WASHINGTON — “Just exactly who is Mitch Bainwol?” non-Washington viewers of HBO’s new political reality docu-drama “K Street” may have wondered after the show’s second episode last week.
Bainwol, the RIAA’s new standard-bearer, was the central off-camera figure in the episode, which centered on the music industry’s pitched battle against piracy. Bainwol never appears on camera but he’s mentioned a half-dozen times — a pretty high profile for a second week on the job as the RIAA’s new Washington rep.
“It was kind of funny,” Bainwol said a few days after watching the episode. The show “did capture the moment — I jumped on a moving train.”
Indeed, the RIAA has in just the past month dramatically stepped up its anti-piracy efforts, filing suits against more than 200 prolific file-swappers.
Before going Hollywood, Bainwol, 44, built a reputation as a major player inside the Beltway: the low-profile GOP political strategist behind so many successful Senate careers. To political junkies, Bainwol is a guru of sorts, best known for his role as the chief architect behind the Republicans’ success at taking back the Senate last year.
After that high point, Bainwol left the world of campaigns and elections to start his own lobbying shop. But he couldn’t pry himself away for long. When Bainwol’s previous boss, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), was selected to replace Majority Leader Trent Lott in the top Senate leadership post, Bainwol was pulled back into a Senate job, serving as Frist’s chief of staff.
After Frist got a handle on the job, Bainwol again tried to open his own firm, but the RIAA came calling.
Hilary Rosen, the group’s tough chief exec for the last six years, had decided to step down to spend more time with her partner and two adopted children.The decision to tap Bainwol for the lucrative post (salary estimates hover around $1 million) surprised many Hollywood and Washington insiders: Bainwol is the first Republican to head the association but he has no direct ties to or even a vested personal interest in the music industry itself.
Ask him to name his favorite CDs and Bainwol readily admits he’s not exactly a music aficionado, getting most of his input through his 11-year-old daughter — at least before he started the new job.
But in just three weeks at the RIAA, he’s coming up to speed. “I’ve turned down (radio personality Don) Imus and turned on my CD changer,” he quips.
Among popular current artists, he likes Coldplay, Good Charlotte and Jason Mraz.
As to how he’s going to work with Democrats on Capitol Hill — some of whom he worked to defeat in his previous job — Bainwol offers up a bit of bipartisan diplomacy.
“My job now is to engage not in politics but in building a foundation for an industry to thrive. … I’ve taken off my elephant cufflinks.”
With or without cufflinks, Bainwol embraces the personal responsibility mantra of the Republican party.When asked what he would do if his 11-year-old was slapped with a RIAA lawsuit, he first argues it would never happen, because the Internet service provider contract is in his name and he has already talked to his kids about online downloading and music theft.
“If that failed, then I would assume responsibility, and I expect in life to have some failures.”
Bainwol assumes the RIAA mantle at a tough time for the industry, but he’s approaching it with the same hard work, insight and energy that made him an indispensible politician.
At a lunch at The Palm his first day on the job, he pulls out a paper napkin and quickly scribbles out a graph of an internal RIAA poll showing how attitudes have changed toward online piracy since music labels started issuing subpoenas.
Bainwol is spending his first few weeks “learning the ropes” so he’s short on specifics about new ideas, and he doesn’t have plans to reshuffle operations. It’s the kind of diplomatic, non-confrontational approach he’s known for.
“I think he’s the right main at the right time,” says Bart Herbison, who heads the Nashville Songwriters Assn. “He’s a diplomat and knows how to operate in the political world.”
Herbison knows Bainwol through his work lobbying Frist about the damage piracy is doing to Nashville’s music row.
Even some of Bainwol’s political adversaries don’t expect him to have a problem approaching Democrats.
Jim Jordan, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) current presidential campaign manager, previously worked at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where Bainwol was his direct GOP counterpart.
“Mitch will do well on the Hill, and everywhere in town, with Democrats, too,” says Jordan. “… He has none of that creepy vibe that so many right-wingers have.”
Ironically, in his first weeks on the job, Bainwol is experiencing the most trouble from a close GOP ally he helped get elected.
Before Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) knew Bainwol was up for the RIAA post, he launched an investigation into the RIAA’s subpoena strategy against online peer-to-peer music swappers, arguing that the legal tactics violated personal privacy.
Bainwol helped Coleman with strategy to win the office held by popular Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash just weeks before election day. Coleman is so close to Bainwol that he has called him his personal rabbi.
But a month ago, when Bainwol told Coleman he had taken the RIAA job, the Senator’s jaw dropped. Coleman couldn’t believe that he and Bainwol were on opposite sides of a major issue.
They’ll face one another Sept. 30 at a hearing to examine the RIAA’s legal tactics. Bainwol will be there to testify, the first public speaking role he’s had since joining the RIAA.
“I have some real problems with the heavy-handed nature of the recording industry’s approach,” Coleman says. “Mitch and I have talked about it and I’m actually happier knowing that there’s someone I can trust and deal with in an honest, open way on the other side.”
For his part, Bainwol is looking forward to some healthy repartee with a close friend.
“There’s a touch of friendly tension. That’s part of life in this town. It’s important to be able to talk to political opponents in a fashion that’s civil, respectful and bipartisan,” he remarks.
And if the debate gets a little heated?
“That’s just part of the fun,” Bainwol insists.