home, check the returns and go to bed. There’s nothing I can do at that point. There’s no reason to make myself crazy.”

In addition to being a political consultant and a caddie, Oxman is a movie critic. Since 1999, he hosts a show devoted to reviewing movies on the local NPR station, WHYY. “If the movie theaters were open out here, that’s what I would do tonight,” he said. “But I’m out in the suburbs. Nothing’s open.”

When he’s out on tour, Oxman is a Democrat in a Republican world. His primary bag since 2003 has been Tom Watson, who is as devoted to Donald Trump as almost anyone alive. It was Oxman who pointed Watson out to his friend Bruce Edwards prior to a tournament in St. Louis in 1973. Watson was just coming back from his honeymoon and looking for a caddie for the week. Edwards had just graduated from high school and was five weeks into his career as a caddie.

On orders from Oxman, Edwards asked and Watson said, “We’ll try it for a week.” The relationship lasted 30 years and only ended when Edwards, dying of ALS, wasn’t strong enough to caddie anymore. At the request of both Edwards and Watson, Oxman took over the bag whenever he was free from his “other” job.

Oxman and Watson usually steer clear of politics when they’re together, although each is keenly aware of how the other man feels. The same is true when Oxman vacations, as he often does, with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus and Andy and Sue North.

“There are times,” he admitted, “when I have to bite my tongue. Especially now. But it’s never really been a problem.”

With Watson cutting his schedule way back, Oxman has made it known to other players that he’s looking for work and hopes to caddie in at least a dozen tournaments next year.

“Everyone knows everyone out here,” he said of the senior tour. “Jeff [Sluman] didn’t have a caddie this summer so Linda [Sluman’s wife, an oncologist in real life] came out and did it for a while just for fun. Then she had to go home for work, and Slu asked me for the two weeks in Branson.

“In the past I wouldn’t have been able to work so close to an election. But I’m winding down now and giving more and more work to the younger people who work for me. I suspect this will be my last major campaign season.”

Oxman is 67 and in perhaps in the best shape of his life. At the height of his political career, when he wasn’t caddieing much and frequently pulling all-nighters late in campaigns, his weight ballooned to as much as 281 pounds. Now, he weighs 182. “I’ve found, luckily, that as you get older, you don’t crave food as much,” he said. “At least I don’t. And the exercise of caddieing helps a lot.”

Oxman was hopeful on Tuesday that Joe Biden was going to win the election and that the Democrats were going to get the senate back. “Hopeful,” he said. “I read polling as much as anyone on earth, but I also know it can’t always be trusted. Biden will win the popular vote, but that isn’t what matters. It’s the Electoral College. This isn’t medal play, it’s match play.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Biden appeared to be closing in on victory, but the Republicans were going to retain control of the senate. There is still much bickering to come.

Which was why Oxman was very glad to be in sunny Phoenix—away from it all—rather than in November-dreary Philadelphia. It was in the mid 80s and sunny in Phoenix on Tuesday. In Philadelphia, it was relatively warm—mid 50s, but overcast.

W.C Fields, like Oxman a native of Philadelphia, was reported to have once said, “I spent a week in Philadelphia one night.” The quote is apocryphal as is the line supposedly on Fields’ tombstone: “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

This isn’t even a little bit apocryphal: All things considered, Neil Oxman is very happy to be in Phoenix this week.