Managing Director, SKDKnickerbocker
Industry: Political consulting
Key previous position:Media strategy at DNC
Notable fact: Sidwell Friends School alum
When the Democratic party machine breaks down, Doug Thornell is often its leaders’ first phone call. One of the most plugged-in Democratic public-affairs professionals in Washington, Thornell serves as the head of SKDKnickerbocker’s political department after having built out its public-affairs practice for the previous eight years. Before joining the private sector, Thornell led communications efforts for top Democratic officials—including now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings—and worked in top jobs for all three Democratic campaign committees.
But lately, he’s been called on as a crisis-management specialist during several of the party’s most difficult moments. Party leaders have trusted him to work his deep Rolodex of press contacts to manage coverage on the outside, while acting as a morale-building advocate for staff on the inside.
This summer, Thornell was dispatched to work with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after its chairwoman, Cheri Bustos, came under fire over the committee’s lack of staff diversity. He helped lead recruitment efforts to land a new executive director (Lucinda Guinn) and fill other pivotal positions at the party’s House campaign arm.
“Look around Democratic politics and there are not a lot of people of color in senior positions, particularly in the press department,” Thornell said. “That’s always been important to me in my career, figuring out ways we can improve that dynamic.”
Three years earlier, Thornell received an urgent call after news broke that private Democratic National Committee emails had been stolen and released by Russian hackers, and the DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, began to take fire on the cusp of the party convention. He immediately signed on to help the embattled committee, managing press requests, formulating a communications strategy, and rebuilding morale under its new chair, Donna Brazile.
“My job was to work alongside staff and take pressure and work off their plate—and do it in a quiet way,” Thornell said. “You’re never successful if you walk in like you’re better than everyone and blame people for what happened.”
With SKDKnickerbocker, Thornell has managed some of his agency’s most significant political, corporate, and public-affairs clients—including Texas Instruments, the NAACP, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Named head of the firm’s political department this year, he now plans to work mainly with Democratic campaigns, coming full circle from the beginning of his career.
Thornell recently launched a podcast with Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod titled The Electables, which features interviews with up-and-coming political professionals.