When 10 candidates squared off in the 1st GOP debate earlier this month, plenty of Westporters watched closely.
Republicans searched for the best leader. Democrats anticipated a train wreck.
Ethan Zorfas wanted to see how well his boss would do.
The 2003 Staples High School graduate is one of Ted Cruz’s senior advisors, concentrating on the Northeast. So when New Hampshire holds its 1st-in-the-nation primary 6 months from now, Zorfas’ work may well determine whether the Texan is on a path to the White House — or back to the Senate.
It’s a job Zorfas would never have expected a dozen years ago. His main passion entering Staples was basketball. He played it well — and earned Academic All-State honors.
But in his first few days of junior year, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Lis Comm’s English class spent days talking about how the world suddenly changed.
“I woke up to the outside world,” Zorfas recalls. “For the first time, I realized that policy matters.”
Social studies teacher Justin Cosell opened his eyes to politics. In class, Zorfas learned how to write a bill.
“He was a huge liberal. I was more conservative,” Zorfas says, of the instructor who happens to be Howard Cosell’s grandson.
But a friendship grew. Today, they still talk often about politics.
After graduating, Zorfas headed to Clark University in Worcester. “That’s another liberal school,” he laughs.
He joined with a few non-liberals to reactivate a dormant Republican Club. And he earned $100 a day knocking on doors in New Hampshire during President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.
After earning a master’s in public administration from Clark, Zorfas worked on a handful of campaigns. He joined the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2008 — “a tough cycle,” Zorfas admits — and stayed on to organize fundraising for congressmen Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. He then branched out into political consulting for others.
In 2010 he was hired as chief of staff by New Hampshire congressman Frank Guinta. At 25, Zorfas may have been the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill.
When Guinta was defeated in 2012, Zorfas restarted his small firm, MarblePort Consulting. (The name combines Marblehead — where he lived as a child — and Westport.)
Zorfas’ New Hampshire ties made him a hot commodity in GOP circles. After the 2014 election cycle, he examined the wide swath of presidential candidates to find the best fit.
Cruz rose to the top of Zorfas’ list.
“If you really want to change Washington and how things work, he’s the only one in the field who can do that,” the consultant explains.
Zorfas had breakfast with the senator in New Hampshire, then flew to Texas.
“I’d only seen him on TV,” Zorfas recalls. “But I was impressed that he’d been solicitor general of Texas, and a clerk for (Supreme Court Chief Justice William) Rehnquist. His constitutional knowledge blew me away.”
They talked about how Zorfas could help Cruz be competitive in New Hampshire. Then, wham: The 30-year-old signed on as a key advisor.
His job now is to develop and implement strategies for Cruz to succeed in the Northeast. Zorfas is helping build the campaign infrastructure, and provides perspective to other Cruz advisors.
He speaks frequently with the candidate. “He’s taking New Hampshire very seriously,” Zorfas says.
Zorfas has worked on local, congressional and Senate races. Yet a presidential campaign is orders of magnitude different. Half a year before the first primary votes are cast, he already feels exponentially more energy and enthusiasm.
This month’s Fox News debate marked a major moment, Zorfas says. He sat with 200 supporters at the carefully chosen Texas Roadhouse in Nashua. Like a true professional, Zorfas says, “The feedback is that the senator spoke well, and had a clear message.”
Zorfas knows that a pro-life, gun-rights, anti-same-sex-marriage, climate-change denying Texan is not the first choice of most Westporters. Especially those Westporters who graduated with Zorfas in 2003.
“I had a great group of friends,” he says with pride. “We still talk on a daily basis. Most of them are probably Democrats. But I think they’re very proud of me and my accomplishments, as I am of them. They think it’s great that I can grow my career like this.”
And, he says, “we always have great debates.”
So if Senator Cruz becomes President Cruz, what job would Zorfas want?
“It’s way too early to think about that,” he says with the ease of a practiced politician. “Right now we’re all just focused on winning a 17-person race.”
He has no desire to run for office himself. “Seeing candidates go through what they do, I’m happy where I am,” Zorfas noted. “I love what I do.”
And Ted Cruz loves having this Connecticut-raised, New Hampshire-tested advisor on his very senior national staff.