WASHINGTON — To lead his major cancer research initiative, Vice President Joe Biden has tapped a close adviser who’s a political coordinator, not a medical scientist. But that doesn’t mean Don Graves doesn’t know cancer.
Graves, handpicked by Biden to oversee the “moonshot” initiative, had a tumor removed only last April. He had expected it to be benign, but the following month, his doctor jolted him with the news that it was cancerous.
He started radiation treatment and waged his own private fight against cancer — right around the time that Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, lost his.
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The treatment appears to have been successful, and Graves said in an interview that he is cancer-free.
Graves, 45, said he hasn’t shared the story widely, and he declined to describe the kind of cancer he had. But he has talked about his experience with the members of Biden’s federal cancer task force, and told them that “it’s hugely important for all of us to get this out in the open.”
He said it was his way of making a powerful point to the task force: that his own fight with cancer is a reminder that “this affects everybody.”
Graves, Biden’s counselor and director of domestic and economic policy, said his main mission as coordinator of the new initiative is to convince cancer researchers and advocates to put aside the self-interested politics in favor of faster progress.
His colleagues on other projects — including a high-profile job leading the administration’s economic efforts in Detroit — said he has a knack for getting the right mix of people into a room, hearing them out, and gently prodding them to work together.
“My job is not to be the guy who cures any cancer. I am not a molecular biologist … I am not an oncologist, or a radiologist, or any of those things,” Graves said. “My job is to help understand where there are political minefields, and remove the barriers or deal with the politics.”
The politics of cancer
Biden often says that there are three kinds of politics: church politics, union politics, and regular politics. But Graves said he and Biden have learned a lesson together: that there’s a fourth kind of politics — cancer politics — and it can be even more contentious than the rest.
That’s a phenomenon that critics of the state of cancer research have noticed for years. Fads in cancer research — tumor-causing viruses in one decade, immune-system approaches in another — come and go. Advocacy groups want research money for their kind of cancer, and members of Congress may try to steer funding toward their favorite research priorities, too.
It is those political interests that Biden is talking about when he mentions the need to break down “silos” and get the federal agencies, cancer researchers, drug companies, insurance companies, and advocates to cooperate. “I don’t claim to be a cancer expert. But I do have something to offer when it comes to being a catalyst and bringing folks together,” Biden wrote in a Medium post.
Biden’s statement, however, captures one of the main challenges of the cancer moonshot effort: If it were as easy as getting a bunch of people around a table, why wasn’t it done years ago?
Graves said he knows how to manage efforts across agencies – but acknowledged there are limits to what the agencies can do.
“The federal government isn’t the one that’s doing the research. We’re not the ones who are seeing patients on a daily basis. We’re not the ones who are sharing data,” he said. “What we do is provide funding incentives … to be the carrot at some times, and at other times to be the stick.”
Graves has experience putting his diplomatic skills to use in other ways. As President Obama’s point man in Detroit, he helped city officials and community leaders deal with the maze of federal agencies and grant programs to speed its financial recovery. He had to tell Detroit residents, over and over again, that the Obama administration wouldn’t bail out the city but could give it lots of other kinds of assistance.
“He’s very personable, he’s a man of his word, and if he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” said John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit group that renovates run-down neighborhoods in Detroit. “That’s really important to community people who have been lied to for three decades.”
In 2013, when the group prepared a citywide patrol on “Angel’s Night” — an annual event in which thousands of Detroit residents patrol the streets around Halloween to deter crime and vandalism — Graves told George he wanted to go out on patrol with them.
“I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” George recalled. One day, as the volunteers gathered in the lobby of a hotel the group had renovated, George looked around — and there was Graves, ready to go out on patrol.
Graves was also the executive director of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, developing policies to help economically distressed communities — and patiently taking heat at one point from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who didn’t think Obama paid enough attention to African-American communities.
All of his previous jobs with the Obama administration, Graves said, taught him that what’s most important in his work on the cancer initiative is “knowing how to identify the right people, but also knowing how to deal with the politics of cancer.”
The road to the cancer task force
Graves has dealt with health care issues before, including as director of public policy at the Business Roundtable between 1999 and 2005.
Much of his work, though, has been on other economic and business issues, with a frequent focus on community development.
As part of the Detroit assignment, Graves also had to bring federal officials, city officials, and local community leaders together to help the city make the best possible use of available federal grant money to help it rebound from bankruptcy.
“When you have a lot of people at the table and lots of different opinions, and they all want to be part of the solution but sometimes can’t get out of their own way, you need someone who can get them to step back and focus on the end goal,” said Gina Metrakas, a former Department of Housing and Urban Development official who worked with Graves in Detroit. “He has strong enough diplomatic skills to be able to do that.”
Graves spent a lot of his time putting city officials in touch with the right federal officials to accomplish crucial goals, like giving Detroit technical assistance in putting a new grants management system in place.
“He has a good sense of people … I think he has a good strategic mind,” said Kevyn Orr, the former emergency manager for Detroit. His job, Orr said, was “to have good judgment about what input is credible and what’s not.”
Metrakas, now the director of urban revitalization for Rock Ventures, said Graves “was able to gain the respect of everyone he worked with,” mostly by showing a genuine interest in everyone’s views. “He’s a genuinely kind and thoughtful person … Regardless of who he talks to, he’s very respectful and really listens,” she said.
Despite the dramatic finish that the “moonshot” metaphor suggests, Graves sees it more as the start of a new chapter of cancer research, not necessarily the end of cancer altogether.
He says the cancer effort will try to accomplish a few general goals: make sure federal funding is going to “the right places at the right time;” find more and better ways to prevent cancer; give patients enough information to make their own decisions about treatments; and give them better access to care even if they can’t afford treatment at the nation’s most famous cancer centers.
One important and long-lasting outcome, he said, would be a network for sharing information on the most successful cancer treatments — because that kind of network could also be adapted for use in research on other illnesses, like heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.
If the cancer initiative can accomplish that, Graves said, it can “build an infrastructure that lasts well beyond this administration.”