Introduction: Should You Read This Story?
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. — Mark Twain
Should you read this story? Let me help you answer that question by giving you the following quiz. Suppose you are about to vote to elect your next congressperson. Which of the following candidates would you choose?
Candidate A is the Republican incumbent. He is a college dropout whose last job outside politics — over 20 years ago — was as a lifeguard. He supports white men’s rights and he has referred to environmentalists as “zealots” and “extremists.”
Candidate B is running as the Perot party candidate. She is a self-professed dominatrix who promises to beat Newt Gingrich in ways that have not yet been imagined. She has lips that would make Hugh Grant blush, she promises to be as tough on crime as she is on her clients, and she is an avid supporter of corporal punishment — so long as she gets to personally administer it.
Candidate C is the Democratic challenger. He is a professor of economics at one of the world’s leading universities and the author of several widely acclaimed books on public policy. He has managed his own business and regularly provides consulting advice to both business and government. He is a conservative on fiscal matters and a progressive on issues such as a woman’s right to choose and protecting the environment.
Now if after reading these descriptions your voting choice is Candidate A, I do not recommend this story. My suggestion is that you read the collected works of Rush Limbaugh followed by Oliver North’s biography and G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography. Then devote your free time listening to and expressing your opinions on talk radio.
If your choice is Candidate B, I also do not recommend this story. My suggestion is the special Valentine’s Day leather-bound edition of the complete works of the Marquis de Sade and a lifetime subscription to Hustler magazine. If you have any free time and money left, you may want to call Candidate B’s hotline at 1-900-whipmenow for her daily inspirational message.
If your choice is Candidate C, you may find this story entertaining and interesting. You should know in advance, however, that Candidate A is going to whip Candidate C’s butt pretty good and that Candidate C is going to (almost) wind up in jail. But therein lies the tale.
The Difference Between God and Newt Gingrich
When I listen to Newt Gingrich, I agree with everything he says for the first ten minutes. After that, he scares the hell out of me. — Republican Party official, Buffalo, New York
On Election Day, November 8, 1994, a tidal wave of change crashed over the American political system. With the help of 73 unabashedly right-wing freshman congressmen, Newt Gingrich seized the gavel of Speaker of the House and the Republicans gained control of that august body for the first time in 40 years.
Within months of taking power, Newt Gingrich was one of the most reviled men in America not on death row, the Republican Congress had one of the highest unfavorability ratings ever recorded, and the Democratic Party — with two feet in the grave just months before — was absolutely giddy with the prospect of taking a Congress back that it had thought was lost forever. That’s when I got the phone call. It was from former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk — one of the bloodiest casualties of the Gingrich revolution.
Lynn is a tough, intelligent, articulate, and stunning blonde who looks, acts, and sounds perfect for politics. She had been elected to Congress in 1992, the “Year of the Woman,” and, indeed, she had become San Diego’s first congresswoman in history. At that time, it looked as if she was on her way toward a long and distinguished career.
Unfortunately, Lynn lost her bid for reelection within a few months of taking office — although the votes weren’t to be counted for over a year. Her fatal mistake was to cast the deciding ballot in favor of President Bill Clinton’s deficit-reduction package.
Lynn’s vote was not only an act of political courage, it was also sheer stupidity. This is because San Diegans hate to see their taxes raised; and, thanks to clever propaganda by the Republicans, that’s how most everybody perceived the Clinton bill. Never mind that the legislation only raised taxes on the very, very rich — that’s a subtlety that neither the president nor the Democratic leadership ever successfully communicated to the American people.
So from that fateful day forward — a day in which not a single Republican voted for the Clinton bill — Schenk was dead meat. She would not be alone, however. More than 30 other Democratic incumbents would fall on Clinton’s tax-hike sword in the 1994 election, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley of Washington State, Intelligence Committee Chairman Dan Glickman of Kansas, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas. (Foley, by the way, was the first sitting Speaker of the House to be defeated in an election since 1862.)
There are two lessons to be learned from Lynn Schenk’s unfortunate fate. The first is that any politician who is not in a safe seat, where one’s reelection is assured, must sometimes tell the president to go choke on a Big Mac, especially when he lobbies for something politically suicidal. (Please tell him politely, however.)
The second lesson is that any president who forces members of his party to cast a vote that will cost them their reelection is a damn fool. Of course, Bill Clinton was a damn fool that year — something even he’d probably admit — but it was only one of a number of rookie mistakes made by our freshman president. This mistake, however, cost Bill Clinton control of the U.S. Congress by his own party.
But come to think of it, it may not have been so stupid after all for Clinton to lose the Congress. In hindsight, that loss undoubtedly saved what at the time was Bill Clinton’s very sorry rear end because it gave Clinton somebody even less popular than he was to kick around, namely, Newt “let’s shut down the government” Gingrich. This has turned out to be a popular sport with the American people, and justly so.
Anyway, my phone call from Lynn Schenk seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary. She was a friend, she wanted to have lunch with me to talk about the upcoming race for Congress in 1996, and I naturally assumed that she was running and wanted my help.
Instead, Lynn asked me to consider running. She had ruled out a race of her own for personal reasons, and she believed that I was one of the few people who could beat the incumbent Brian Bilbray.
Running for Congress was not something I wanted to contemplate. After all, I had lost three of the closest elections in San Diego history in just the last three years — for mayor in 1992, for city council in 1993, and for county supervisor in 1994. Despite the closeness of my losses, I was gaining a reputation as a perennial loser, and I had also publicly promised not to run again for anything (except maybe dogcatcher) if I lost that third race. More to the point, I was mentally and physically exhausted from the process, and, frankly, I was not looking forward to another beating.
So, instead, I urged Lynn to reconsider her decision not to run. In doing so, I told her everything she was trying to tell me. That Brian Bilbray could be easily beaten this time. That Bilbray was as much of an idiot as he was when he first ran against her in 1994, but this time he was an idiot with a record — a bad one.
Rabidly pro-Gingrich, anti-environment, anti-Medicare, anti-education, and anti-choice, Bilbray fit the 49th Congressional District about as well as the glove at the O.J. trial fit the Juice — which is to say, not at all. At the same time, county government was about to go belly up because some years earlier, in a bonehead move, Bilbray had successfully crusaded for a $150 million boondoggle trash plant that was now threatening to bankrupt the county’s regional trash system.
Besides, I told Lynn, she was a prodigious fund-raiser, and it would take a million dollars to beat the sob, which was probably more than I could raise. Plus, Lynn had great White House connections, she had strong community support, 1996 was going to be a super year for Democrats, and she could do the race a whole lot easier than I could.
And that’s how we left it. She said she’d think about it, and I said I wouldn’t. But the seed was planted in my mind — a mind, I might add, that responds to the idea of running for office in much the same way that a gambling addict responds to the call to “put your money down.”
(By the way, if you’ve read this far and are still wondering what the title of this chapter means, the difference between God and Newt Gingrich is that God knows he’s not Newt Gingrich.)
Chapter 2: Nothing Is Fatal in Politics
Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win. — Jonathan Kozel
I lost my first election in 1992 because of a cocaine deal gone bad. I wasn’t directly involved. It was more like a drive-by shooting with me as the innocent victim. Sort of innocent, that is, because I did see the limousine coming with its guns drawn and blazing. I just didn’t have the good sense to dive out of the way. Here’s what happened.
On April 7, 1989, San Diego financier Richard Silberman was arrested in a San Diego motel room for attempting to launder what was purported to be over a million dollars of Colombian cocaine money. He had been caught flagrante delicto on videotape in an fbi sting originally set up to ensnare the alleged mobster Chris Petti. My favorite line uttered by Silberman during the sting was “This is not a virgin here.” I love that line because being a virgin is probably the one thing Dick Silberman had never been accused of.
The Silberman bust was big news in and of itself in San Diego because Silberman was one of the town’s most prominent politicos. He’d made a fortune cofounding the Jack In The Box hamburger chain and, as rich people often do, he had parlayed his business success into political clout. Indeed, Silberman had started right at the top with several appointments to Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, including Secretary of Business and Transportation and state finance director.
However, what made the Silberman bust even bigger news was that his wife, County Supervisor Susan Golding, was getting ready to make her long-anticipated leap into state politics with a run for lieutenant governor. Success in that endeavor would have reunited her with her old mentor Governor Pete Wilson and put her in the line of succession for the governor’s mansion once Wilson stepped down. Pete Wilson had, of course, gotten his start in politics as the mayor of San Diego back in 1971.
Golding’s first big liaison up the political ladder had been with Wilson’s chief strategist George Gorton. Out of that coupling came a plum appointment in 1981 to the San Diego City Council by Wilson.
Golding’s second big liaison was with the aforementioned Richard Silberman. She used his fortune to bankroll her move up from the city council to the county board of supervisors. In that 1984 race, Golding ran against Lynn Schenk. What is most bizarre about this face-off is that Schenk had gotten into the race to begin with only at the urging of Richard T. Silberman, her former boss at the California Department of Business and Transportation.
In a now-famous meeting between Schenk and Silberman — with Golding as a fly on the wall in the room — Schenk laid out her entire campaign strategy to Silberman, thanked him for getting her into the race, and asked for his full support. Shortly thereafter, to the chagrin of Silberman and the outrage of Schenk, Golding decided she wanted the seat for herself, and that’s where Sugar Daddy Dick’s money came in.
At the time Golding threw her hat into the supervisor’s race, she and Dick Silberman were boyfriend and girlfriend, not husband and wife. During the primary election campaign, Silberman had done what he could within the legal constraints of that relationship to help financially with Golding’s campaign, but he was risking serious accusations of illegal campaign contributions if his help got any bigger.
This problem was solved as soon as Silberman and Golding got married just days after the primary election. After that, hubby Dick was free to throw as much money into Golding’s general-election campaign as he wanted to. It wound up totaling a quarter of a million dollars, and Golding used Silberman’s hefty bankroll to blow Schenk out of the water.
So what has all this got to do with me, you might ask? Quite a bit. Because it quickly became clear to Golding’s political brain trust that her next envisioned step up the political ladder had died the day Silberman got busted. No Daddy Big Bucks, no lieutenant governorship. That’s when Golding turned her attention to other, more realistic possibilities, and the biggest one looming on the horizon was the race for mayor of the sixth largest city in America, San Diego.
The Golding Rehabilitation
Now I know that at this point there is a question forming in your mind: How could the wife of a convicted drug-money launderer possibly be elected to San Diego’s highest local office? It’s a good question, and the answer confirms the campaign consultant’s first maxim: Nothing is fatal in politics.
Indeed, by the time the mayor’s race rolled around, the Golding Rehabilitation was well under way. She had stuck by her man during Silberman’s trial and professed his innocence almost as much as her own. But when they put old Dick in the slammer, Golding quickly began to distance herself from him. The political spin was artfully simple: Golding was an innocent woman who had, like millions of other women, been deceived by her no-good, lying, cheating husband. This, as fortune would have it for Ms. Golding, was a perfect theme for what was shaping up as the Year of the Woman in politics.
Of course, to anyone who knew Golding well, it was more than a little bit of a stretch to believe she had no knowledge of her hubby’s activities. After all, anyone who gets into bed with someone like Dick Silberman to begin with is certainly no Snow White. Indeed, over the years, Silberman had left in his large, slimy wake a long laundry list of evil deeds, including soliciting campaign donations from the Mafia, lying to the state legislature, allegedly swindling several business partners out of thousands of dollars, and, my favorite alleged Dick Silberman scam, selling off the leased equipment of one of his companies, Yuba Natural Resources.
At the same time, there was speculation that the only reason Silberman had laundered the cocaine cash to begin with was to build the multimillion-dollar campaign war chest his honey would need for her run for statewide office. But despite these rumors and despite Silberman’s tawdry track record, there was never any hard evidence of Golding’s direct involvement in the money-laundering scheme, so Snow White Susie was able to pull off her rehabilitation.
I Reach Beyond My Grasp
As soon as Susan Golding tossed her hat into the mayor’s race, I should have pulled mine out and run for the seat Golding was vacating on the county board of supervisors. That, at least, was what my key political advisors argued at the time. In hindsight, it was good advice — advice that gives meat to the opening quote of this chapter: “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.”
The county board of supervisors has jurisdiction over 2.5 million people and is responsible for the criminal justice system as well as the complex web of welfare and social services. It also oversees land-use planning and environmental protection for vast areas in the unincorporated parts of the county. It’s a big job, and had I run, I would easily have been elected.
The reason the supervisor’s race would have been a cakewalk is that by 1992 I had acquired the two most important assets any political candidate can have — a strong financial base of support and high name recognition, or “name ID,” as they say in the trade. I had come by these two assets working in the trenches of citizen activism as the leader of San Diego’s growth-management movement.
Now let me say right off the bat that I’m not what you would call a “tree hugger” or a “bushes and bunnies” environmentalist out to save the planet or the whales — although I do not denigrate that perspective either and I really like whales. Rather, my citizen activism is a direct outgrowth of a classical and fiscally conservative training in economics at Harvard. It is a perspective rooted in one of the most important concepts in economics — the need for government intervention in the presence of a market failure.
In the case of unmanaged growth, the market failure is pretty obvious. In a free market and in the absence of planning, developers will flatten every hillside, fill every canyon, obliterate every endangered species, and pave over every wetland they think they can make a buck on. In their wake, they will leave air pollution, overcrowded schools, underpoliced streets, sewer systems bursting at their seams, and traffic jams that can (and often do in California) make grown men cry.
To prevent such a market failure, my growth-management philosophy embraces two basic rules. First, a city should decide where it doesn’t want to develop and then put those lands aside forever. In San Diego, that means saving at least some of the canyons and hillsides and wetlands from the bulldozer’s blade. It also means preserving some open spaces for both public enjoyment and the protection of endangered species. (My conservative readers, please take note here that what this rule does not mean is taking anybody’s land without paying them fairly for it.)
My second rule of growth management is the one that really ticks the developers off. To wit, developers must pay for or provide all the parks, libraries, schools, and other public facilities and infrastructure that will be necessary to support their developments. They must also ensure that these facilities and infrastructure get built at the “time of need,” that is, at the same time as the houses — not five years later (or never) like most of these punks in pinstripes prefer.
It was this arguably quite reasonable banner of growth management that I carried into battle in several high-profile citizen-initiative campaigns in the four years preceding the mayor’s race. In the first battle in 1988, our side spent $200,000 and the developers spent a little over $2 million. Guess who won?
After that defeat, I formed a citizen’s group called plan! — Prevent Los Angelization Now — and served as its chairperson. We went forward with several more initiatives but always with the same sorry result: a ten-to-one spending advantage for the developers and a stinging defeat for us. The funny thing, however, was that every time plan! got its butt kicked at the ballot box or in city council chambers or in the courts, my own reputation only got bigger.
By the time 1992 rolled around, my name recognition among voters was well over 50 percent, which is remarkably high for someone who is not a convicted serial killer or already in elected office. At the same time, during the course of the several initiative campaigns, I had developed one of the most important prerequisites of an aspiring politician, a strong financial base. I had done so by personally calling thousands of people for contributions to support plan!’s efforts and incorporating these loyal donors into a sophisticated fund-raising database. By 1992, with this high name ID and a donor list of over 5000 people, I was a force to be reckoned with.
The Art of Not Taking Good Advice
Had I run for and won that county supervisor’s race, I would today be positioned to move up to higher office — to mayor, Congress, or the state legislature. That’s a big reason why my political advisors wanted me to run for supervisor to begin with. And there is an important lesson here: Sometimes it’s okay to work your way up the political ladder, so long as you don’t stop at every step and wind up as a career politician. Of course, I ignored this sound advice and ran for mayor instead — and almost pulled it off.
I won the mayoral primary on June 2, 1992, and that was the greatest day in my political life. Even though the runoff election was some five months away, people were already hailing me as the next mayor. It was a done deal. Golding, who had barely eked out a second-place victory over a former executive from a failed savings and loan and an ex-strip mall developer turned city councilman, would be toast. Even I believed it.
By Labor Day, however, Golding had amassed a huge campaign war chest that augured at least a three-to-one spending advantage. Most of the money was contributed by panicked developers who saw me, even in my best moments, as the environmental Antichrist. Golding’s consultants proceeded to use this developer money to do what Susan Golding has done to every hapless victim she has ever run against — first demonize and then destroy. She did a hell of a job — the only compliment I’ll ever give her.
Golding’s weapon of choice was a series of slick, hard-hitting TV commercials, each of which pushed the envelope of slander but always stopped at the brink of a lawsuit. The first TV hit featured the head of the cops’ union accusing me of wanting to bring drug addicts to San Diego. The accusation was based on my public support for clean-needle-exchange programs to fight the spread of aids from intravenous drug users. (I’ll fill you in on the details of how I got needlessly boxed in on that issue in another chapter.)
A second commercial claimed that my campaign was funded by pornographers. This was perhaps Golding’s most outrageous accusation, and it brought my poor wife to tears and me to the brink of uncontrollable rage. I’ll likewise explain more about how she could make such an accusation without being sued for slander in a later chapter on campaign dirty tricks, but suffice it to say, it was a hard hit and a low blow.
The coup de grâce was a classic “hit-hug” — 15 seconds of falsely accusing me of wanting to “raise taxes” and warning that my policies would “double unemployment” followed by 15 more seconds of a warm and fuzzy Golding in the role of “pro-business” messiah.
There was little I could do to defend myself from this propaganda onslaught, and at least part of my pathetic defenselessness was my own fault. In running my campaign, I had committed one of the most egregious — albeit highly predictable — sins of the neophyte candidate. I had squandered so much money early in the campaign paying staff and running a big office operation that I didn’t have enough cash on hand to counterattack when the Scuds started coming in.
By two weeks before Election Day, my once-impregnable 30-point advantage in the polls had evaporated, and the race was now a dead heat — with the momentum on Golding’s side. In desperation, I mortgaged my house — never do that, mon candidate — and used the cash to fight back with a single, and now infamous, TV commercial of my own.
“The Ad,” as it came to be known in political circles, hit Golding right between the eyes with a topic I had assiduously avoided the entire campaign: her no-good, money-laundering, and now ex-husband Dick Silberman. And the Ad worked like a charm. In the first few days it ran, Golding dropped like a stone. Then we did something really stupid. We kept running it and running it and running it and running it right up until Election Day when you are always supposed to finish on a positive note. This created a strong backlash among voters that was further fueled by a scathing editorial and companion editorial cartoon in the San Diego Union-Tribune. (The cartoon had me looking like a pit bull foaming at the mouth throwing huge clumps of mud at the poor, defenseless Golding.)
Now that ticked me off. Never mind that Golding had skated on the thinnest edge of slander by falsely accusing me of wanting to bring drug addicts to San Diego, sell city hall to pornographers, and double the unemployment rate. In the final few days, when voters were paying attention, I was the person who came off as the mudslinger.
The Sunday before the election in a prime-time debate watched by half the city, Golding played her final trump card. In a scene that she and her consultants had rehearsed over and over, Golding burst into tears in her closing statement. As she slobbered and whimpered about the damage I had done to her family, the camera zeroed in on my smirk of disbelief. Another mini-lesson here, mon candidate: never smirk on TV! At that moment, every undecided female voter in San Diego who had ever been cheated on or lied to by a man moved into the Golding column, and Golding’s rehabilitation was finally complete — thanks to me.
And on Election Day, it was I who was toast. I narrowly lost by 52 to 48 percent. However, the worst part wasn’t losing. It was that I now had a reputation for being the cruelest and meanest son of a bitch that ever ran for office in San Diego. Little did I know then that this was going to make ever winning an election in San Diego very difficult indeed.
Choosing a PAC Fund-Raiser
If you want to know what people believe, don’t read what they write, don’t ask them what they believe, just observe what they do. — Ashley Montagu
In the summer of 1995, more than a year before the 1996 election, I traveled to Washington for a series of speeches on the deregulation and restructuring of the electric utility industry. In my life, I’m an expert on a few things. Losing close elections is one of them. Electric utility regulation is another. Neither is a barrel of laughs, but both have their moments.
Since I always believe in first things first, I set about using this trip to find a possible fund-raiser who would help me tap into the biggest source of money for a congressional candidate. This is the Washington pacs — the political action committees. They typically account for roughly half of the money a congressional candidate spends, with the other half coming from individual donations, mostly from within the district.
On the Democratic side, there is about $250,000 in pac money that can be raised per election cycle. That means if you raise pac money for both a primary and a general election — remember this, because it will be important later — you can get about $500,000 all told. This is about half of what I was going to need to win the race.
The Democratic money comes mostly from labor-union pacs, but there is also a smattering of others — from trial lawyers, nurses, ophthalmologists to peace groups, women’s organizations, and the environmental community. On the Republican side, it’s mostly the business pacs.
Going to Washington, I knew that this would be the single most important hire I would make in the campaign, and it was fraught with difficulties. A good fund-raiser is hard to find, and I have had more than my share of bad ones. One guy worked for me at my grassroots group plan! for almost a year and spent virtually all of his time writing a “strategic fund-raising document.” He didn’t even raise enough money to pay his salary.
pac fund-raisers in D.C. run the gamut from big, high-overhead money mills with zillions of clients to small boutique shops run out of homes. The benefit of the bigger operations is a proven track record and guaranteed access to all of the various pacs. After all, if the firm is representing a Dick Gephardt or a Henry Waxman, you know that it will have ready access to any pac director. In raking in the big bucks for its name-brand incumbents, it just might also be able to scoop up a few crumbs for challengers like me.
The disadvantage of the big shops is that they charge you an arm and a leg. The other likely problem is that, as a lowly challenger, you’ll be lost in the political-celebrity shuffle. That’s why it’s generally better for a challenger candidate to go the boutique route. These folks are hungrier, so there’s more room to negotiate fee. You’ll also likely get better service, but now hear this, mon candidate: One of the most important questions you must ask your fund-raiser (as well as your pollster, campaign consultant, and media consultant) is “How many clients do you have?” After they tell you, do the math. If they are overcommitted, I don’t care how good they are, cross them off your list.
I crossed four of the five fund-raisers I met in D.C. right off the list, but for a different reason. Four of them took me to lunch, waxed eloquent about their connections with the pac community, and then stuck me with the tab. Only one did what I had asked all of them to do: set up a series of meetings with pac directors to help me get a feel for how the process worked. Guess whom I hired?
It was a good hire. Steve Pederson and his wife run a boutique shop out of their home in D.C. and handle about five clients per cycle, most of them incumbents. Steve is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met — one of the best this country has to offer. He’s a veritable cliché of good, solid Midwestern values that places like North Dakota can produce. He’s just a funny, warm, gracious, and well-mannered individual — the kind of guy any politician should want around to keep things calm and in perspective.
On that first day Steve and I went out pac hunting, the only meeting I remember was with the National Association of Letter Carriers. We went there to shake a few hands at their executive board meeting. I remember this because about an hour before the meeting, Suzanne Granville, the pac’s assistant director, called Steve’s wife Ellen and said they had to cancel — no reason given. When Steve checked in with Ellen, she told him about Suzanne’s message, and he just turned to me and said, “Let’s go anyway. Suzanne’s always pulling this kind of shit. We’ll just say we never got the message.” Now, that’s my kind of guy.
So we went and schmoozed with postal bigwigs for ten minutes, until Suzanne arrived, stared at us for about 30 seconds like we were ants at a picnic, and then impolitely threw us out. It would turn out that she and Marta David of the afl-cio would be the only really big jerks I would meet from the pac community. Most pac directors are nice people — which is fortunate because in a campaign, you spend about half your time begging for their help.
Of course, like the four other fund-raisers I had interviewed, Steve wanted me to sign up immediately and begin paying a monthly fee. He is, first and foremost, a good businessman. But I told him the honest truth: that there was only about a 40 percent chance that I would run and that I was tapped out from my previous political races, so starting this early with a fee was impossible. What I did promise, however, is that if I ran, I would be honored to have him help me with the campaign and that I hoped he would keep me in mind. In most cases, that might have been the end of it, but we hit it off well and he said he would be willing to wait — and he did.
The Campaign Consultant
Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in. — Lyndon B. Johnson (on keeping J. Edgar Hoover as fbi director)
With the pac fund-raiser in place, I began to think more about the rest of my campaign structure. This is not a simple thing to do. A campaign is a complex organism that requires expensive parts. Finding the right parts and meshing them together into a cohesive working unit is an art in and of itself.
The “brains” of the outfit include the research director, the pollster, the press secretary, the media consultant, the direct-mail consultant, the campaign manager, and the campaign consultant.
The research director’s first job is to dig up all the dirt on the campaign’s own candidate. This is so the campaign is prepared to blunt, parry, or counterattack when the opposition starts slinging mud.
If the research director is really good, he or she will find even the dirt that the candidate refuses to tell his or her own advisors about. Candidates will try to hide stuff because either they are too embarrassed about it or they think that no one will ever find out about that.
But guess what, Sherlock? If you want to run for office, you must be prepared for every single skeleton you’ve got in that crowded closet of yours to pop up three weeks before the election. Make book on it.
Once the research director finishes digging up dirt on his own candidate, the next task is to (hopefully) dig up even more dirt on the opponent. This is because, as we all know, one of the first rules of politics is that “He with the least dirt wins.”
Typical dirt ranges from a bad voting record, lavish travel expenses, or poor attendance in a current or previous public office to divorce and personal bankruptcy. Then, of course, there is the more exotic and really juicy stuff like polygamy, draft dodging, a mistress at the Jefferson Hotel, or, for anti-gay Republicans, being arrested after midnight for performing indiscreet acts in men’s bathrooms.
This dirt acts as the primary input into the pollster’s operation. The pollster’s major tools for probing voter sentiments are public-opinion surveys and focus groups. These tools are used to develop and test messages within the constraints of the often sorry-ass and pathetically unappealing candidate the pollster has to work with.
The press secretary’s job is to listen carefully to the pollster and then take everything that happens in the campaign and spin it in the right (or, if you’re in San Francisco, the left) direction.
For example, if the candidate is an uneducated illiterate who can’t point to Bosnia on a map in the middle of a debate, the press secretary must portray him as a working-class hero who has had to fight all his life to overcome severe dyslexia. A good press secretary should be able to spin the heads of reporters so hard and so fast that pea soup spits out of their mouths like in The Exorcist (one of the great moments in American cinema, I might add).
The media consultant’s job is to take 75 percent of the money it took the candidate over a year to raise and to blow all this dough in the last three short weeks before Election Day on image ads. A good media consultant can transform the candidate from Pee-Wee Herman or Roseanne into Robert Redford or Roseanne after the tummy tuck, face-lift, and personal trainer.
The job of the direct-mail consultant is to spend the other 25 percent of the campaign’s funds on “education.” Usually that means filling in the blanks left in the minds of voters by the media consultant’s image ads. For example, suppose you run a TV commercial that says your opponent is a scumbag who forced his dying wife to sign a divorce agreement on her deathbed. All the media consultant has time to show in the 30-second commercial is the back of the head of a guy who looks suspiciously like your opponent, a pen signing your opponent’s wife’s name, and a close-up of tears on the face of the dying woman. (You may ask, if the media consultant and direct-mail consultant together spend 100 percent of campaign funds, where is the money for everything else? That’s called “campaign debt,” which you will have to pay off for the rest of your life if you lose.)
The direct-mail piece will provide voters with all the other gory details, such as the hospital where it happened, the years they were married, the number of children they had, and the type of cancer afflicting the wife. Such direct-mail reinforcement of the TV message lends credibility to the attack and usually works like a charm — unless, of course, your opponent is Newt Gingrich, who actually did this to his now ex-wife. (The pukes from suburban Atlanta who keep electing this guy don’t seem to mind this kind of behavior.)
Finally, the job of the campaign manager is to translate the instructions of this campaign brain into prompt and seemingly effortless action by the body. In order to accomplish this, the campaign manager will need a bunch of “body parts” — at a minimum, a volunteer coordinator, an office manager, a computer expert, an endorsement coordinator, and a campaign treasurer.
The primary attributes of the volunteer coordinator are two: Infinite patience when volunteers don’t show, which is more than half the time, and a big smile when volunteers do show. Volunteers are the heart and soul of a grassroots campaign. They are the worker bees who will cut their tongues licking envelopes, smash their thumbs pounding in yard signs, dial endlessly for votes and dollars, and eat whatever food happens to be lying around, no matter how old it is. (A good rule of thumb here, mon candidate, is that the more and fresher food you make available, the more volunteers you will have.)
The office manager should, ideally, be anal-compulsive and very punctual. (Did I just repeat myself?) The office manager’s job is to make sure the campaign has enough copier toner and toilet paper (both are equally important) as well as various and other sundry items like Post-its, pens, and a dartboard with your opponent’s face on it. Punctuality is a must because it is bad form to have volunteers show up to a closed office — particularly when several thousand letters have to be folded, stuffed, stamped, and delivered to the post office by yesterday.
The computer expert’s job is to design and operate a computer system that contains the names of thousands of campaign contributors and tens of thousands of voters. The computer system should be accessible to, and easily understood by, any volunteer. It should also be able to detect and maim saboteurs sent over from the other side to plant a virus in the computer.
This computer expert should preferably be someone who regularly showers, shaves, and brushes his or her teeth. A warning here: Finding such a person in this field can be a big problem because a high percentage of folks with the requisite skills are antisocial Internet junkies with breath that would make a camel wince.
Finally, the treasurer should be a professional accountant. The treasurer’s job is to follow the rules, process checks, and prepare campaign filing by the appropriate deadlines. The treasurer’s job is not, I repeat, not to make really silly and stupid mistakes.
Please do not skimp on paying a treasurer, mon candidate. I did when I ran for mayor and my “free” volunteer treasurer wound up costing me several major investigations, lots of bad press, thousands of dollars in fines, and a dangerous flirtation with a jail cell. In hindsight, it would have been cheaper to hire the entire West Coast division of Arthur Andersen & Co.
Now given this body and brain, there are a number of ways to mesh it into a well-functioning campaign organism. My preferred way is to put the campaign consultant in charge of hiring and managing all of the brains of the campaign, including the campaign manager, who reports directly to the consultant.
Where’s James Carville When You Need Him?
My campaign consultant was a guy named Larry Remer. I would not want to go through life with that last name. But given his approach to politics, the name is appropriate because Larry usually reams the crap out of the opposition.
Larry is a short, loud, balding, aging Jewish ex-radical with a little paunch, an infectious smile, and an absolutely charming and lovely wife whom everybody (most of all Larry) says he doesn’t deserve. In his raging youth, Larry roared into San Diego from the East Coast as the anti-Antichrist, worked at the underground paper the Door, and eventually started a semi-underground newspaper called Newsline. It regularly roasted many of the uptight, right-wing establishment burghers of what was then a little bourgeois coastal town, and Larry won almost as many journalism awards for doing it as he made enemies and got death threats.
However, sometime after he and Shari had their second child, Larry realized he would never have that big ocean mansion in La Jolla on a muckraker’s salary so he did what almost every ’60s radical eventually did who didn’t die from dope, and that was to sell out. And Larry did so by entering the world’s second oldest profession, political consulting.
Now I like Larry a whole lot (although many people don’t), but he certainly wasn’t my first choice for campaign consultant. I would have much preferred to hire someone like James Carville so I could actually have won and had a good laugh doing it. The other guy I would have hired in a heartbeat is Bob Squire. He’s not very funny, but he is good — one of the best in Washington.
I didn’t hire Carville or Squire (or Dick Morris, for that matter) because I didn’t have the big bucks to do it. Besides, at the time, they seemed pretty busy, what with working with the Prez and all. And there is a mini-lesson here: don’t even try to sign up a Cadillac consultant if you only have a Chevy budget.
And Larry is definitely a Chevy. The reason is this: He’s willing to work for only a couple of grand a month and bet on a big “win bonus” at the end. Such win bonuses work for me for two reasons. They help stretch out the campaign’s funds, and they ensure that your people have a stake in your winning. In fact, I insist on using this compensation structure with everybody on a campaign. Short money up front, big money at the great big jackpot win at the back end. If somebody doesn’t want to bet on my winning, I don’t want to bet on them.
But Larry’s cheap price wasn’t the only reason I hired him. He’s also the best there is in San Diego — although that may be damning him with faint praise. The fact is there are only a few consultants in my little town, and most of them can’t tell the difference between chicken salad and cat litter.
Now here’s the real reason I hired Larry. I didn’t want him working against me again. He had played a minor role in beating me in my 1992 mayor’s race and a major, big-time role in my 1993 defeat for city council. So I felt about Larry the same way lbj felt about keeping J. Edgar Hoover on at the fbi: “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”
In fact, this wasn’t the first time Larry worked for me. The first race was my 1994 run for county supervisor, and we were a good team. We were up against a guy who outspent us three to one and had every major endorsement on both sides of the political aisle, and we still lost by only a cat’s whisker. The reason was Larry’s creativity and clarity. There really was a reason he won all those journalism awards.
Nonetheless, Larry’s Achilles’ heel is that he is needlessly obnoxious. I can handle this, but most people can’t. You see, Larry’s approach to a problem is that he quickly forms a strong opinion about how to solve it and then tries to shove his opinion down your throat. Moreover, Larry’s idea of a dialogue is a monologue, so what you have to do is meet him head-on and argue like hell with him. (Here, I might point out that “Remer” rhymes with “screamer,” and that’s what a lot of people call Larry behind his back after they get tired of “slimeball,” “asshole,” and, for the literary set, “Rasputin.”)
Anyway, after you get used to Larry’s approach, it works pretty well. All sides of an argument eventually get shrieked out, and the right way to handle things usually becomes clear.
The Casady Gang
He’s playing checkers in a chess world. — Felix Zefferelli
The Casady Gang screwed me out of a quarter of a million dollars in campaign contributions. It was neither a pleasurable experience nor a pretty sight. To explain how this happened, we first need to talk about the most important subject in any political campaign: money, dinero, dough, loot, swag, filthy lucre.
Why are big bucks so important in congressional politics? The answer lies in this simple and sobering statistic: the candidate who spends the most money wins over 90 percent of the time.
So how much does it cost to buy a seat in Congress? In an urban district like mine in San Diego, the answer is at least a million dollars — although it is quite easy to spend more than twice that and still lose.
Now this, of course, seems like an obscene amount of money. However, once you tally up how it gets spent, you’ll see that a million bucks is more like chump change in a hotly contested congressional race. Let me show you what I mean by doing the numbers for my own campaign’s dream budget.
The biggest item in this budget is television: To get your message across, you must have a minimum of three TV commercials. Moreover, you must run each commercial enough times to rack up at least “1000 points of TV.”
What’s “1000 points of TV”? I could give you a technical definition, but suffice it to say that once you reach the 1000-point threshold, voters have seen your commercial so many times that your message haunts them day and night like a loud, persistent voice in the mind of a demented Dean Koontz serial murderer.
In the San Diego media market, 1000 points of TV costs about $150,000, so for a bare-bones “three-ad flight,” it’s going to cost almost half a million dollars just for the airtime. But that’s not all. You should also ideally budget for an additional 1000 points of “response ads.” These counterattack ads are run with less frequency than your main-message ads and preferably as soon as your opponent accuses you of something like molesting children, condoning flag burning, or beating your wife. That’s another $150 grand right there. Then you have to factor in at least $50,000 more for production costs and media-consultant fees, and pretty soon you’re up to about $700,000 — just for five or so crummy commercials. Ouch!
The second major item in the budget is direct mail. While TV commercials primarily project “image,” direct mail provides the corroborating information, and woe is the candidate who tries to do without reinforcing mail. Here’s how much it costs:
There are about 500,000 people in the typical congressional district, clustered in about 300,000 households. That means that if you want to send just one letter to each household at 50 cents per finished piece, you’re already talking $150,000 a pop. Of course, this is when voter apathy comes to the rescue: only about half of the people will be registered to vote and of those registered, only about half will actually vote. That gets the cost of one piece of mail to the target down to about $40,000 per mailer. However, you can do even better than that by more precise voter targeting.
For example, if you are a pro-choice Democrat running against a pro-life Republican, you might only mail to Republican women under 40 and Independent voters. You skip your Democratic base under the assumption that your base is secure (not always a good assumption). You skip Republicans in general because as a group, they will never vote for you no matter how big a jerk your opponent is. Nonetheless, you can mail your pro-choice pitch to younger Republican women in the hopes they haven’t stopped having sex yet and might worry about a condom breaking at the wrong time.
Such targeting might shrink your universe to about 40,000 households, which gets your costs down to $20,000 per mailing. Assuming that you send out at least one piece of mail per major TV commercial to your target, as well as a closing piece, your mail budget is still about $80,000.
The third major item is office, phones, and staff. If you are really dumb and shortsighted as I was in my mayor’s race, you’ll blow almost 200 grand on this and not have any money left at the end to contact voters. A more reasonable budget is on the order of $50,000 to $75,000 for a good campaign manager, campaign consultant, press secretary, volunteer coordinator, field general, treasurer, and assorted drones. Add to that office rent and phone bills and you’re up around the $100,000 mark.
The fourth major item is fund-raising. This includes the cost of mail solicitations, food and entertainment (the cheaper here, the better), and, of course, the fund-raiser fees, and this will run around $50,000.
Finally, there are all the campaign accoutrements — the yard signs, buttons, bumper stickers, and all the stuff that supporters go absolutely apeshit over for no apparent reason. Count on at least $25,000 here. (By the way, my favorite bauble for the 1996 campaign season was the “Brad Sherman comb.” Brad is bald, and I like a guy who can turn a liability into a good laugh. He won his congressional race, if you are curious.)
Totaling all this up, we’re at just about the million-dollar mark, and that’s a whole lot of money to raise in less than a year. So how was I going to do that and, more importantly, how did the Casady Gang screw it all up?
My Central Campaign Premise
My whole fund-raising strategy was predicated on running in an uncontested Democratic primary, that is, with no other candidates in the race. As the presumptive nominee, I would thus be able to begin raising a significant amount of money from the various political action committees during the primary election cycle.
PACs, by law, can donate up to $5000 to a congressional campaign for a primary election and another $5000 for the general election. As I have indicated to you earlier, there is only about $250,000 that you can expect to raise as a Democratic challenger in the pac community per election cycle. This money will come in donations of from $500 to $5000, from the 100 or so key labor, lawyer, environmental, and peace pacs.
Since each congressional election has both a primary and a general cycle, that means that the total funding I could realistically expect to raise from the pac community was a half million dollars. That would be perfect because I was reasonably confident I could raise the other half million I would need from my local donor base.
Now please note here that the big fly in this pac ointment was that I had to be in an uncontested primary. If another candidate entered the race — particularly a credible challenger — most of the pacs would likely stay out of the intraparty squabble until after the primary. That’s the way these spineless weasels in the pac community work.
Thus, the entry of another candidate into the race would not only cost me about a quarter of a million dollars in lost pac funds, it would also make it unlikely that I would ultimately raise the total funds necessary to win the election. This is because once the primary is over, the pacs cannot retroactively give you money based on their primary limits.
So it was with the greatest of consternation that I greeted the surprise news that a woman named Nancy Casady was throwing her hat in the ring. And so it was with the greatest of clumsiness and lack of grace that I went about the business of trying to get her the hell out of the race.
A Pilgrimage to the Casady Cottage
As a congressional candidate, Nancy Casady had little hope of beating me, but she was not to be taken lightly either. She was an attractive and well-spoken women who looked to be in her early 50s and who would appeal strongly to women voters in a district in which women make up an unusually high percentage of the electorate.
Casady also had extensive legislative experience as a pro-choice activist in Sacramento. She was the daughter of Sy Casady, who had once run for mayor against Pete Wilson, so the Casady name was at least somewhat known in politics. Finally, she and her husband Derek owned a chain of popular natural-food stores. This meant she might have some big bucks to toss into the race — my only real concern about her as a candidate.
On the other side of the Casady ledger, however, our polling indicated that she was a virtual unknown. Plus, there were persistent rumors about the involvement of the Casadys in some sexual activities that might open her to an easy attack.
With these conflicting and curious images in our minds, my campaign consultant Larry Remer, my campaign manager Dale Kelly Bankhead, and yours truly made the pilgrimage up to the Casady cottage in La Jolla to discuss the idea of Nancy dropping out of the race.
From the outset, the meeting was a disaster. It started off with Casady’s campaign consultant Nick Johnson informing us that under no circumstances would Nancy get out of the race and that the best thing for us to do would be to simply withdraw. This, on the face of it, was ludicrous, but Nick thought it was at least worth a try.
Nick Johnson, by the way, is one of the strangest creatures you will ever encounter in politics. Besides looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s evil twin, Nick’s most disconcerting feature is that he has even fewer teeth than Wavy Gravy or half the hockey players in the nhl. And the worst part is that the few teeth he has left look like the “before” segment of a “before and after” training film from dental school.
In fact, Nick’s appearance in the Casady race had all the signs of possible double-agent activity. Just follow me here: Nick was a good friend of a guy named John Wainio. Wainio, in turn, worked for Tom Shepard, who was the consultant for my general-election opponent, Republican Brian Bilbray. In one of my previous races, Shepard had played a role in recruiting a “stalking horse” candidate to split my vote.
In this particular case, I had to assume that Shepard would understand just as well as I did how important it was for me to have access to pac money in an uncontested primary. Therefore, I likewise had to assume that there was a reasonable possibility that Nick was a double agent for Shepard and that Nick had seduced Casady into the race as a means of cutting off my PAC money and forcing me to spend money to beat her rather than banking it for my face-off with Bilbray.
This scenario took on even more chilling plausibility as we next listened to Nancy’s husband Derek tell us just how easy it would be for Nancy to beat me. The frostiest part was when he said that by defeating someone as well known as I, Nancy would immediately vault into big-time contention. At that point, I saw my head as a trophy on their wall, right between a stuffed sailfish and an elk.
The funny part of the whole thing was that Nancy barely spoke at all and only when Derek let her. When she did speak it was to opine how important it was to have more women in Congress and why women would vote for her, not me, presumably because of her different plumbing. The irony of this submissive wife running on a feminist platform was, of course, lost on everyone in the room — at least on their side of the room.
It was after Nancy’s monologue that I should have smiled warmly, thanked the Casadys for their kind hospitality, left the house, and stayed the hell out of the congressional race. For it was abundantly clear that Nick would sprout new teeth before Nancy Casady would get out of the race.
Which brings me to the most important lesson of this chapter, namely, why campaigns are more like chess than checkers. In chess, good players will see the game unfold many, many moves ahead, and the best chess players know exactly when they have lost a game — even if it is going to take many more moves until checkmate. Good chess players concede defeat as soon as they know they have lost. They do not play out the bitter endgame for two reasons: it is a waste of time and it lacks class.
That’s why I should have left the house right then and gotten out of the race. Casady’s candidacy was about to destroy my whole premise for running — an uncontested primary, a double hit of pac money, and enough funds to wage a winning campaign. I saw it then as clearly as you can see the sun set into the Pacific Ocean.
Ross Perot’s Dominatrix
I believe in having the United States of America being a dominant country again as opposed to being submissive. — Mistress Madison’s campaign platform
Nancy Casady was not the only candidate involved in the sexual arts to enter the congressional race. Another candidate, self-professed dominatrix Mistress Madison, also threw her whip in the ring to compete for Ross Perot’s Reform Party nomination. As with the Casady candidacy, the 32-year-old Madison threatened to throw a monkey wrench into a key aspect of our overall campaign strategy.
I suppose I should explain at this point that California is the king of alternative political parties. In most states, it’s chocolate and vanilla where bored voters only get to choose between Democrats and Republicans — which is probably why voter turnout is so low. However, in 52-flavor granola-land, there are at least five other parties that compete on the ballot.
The Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party cover the ideological left flank, the Libertarians and Perot’s Reform Party cover the right flank, and, my favorite, the Natural Law Party, has a lock on the intergalactic space vote. This party was founded by the devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga and is dedicated to the proposition that everything from gang violence, drug addiction, and prostitution to budget deficits and parking tickets can be solved through transcendental meditation. (I’m not making this stuff up.)
Anyway, back to Mistress Madison. Her real name used to be Janique Kilkeary Goff Madison, but she had it legally changed after she entered the dominatrix profession. If you went to Catholic school or have handcuffs, whips, and/or an inordinate amount of leather undergarments in your bedroom, then you probably already know what dominatrices do. If, however, you want a short definition of a dominatrix, it’s simply this: a sadist who caters to the masochistic fantasies of men or women who get turned on by their own submissive behavior. (C’mon, admit it. Didn’t you always want to be tied up and toyed with just once?)
Now, knowing what we do about the American media, it should not surprise you that Mistress Madison became an overnight sensation. Talk-show hosts lined up to get her on the airwaves, her phone sexploits popped up all over the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and, at least for a metaphoric 15 minutes of fame, San Diego went totally gaga over this exotic woman with the body of Raquel Welch, circa One Million Years B.C.
Ordinarily, none of this press attention for a rival would have bothered me. Hey, I’ve gotten more than my share of the San Diego limelight. However, by boosting Mistress Madison’s popularity and therefore her vote-getting potential, the press was threatening to topple one of the other key tenets of our campaign strategy. This was to use alternative parties to squeeze my opponent Brian Bilbray on the right wing. How do I explain to you this labyrinthine little byway in the world of campaign-strategy chess?
Let me start by saying that you may think since alternative parties never get more than a few percentage points of the vote that they are irrelevant. This is not so, particularly in congressional districts such as mine where the margin of victory — or defeat — is likely to be razor thin. Just ask former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk.
In her 1994 race, she lost by just 3000 votes. This was roughly the same number of votes that the left-wing Peace and Freedom Party got in that election, and it’s pretty damn clear that if a Peace and Freedom Party candidate hadn’t been in the race, Schenk would have gotten those votes and probably won.
My campaign consultant and I were well aware of this left-wing self-immolation in 1994, so our strategy was simple: make sure that no Green or Peace and Freedom Party candidates got into the race to squeeze us from the left. Then make sure that credible candidates from the Perot and Libertarian Parties got in to squeeze Bilbray from the right.
Mistress Madison threatened this strategy because she didn’t fit the credible Perot party profile of the gun-toting, disaffected, anti-tax, alienated, right-wing recreational-vehicle owner. Quite the contrary, her base, such as it was likely to be, would be radical feminists, horny Democratic men, and perhaps the leather-and-butch lesbian segment of the gay community, all of which were part of what was supposed to be my Democratic base. Unfortunately, there was little we could do strategically about the Mistress Madison phenomenon other than to hope that her opponent in the primary, a hospital technician and Perot party regular named Kevin Hambsch, would be the beater rather than the beatee.
We could, however, be proactive about getting a Libertarian in the race and encouraging both the Greens and the Peace and Freedom Party candidates to stay out. For the left-wing side of this equation, all it took was a few short phone calls to the Green and Peace and Freedom Party leaders. Persuasion here was minimal: It involved pointing out that we certainly didn’t want a repeat of 1994 when the Peace and Freedom Party unwittingly helped defeat Lynn Schenk by draining votes for the left.
For the right-wing Libertarian side, it turned out that no persuasion was needed. I simply called Dick Rider, the leader of the Libertarian Party in San Diego, and asked him what the party’s intentions were. He assured me that there was no love lost among the Libertarians for Bilbray and that a Libertarian candidate, dentist Ernie Lippe, would definitely be running.
After all, it had been Bilbray, on the board of supervisors, who had pushed for the $150 million boondoggle trash plant now threatening to bankrupt the county’s trash system — a mortal sin in the eyes of every red-blooded, anti-tax, minimal-government Libertarian. Moreover, as a county supervisor, Bilbray had had the temerity to sharply attack Rider and the Libertarians for suing the county to overturn an illegal sales tax they had pushed — a suit, by the way, that Rider gloriously won.
I might add here for your amusement that Rider tried to parlay this successful slaying of the illegal-sales-tax dragon into winning his own seat on the board of supervisors in the 1992 election — the same year I ran for mayor. In that race, he spent most of his small budget on “Dick Rider” street signs to boost his name identification. Unfortunately, these signs disappeared almost as fast as he put them up. Rider found out later that the thieves were not his dastardly opponents but rather a battalion of coeds from San Diego State University. These young ladies apparently found it fashionable to display the “Dick Rider” signs prominently in their dormitory boudoirs. (Rider’s wife now insists that everyone call him Richard.)
Hubris Is As Hubris Does
Your opponent’s middle name should be Newt Gingrich. — Congressman Martin Frost, Chairman, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
In November of 1995, one year before the congressional election and one month before the December filing deadline for candidacy, I made my second trip to Washington. By this point, I was committed to doing everything that would position me to win the race, but I was still not convinced I should run. The purpose of this Washington trip was to gather more information to help me in my final decision. And where better to gather information than at a school — a “congressional-candidate school” being held that month at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters.
The “D-Triple-C,” as this committee is affectionately known, is one of a triad of committees that coordinate campaigns at the federal level for the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Committee, or dnc, handles the presidential race, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee covers the 100 seats of the Senate, and the D-Triple-C has responsibility for the 435 districts of the House.
You should know at the outside that while these committees allegedly cooperate amongst each other, there is actually fierce competition for the limited donor pool of funds in the Democratic Party. You should also know that the D-Triple-C is generally regarded as the runt of the litter even though it has the responsibility for overseeing four times as many races as the Senate committee and 434 more races than the 800-pound gorilla in the triad, the dnc. (This fact will come into play later in our story because during the 1996 elections, the presidential and the Senate committees hogged most of the campaign funds and made it very, very difficult for the D-Triple-C to do its job, which was, of course, to take back the Congress from the Newt Man.)
At any rate, on a mild Washington day in November, I found myself sitting in a classroom with a bunch of total losers. I’m speaking now from both a literal and a statistical point of view because 98 percent of the people in that room didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Florida of winning. The math is simple. There are 435 seats in Congress, with a little more than half of these held by Republicans. Of the 435 seats, about 350 of them are safe seats. That is, the incumbent is always going to win unless a really juicy sex scandal or federal indictment breaks just before the election.
These 350 congressional districts are safe seats for two reasons. First, it is rare for an incumbent to be credibly challenged by someone within his own party. This is particularly true on the Republican side, where party discipline is tight. Second, registration in these safe seats is so skewed in favor of the party of the incumbent — either Democrat or Republican — that receiving the party’s nomination in the primary election is tantamount to victory.
Despite this harsh reality, each year a fresh crop of sacrificial lambs invariably challenges the 350 or so incumbents in safe seats. Equally invariably, most of this political cannon fodder are clueless, witless idiots who run for no other reason than to get their names in the paper and their mugs on TV.
Such is not the case, however, for the 100 or so other seats that are in play every election cycle. Typically, these seats are in marginal districts where the registration is roughly even between Democrats and Republicans. It is from these 100 or so seats that the D-Triple-C will eventually target and prioritize 30 or so seats for their full fund-raising assistance.
Because there is only enough money to fully fund these 30 or so seats, the competition is cold and Darwinian. My goal over the next ten months would be to convince the brain trust at the D-Triple-C that I had the right stuff, namely, that I was a good enough candidate and fund-raiser and that my race was competitive enough that I should receive whatever crumbs might be left from the fund-raising table after the president, the Senate candidates, and the House incumbents took their shares.
So in a very real sense, the purpose of the D-Triple-C’s candidate school was as much to check out the talent pool as it was to help teach this motley crew how to get elected. And what the D-Triple-C was looking for were attractive and articulate candidates with an ability to raise money. (If you can raise lots of money, forget about the attractive and articulate part.)
Wizards and Hubris
The best part of the D-Triple-C school was a presentation by pollster Mark Gersh, the D-Triple-C’s targeting czar. I love guys like Gersh because they are so into what they do that their enthusiasm sweeps you along with them. Almost wolflike in appearance as he paced the room, arms and flecks of spit flying everywhere, Gersh proceeded to detail the many and varied ways that the Republican Congress — particularly its freshman class —- had become highly vulnerable. In doing so, he made me believe, for the first time, that my running would not be yet another quixotic quest ending in abject failure, but rather that I had a real possibility.
The most fun part of the D-Triple-C school was a surprise visit by retiring Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. She recalled an incident at an official state dinner that she and Newt Gingrich had attended with some foreign diplomats. At the dinner, Gingrich had introduced her in an extremely gratuitous and sexist manner. Without batting a false eyelash, she had undiplomatically countered with “What do you call it when Newt Gingrich grabs you and throws you down on the floor and rips your clothes off? ... A date.”
I thought that was almost as funny as some of the guerrilla-theater stunts that Schroeder told us about pulling in her first run for Congress over 20 years before. At that time, she was a nobody with no money and little chance of winning, but she had outwitted her male-chauvinist opponent with stunts such as dressing up a couple of her female friends in Victorian garb and sending them to her opponent’s rallies with signs like “Ladies against Women.” (Schroeder would later be quite helpful to me, and I wish her the best should she run for Senate from Colorado.)
While Schroeder was the fun part and Gersh was the best part, the worst part — and this, I admit, is in hindsight — was Martin Frost’s presentation. Frost is a veteran congressman from Texas. He’s also the chairman of the D-Triple-C.
The first time you look at Martin Frost you have to wonder how he could ever have been elected to anything. He simply is not a very attractive man.
Once Frost opens his mouth, however, you understand his appeal. This is not to say he is charismatic, because he emphatically is not. What he is, however, is articulate and genuine and intelligent as well as thoughtful and diligent. Which is why I cannot understand to this day why Frost and the D-Triple-C were so clumsy in their approach to taking the House back from bête noire Newt and the Republicans.
My major criticism is with the so very public way that Frost and the Democratic leadership telegraphed their election strategy. The strategy was simple and came right out of the mouth of Frost in his first words to us assembled students: “Make your opponent’s middle name ‘Newt Gingrich’ ” and run against the Gingrich agenda.
This was perhaps an obvious strategy given the plummeting poll numbers for Newt and his party. But what was stupid was that Frost explained this strategy not only to us candidates in a closed-door meeting but also in press conference after press conference after press conference, including one that very day. Mind you, this was more than a year before the election!
What Frost’s hubris did, of course, was give the Republicans more than ample time to make the appropriate midcourse correction and eventually outflank us. What Frost and the Democratic leadership should have done was what every good fisherman knows how to do: let the Gingrich fish take the hook and swallow it so deep that when it’s time to make the inevitable tug, that hook doesn’t grab the mouth but reaches deep into the fish’s vital organs. In other words, Frost should have kept his mouth shut and let Gingrich keep his flapping open.
Hamlet for Congress
Anyone who deliberately tries to get himself elected to a public office is permanently disqualified from holding one. — Sir Thomas More
New Hampshire is a pissant little state with a million people. California has 32 million people and is bigger than half the countries in the U.N. So guess which state has more influence over the choice of presidential candidates. The answer, of course, is the Live Free or Die state (imagine being in a New Hampshire prison and being forced to make license plates with that slogan).
New Hampshire reigns supreme because it holds the nation’s first major presidential primary, almost a year before the presidential election. California, on the other hand, doesn’t hold its presidential primary until the surf’s up in June. That’s usually long after the nominees from both parties have racked up enough delegates from the rest of the country to nail down the prize.
In 1996, no one knew this presidential math better than California Governor Pete Wilson, and he was damn well going to do something about it. Indeed, with presidential aspirations of his own, Wilson simply moved up the date of the presidential primary to March — and along with it, the date of the congressional primary election. For my incipient race, this was both a blessing and a curse.
The curse was that I would now have to make up my mind about running much sooner — by the new filing deadline in December rather than the one I had anticipated in April. This was almost a year before the actual election, and it was very unsettling. While Newt and his freshman extremist wackos were shooting themselves in their collective feet (usually through their right wingtips), there was no guarantee they would continue to do so. Thus, this long lead time meant that, if I ran, I would be jumping into an uncertain and potentially volatile situation.
The blessing, however, of this accelerated primary schedule was that after my assumed victory in the March Democratic primary, I would have almost twice the amount of time — more than seven months instead of four — to raise the million bucks I was going to need to win the general election. With this added time, I might be able to overcome at least some of the disadvantage of not getting primary money from the pac community because of the Casady candidacy. At any rate, I was now facing the age-old Hamletian question of politics: To run or not to run?
A Candidate’s Checklist
For anyone contemplating a run for office — whether it is a low-profile, lower-rung local office such as school board or a top-dog federal office like Congress — you need to know this: When you open the door of public life, you are opening the door to all the skeletons in your closet. At the same time, the likelihood of your becoming a target for myriad character assassins will grow in direct proportion to the probability that you might actually accomplish something worthwhile. So be forewarned. This is a big decision, and here are some of the things you should consider.
First and foremost, there is family. And it doesn’t matter whether you are married or single. If you are single, whomever you are sleeping with will undergo the same amount of scrutiny that a spouse will. They will also have to put up with the same amount of B.S. — both from you and from the campaign process.
My point is this, mon candidate: Politics is capable of destroying a marriage and a family faster than six extramarital affairs and intermittent bouts with alcoholism, drug addiction, and impotence (or frigidity, if the slipper fits). A major reason is that during the course of a campaign, your family is likely to find out things about you that it never knew before: the drugs you might have ingested in college, the student loans you forgot to pay, the broken marriages, the bankruptcies, maybe even the infidelities during your current marriage. Do you really want to look into the eyes of your family members, who have always regarded you as a god or goddess, and see their hurt and shame when the skeletons come tumbling inevitably out of your closet?
So the first thing you have to do when you think about running for office is to sit down with your spouse or significant other, and, if applicable, with your children as well, and talk about what is about to transpire. I didn’t do this with my wife when I first ran for mayor, and it was a big mistake.
My wife is an angel, but she is also a very private person. When I ran for office, I didn’t realize that moving into the limelight would drag her into it as well. This created tensions at home that spilled over into my stressed-out behavior on the campaign trail. What I lacked was the serenity of a supportive home life, and that is something you don’t want to do without, especially when the Scuds start coming in. Let me also say quite clearly here that all of this was my fault, not my wife’s. I did not treat her as an equal partner in either the decision or the venture. Please don’t make that mistake yourself — at least not if you want to both win your race and stay married. (I’m now divorced.)
The second important thing to consider in running, which likewise bears at least partly on the issue of family, is your job situation and financial condition. There are really two issues here: Can you afford to run and what will be the impact of your losing on your present career path?
For most people, winning a race for Congress is a step up the financial ladder. After all, these jobs pay almost $140,000 a year, and after just a term or two you get an obscene pension thrown in. However, if you’re considering another office such as city council, you may have to take a cut in pay. It’s not just your lifestyle that may be threatened here. It may well mean whether the kids can get braces or go to college or whether the family can still take that annual vacation or even regularly go to the movies. It’s your family’s burden, not just yours. Remember that.
By the way, low salaries on the lower rungs of the political ladder are probably the single greatest reason we get idiots elected to local government. Most smart people earning a decent wage can’t afford to go into politics, so we get a bunch of miscreants who can’t otherwise make a living.
Still a third major issue to consider is whether you have a strong enough stomach for it, because politics is not a very pretty sight. If you don’t believe me, ask the ghosts of two of the most reviled men of their times — Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln. (What about that slave mistress of yours, Tom? You know, the one you shack up with on your bankrupt estate? And, Abe, what about that ugly face of yours and your demented wife? You see what I mean?)
In this regard, you have to decide whether you are prepared to throw mud at your opponent — or at least throw it back when you are attacked. Now I know you might say “no” now, but what happens when your pollster comes to you and says you’re 20 points down, and there is no way you can win without going negative. In the same breath, your pollster also assures you that you can pick up all 20 of those points simply by attacking your opponent for declaring bankruptcy once or being divorced twice. Are you prepared to tell your pollster, “No thanks, I’d rather lose a clean campaign than win a dirty one”?
Well, maybe. But suppose the way your opponent got you 20 points down to begin with was by secretly arranging to have several contributions funneled into your campaign from adult-bookstore owners and then publicly attacking you for having a campaign “funded by pornographers.” Are you ethically and morally prepared to fight back with a dirty trick of your own, knowing full well that if you don’t you are going to lose?
Well, I am. Indeed, today, I have absolutely no moral qualms about throwing mud at an opponent — but only if they throw mud at me first. I still have some principles. But not as many as you might think because I don’t have any concern at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true — I know that bastard running against me doesn’t have any scruples either (at least, this is my experience to date). So you see how far I’ve sunk. And have I not just proven to you beyond any reasonable doubt that we are descended from the apes?
Finally, there will be the compromises you will have to make every day of your political life in order to be elected and then be reelected. This is perhaps the slipperiest portion of the politician’s slope. As I have woefully discovered, the more often you lose, the more willing you are to slide down that slope. In fact, no matter how much you tell yourself that you are getting into politics to serve the public good, it is the special interests that will largely determine your future in politics, and it will be the special interests that you will have to cater to.
The Final Questions
Once you consider all these factors, you must then ask the ultimate question: Can I win? In considering this question, please don’t be the typical neophyte patsy who throws all his life savings into an obviously losing cause (like I once did).
Honestly evaluate your chances and don’t be Don Quixote, particularly if it means mortgaging the house! To evaluate those chances, answer these three questions:
Number one: Can you raise the money to win? Put another way, do you know several thousand people to call up and harass for money over the next six months, and if you do, do you have the stamina and temperament to sit on the phone and beg for their money for eight hours a day? If you don’t, get the hell out now. This ain’t a glamorous job. Ninety percent of politics is just one step up from selling Amway or used cars.
Number two: Are you in a district where victory is even possible? If you’re a Democrat in a district where Republican registration is 80 percent, Oliver North will remember all the details of the Iran-Contra affair before you will win. If you’re pro-choice, pro-environment, and pro-education and your district is in the heart of the Bible Belt, Jesse Jackson will team with Billy Graham on a revival tour through Oklahoma before anyone will ever call you congressman.
In my case, party registration was dead even, and my would-be opponent was one of only a handful of congressmen in the country who won his race with less than 50 percent of the vote. Better yet, my views on the environment, education, choice, and Medicare fit the district far better than my opponent’s.
As you can see from this chapter, there is a big checklist to mull over before you run for office. Suffice it to say that after going through this checklist myself, the answer to my question “To run or not to run” came up in the affirmative. So I filed my papers the day before Christmas and then flew off to Florida to do what I do every year during the holidays: play a round of very bad golf with my mom. I was in.
The Carpenters Saw Me in Half
Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? — Abraham Lincoln
Imagine now if Jesus Christ had stuck around after the Resurrection instead of beaming up to heaven and decided to run for the Roman Senate. Further imagine Judas Iscariot calling Jesus up, apologizing for any pain or inconvenience he may have caused, and then volunteering to help the Savior with his senatorial campaign. That’s roughly the situation I found myself in — except for the part about me being Jesus — shortly after my return to San Diego from visiting my mom during the Christmas holidays.
The call I got offering campaign assistance was from John Kennedy of the Carpenter’s Union. This, mind you, was the same dastardly Judas Jackal who had been the bane of my political existence during my mayoral and city council races.
Kennedy is a handsome and charismatic scoundrel — as people in the political trade often tend to be. He is tall and lanky with the broad, concave shoulders of a butterfly swimmer, and his personage is marred only by the start of a slight paunch and a receding hairline. The one thing I can tell you about Kennedy’s personal life is that he is a Civil War buff, and if I had to bet, he’s probably the kind of guy who still roots for the Confederacy.
At any rate, Kennedy is like a lot of today’s younger leaders bubbling up to the top of the sadly declining labor heap. He combines the usual toughness you’d expect from someone who smashes things with a hammer for a living with just enough intelligence to know that if he doesn’t get his butt out of the field and into a desk job, he’s going to wind up with a bad back and crippled knees.
In my race for city council, Kennedy’s union had acted as a money funnel and front group for a motley coalition of developers and realtors obsessed with my defeat. The “cleansed funds” that went in to the carpenters’ pot were used to design and distribute a vicious little hit piece that they mailed out a few days before the election. It had an unflattering caricature of yours truly on the cover holding a baby rattle, and the accompanying text questioned both my maturity and sanity.
Objectively, now, I can say that it was a pretty effective piece. That’s probably why, rather than laugh at myself when the piece hit the voters’ mailboxes, I made the mistako supremo of holding a press conference to publicly denounce such mudslinging.
Drawing attention to your opponent’s literature, mon candidate, is usually a dumb move, and this case was no exception. My public whining and hand-wringing turned the hit piece into a front-page story that dutifully reported all the accusations verbatim and thereby gave the hit piece what the spin doctors in the campaign trade call additional “legs.” My overreacting probably cost me at least the 800 votes I lost that election by.
Abe Lincoln Meets John Kennedy
So it was that I approached my luncheon meeting with Kennedy with a modicum of disgust and distrust. Of course, I showed neither of these sentiments. Instead, I smiled, shook his hand, and entered into a dialogue with him in the same spirit as the Abe Lincoln quote that leads off this chapter — “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” For, mon candidate, the lesson must always be “don’t hold grudges” and co-opt whomever you can in a campaign lest they wind up on the other side kicking your sorry butt.
The meeting was at Kennedy’s favorite luncheon haunt — a fish restaurant in Mission Valley called the Rusty Pelican. My concern was that Kennedy might try to run a double-agent gambit on me, but my fears about this turned out to be unfounded. This is because Republican Brian Bilbray, my soon-to-be opponent, had committed one of the stupidest and most avoidable blunders for a politician, which is to needlessly and gratuitously tick somebody off. With the election approaching, Kennedy had gone to visit Bilbray for a get-acquainted session — all the while presuming that Bilbray knew of Kennedy’s pivotal role in my previous defeats.
However, Bilbray was oblivious to this. So instead of embracing Kennedy warmly as a potential ally, Bilbray simply lumped Kennedy in with the big-labor crowd, railed about how exorbitant union wages were destroying the American economy, and warned that the Gingrich revolution was about to break up the unions once and for all.
Kennedy, of course, was stunned and speechless (two words not usually associated with the man), but he didn’t get up and leave Bilbray’s office until Bilbray accused him of consorting with “limousine liberals like Peter Navarro.” That did it (and using the cliché “the last straw” here would be like calling the Last Supper a small, intimate dinner). So Kennedy had stormed off Capitol Hill, steamed all the way home, and, by the time we sat down to break bread at ye olde Rusty Pelican, John Kennedy was ready to follow one of his presidential namesake’s favorite maxims: “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Once Kennedy offered me his olive branch, I told him that besides a $10,000 PAC check, the only thing I wanted from the Carpenter’s Union was for his guys to take down as many of Bilbray’s signs in this race as they had taken down of mine during the mayor’s race. He got a chuckle out of that. I was dead serious.
By the time our entrées arrived, we were already talking strategy. And where Kennedy could help me big time would be in a key area: raising PAC money. In particular, Kennedy could possibly help me rescue a key part of my original strategy. As we talked about in Chapter Five, this strategy was to get a double dose of pac money, from both the primary and the general-election cycles. The way we figured we could salvage this strategy was to get some initial pac money from a few key unions like the carpenters and the Teamsters and then parlay this financial support into an exclusive endorsement of my candidacy by the local afl-cio. With that endorsement, I could go back to Washington as the presumptive nominee and begin to work the labor pacs hard — even with another Democrat in the race. Since the labor pacs account for about 75 percent of all the pac money on the Democratic challenger side, it was the first and most important thing for my campaign to do.
Kennedy could help me do this because he had just played a key role in a major coup d’etat at the local afl-cio. As you probably know, the afl-cio is an umbrella group for unions ranging from large juggernauts like the Service Employees International Union and United Auto Workers to smaller unions like the boilermakers and roofers.
The head of the local afl-cio chapter in San Diego was a guy named Joe Francis, and if Joe has a middle name, it’s probably “Survivor.” Joe had been the afl-cio head for more years than I care to remember, and he had beaten back numerous challengers (and had their balls in his pocket to prove it). That was until Kennedy and several of his cronies came along, and Joe’s luck finally ran out.
What the Kennedy faction did was figure out that since voting rights in the AFL-CIO are proportional to the number of members in each union, all you had to do to elect a new president was stack the deck in your favor. Kennedy did this by persuading one of the largest blocs of dissident union members, the Teamsters, to rejoin the local chapter and then vote, in coalition with the carpenters and several other unions, to roll Joe Francis and put in their own guy.
From my perspective, this was actually a very good thing because Joe Francis had never been a big fan of mine. At least to me, the reason seemed simple: like too many labor leaders grown old in their jobs, Joe had forged some rather cozy relationships with the same local Republican power structure that hated my guts.
Such was not the case with Joe’s replacement, Jerry Butkiewicz — a short guy with a big heart, a bigger smile, and a commitment to serving the people he represents.
In fact, over the course of the campaign, both Jerry and his top lieutenant, Donald Cohen, would be of enormous help. Such help was not, however, destined to come as early as I needed it. The problem was that while Jerry Butkiewicz was the president-elect, Joe Francis still had a few months left in his term. As we shall see shortly, this window would give lame-duck Joe the opportunity to have one last laugh at Kennedy’s and, as it would turn out, my own expense.
No Date at the Endorsement Ball
The best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray. — Robert Burns
Over the month of January, my new best friend John Kennedy and I set about the business of trying to wire the AFL-CIO endorsement. There was an urgency to this because there were only a few months until the March primary election, and if I were to start raising any serious pac money from the labor community, it would have to be soon. The primary vehicle for our efforts was a series of face-to-face meetings with key labor members of the E-Board — the executive board of the fl-cio. It was the E-Board — or so we thought at the time — that would determine whether my opponent Nancy Casady or I got the labor endorsement.
Casady, for her part, was not going to let me go unchallenged in the endorsement arena, and this frankly surprised me. I didn’t think she had the sophistication as a candidate to figure out all the endorsement ropes, but she went about the process with an unexpected ferocity and, indeed, a killer instinct. (Never underestimate your opponent, mon candidate.)
Casady’s approach was confrontational and negative — one highly derivative of her psychological training in the practice of est. Her principal line of attack was to portray me as a three-time loser who didn’t have a prayer of beating Brian Bilbray, and then embellish that message with a secondary one tailored to whatever group she was wooing.
For example, with groups like the National Organization for Women, she shamelessly played the vagina card: We need more women in Congress, so vote for me. It was simple and, I’m sad to say, effective.
Similarly, with the 100 or so key Democratic Party delegates who would soon be voting for the party’s endorsed candidate at the upcoming convention, Casady attacked me for not being a “real” Democrat. This is because I had been previously registered both as a Republican and an Independent. Since my party switching would also become a key point of attack in Brian Bilbray’s general-election campaign against me, it is probably worth commenting upon now.
The fact is, prior to my running for mayor in 1992, I had never had a strong identification with either party. For starters, there was no childhood indoctrination. To my knowledge, neither my mother nor father ever voted during my childhood, and politics was never a topic in our household.
Later on, in my wild and crazy hippie years, lbj and the Vietnam War had alienated me just as much as Richard Nixon and Watergate would later, and so, for the first three and a half decades of my life, I hadn’t seen a dime’s worth of difference between the “Republicrats.” That’s why when I first moved to San Diego in the early 1980s, I registered as an Independent. (Hey, at least I registered.)
Over my years in electoral politics, however, my political philosophy has steadily sharpened its focus. I am, it is fair to say now, quite clearly a Democrat. Yet, in the same breath, I must say that I do not come to my party easily.
One problem is my fiscally conservative Harvard training in economics. Put simply, the Democrats have had a terrible propensity to waste huge sums of money. Huge. In fact, the academic literature within which I have been steeped for almost 20 years is filled with the wreckage of good Democratic intentions gone bad: from oil and gas price controls and farm subsidies to public housing and welfare.
On the other hand, I consider myself a strong environmentalist and a progressive on social issues such as choice, gay rights, and religious freedom. I also believe we ought to progressively tax the rich to help everybody else, not because the rich are selfish sons of bitches, which many of them aren’t, but because we’re all in this together. This Panglossian idealism puts me at odds with the keepers of the Republican Party flame, who prefer the “every man for himself” approach.
Over the years, I have struggled mightily with this ideological dilemma. It is a dilemma that I believe I share with millions of Americas, including the little man with the big ears and mouth, Ross Perot. In 1994, I finally reconciled this dilemma by registering as a Democrat.
Bill Clinton and his New Democrat philosophy helped me in making the party switch because New Democrats like Clinton are at least willing to talk about making tough fiscal choices. The most important deciding factor in my party switch, however, was this fundamental realization: today’s Republican Party does not represent, in any way, shape, or form, either mainstream Republican values or true fiscal conservatism.
On the social agenda, Ralph Reed’s insufferably bigoted, close-minded, and dangerously well-disciplined storm troopers on the religious right wield far too much influence at the ballot box.
On the economic agenda, the Republican leadership is more likely to cook up tax schemes to further enrich the rich — and use dupes like Jack Kemp to convince everybody that this is a good thing.
Finally, on the environmental front, I do not trust the Republican Party to do anything but trash the environment under the phony banner of economic progress. I’ve seen this scam firsthand at the local level with Republican developers intoning the mantra “no growth, no jobs” to defeat reasonable growth-management plans. And we’ve all witnessed this Republican hypocrisy at the federal level in the attempts by the Gingrich Congress to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, eliminate the Endangered Species Act, and make toxic waste a vegetable (just kidding about that last one).
So today I can say I’m firmly a Democrat. That’s why it increasingly irritated me that Nancy Casady was publicly questioning my party credentials. The clear threat here was not that she could beat me. Rather, it was that she would bloody me enough in the primary to weaken a Democratic base that would have to be rock solid if I were to beat Republican Brian Bilbray.
Who Are Those Guys?
Sure, I expected Casady to get the National Organization for Women endorsement because she used to do advocacy work on pro-choice issues (and because the one and only thing I do agree with Rush Limbaugh on is that the now leadership is a bunch of men-hating feminazis who ought to know better than to engage in reverse discrimination but do it anyway). But then some other unexpected dominoes started to fall on top of me, and my concern began to grow.
First there was Casady’s endorsement by the National Association of Social Workers — a bunch of neurotic, touchie-feelie twits if I’ve ever met any. Then it was the endorsement of the teachers and the National Education Association. Next, it was the gay-and-lesbian San Diego Democratic Club — a particular slap in my face given the fact that I had stood up strongly for gay rights over the years and gotten nothing but hammered for it outside the gay community.
Around our campaign, Casady’s endorsement juggernaut got to be almost a joke — no date for Navarro at the endorsement ball. Casady and I would both show up for an endorsement interview and a week later, they’d announce that she’d gotten it. Then, we’d go on to the next one, and she would do it again. (One of my favorite lines in all of American cinema is from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it’s one I found myself muttering during this period about the Casady gang: “Who are those guys?”)
Casady’s dancing on my face reached what I thought at the time must be the humiliating low point. It was on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Craftmen’s Hall, the base of operations for the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union. That day, however, the main hall was also the site of the local Democratic Party convention.
At that convention, most of the delegates shook my hand, but few would look me in the eye, and I knew right away that I had as much chance of getting the party’s nomination as Woody Allen has of remarrying Mia Farrow. Boy, did the Republican San Diego Union-Tribune love reporting that repudiation. Headlines, quotes about me being a fake Democrat from the party chairwoman, the whole nine yards.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the low point. It got even worse on the night that John Kennedy and I went to get what we thought would be the sure-thing, can’t-possibly-miss, it’s-in-the-bag afl-cio endorsement. Surprise, surprise! Instead of walking into a small, intimate E-Board meeting where we had wired a majority of the votes, we walked into a snake pit. It was a packed open meeting where the E-Board members sat around a table, flanked by over a hundred angry rank-and-file dissidents.
This brilliant idea was, of course, that of Joe Francis. Old Joe was shrewd enough to know that if enough of the rank and file went after me in the open meeting, there was no way the E-Board would have the guts to give me the exclusive endorsement. The way Joe’s operatives ratcheted the anger level up was to have some guy from the teacher’s union attack me for an incident that had happened over four years before — an incident for which I had publicly apologized more times than Billy Graham has said amen.
What I had done in that incident was to violate the first rule of union politics: Interject myself into a turf war. This one was between the tiny Municipal Employees Association (mea) and the juggernaut American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (afscme). Guess which side Dumbo me picked? I can’t tell you how stupid that was, and my only excuse is that I did it as a favor to the president of mea, Judy Italiano, who had helped me in my mayor’s race.
However, the irony of my being criticized for this at the endorsement meeting was that one of my strongest supporters for the congressional endorsement on the E-Board was also the head of the aggrieved afscme union, a soft-spoken fellow named Owen Evans. In fact, Owen had been one of the first people John Kennedy and I had gone to woo, precisely to head off that anticipated attack at the solidarity pass. Owen was now solidly behind me, and he even said so at the meeting.
It didn’t matter. The mud was slung, I got dirty, and we came away with a colorless, odorless, and totally useless co-endorsement for both Casady and me. This was like kissing your cousin. It was effectively no endorsement because it meant that a pac had to give to both of us or neither of us — and guess what they did. So, yes, the best laid plans of mice like me and Kennedy often do go astray.
It was at about this turbulent time in the campaign that several bags of what was purported to be Nancy Casady’s garbage were — quite literally — dropped into my lap by the only anonymous person in this story. This garbage was to quickly and dramatically put an end to Casady’s charge up my flattening hill, and a retelling of this garbage tale should underscore perhaps the most important lesson in this story for wanna-be politicos: never, ever leave your garbage out overnight for your opponent to pick up and pick over.
My Ninja Character Assassins
Garbage in, garbage out. — Tombstone of the Unknown Computer Nerd
At perhaps the most fundamental level, there is little difference between the traditional science of archeology and the modern practice in American politics of “garbageology.” Both of these exacting disciplines sift through the dirt and detritus of people’s lives to gather clues, and both can be revealing. I was well aware of the importance of garbageology going into my congressional race because pirated garbage had already played a key role in two of my previous campaigns.
In the first instance, during the 1992 mayoral primary election, I was the unwitting beneficiary of a midnight raid on Susan Golding’s campaign garbage cans. The raid was conducted by a shadowy political operative who was in the employ of one of the other candidates in the race.
What he found — and promptly leaked — was a particularly damning confidential memo from Golding’s pollster Dick Dresner. In it, Dresner urged Golding to introduce a measure on the board of supervisors to cut some poor hapless schmucks off welfare. The kicker here was that Dresner clearly acknowledged that the measure would be illegal, but he urged Golding to do it anyway to consolidate her right-wing political base. The icing on this rancid cake was that Golding had followed Dresner’s Machiavellian advice.
The news story hit the mayor’s race like a firestorm. For one thing, the memo conveyed the image of a coldly calculating and overly ambitious Golding. This seemed to shake up many voters still having a hard time believing that Sweet Little Susie didn’t know that in her house, it had been her husband doing the (money) laundry.
But the best part was that rather than denying anything, Golding counterattacked. She accused the Ron Roberts campaign of a Watergate-style theft of the memo. In response, Roberts flew so far off the handle that he made Captain Queeg look calm. This left me, the squeaky clean white knight in the race, as the main beneficiary of the sordid affair while both Golding and Roberts took a pretty good negative hit.
My next experience with garbageology, however, was not so pleasant. It happened two years later when I ran against Roberts for county supervisor. Someone managed to dig out of my trash a highly confidential subpoena from California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (fppc). It charged me with the failure to properly disclose the source of several personal loans I had made to my mayoral campaign.
On the face of it, this was a ridiculous allegation because every loan I had made to my campaign was dutifully reported on both the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune and in my campaign filings. Nonetheless, the fppc was trying now to stick me with some technical violations. (It may help here to know that California’s fppc is a supposedly nonpartisan political watchdog, but the people who control it are, by and large, Republican appointees who just love to grind their axes on careless Democrats.)
The worst part was that I was unaware that my opponent Ron Roberts had obtained the document, and he used it to blindside me during one of the few highly visible debates of the supervisor’s race. The vehicle for attack was a Joe McCarthyesque question from an audience member asking me, “Are you now, or have you ever been, under investigation by the fppc?”
In one of my rare deer-in-the-headlights moments — I’m usually very quick on my feet — I stumbled through an evasive answer, and the next day it was all front-page news. (This case, by the way, would not be settled for two more years, and Brian Bilbray would get the chance to sling the same mud at me as Ron Roberts did — with much the same effect.)
The point of this long digression, mon candidate, is this: your garbage can get you into a heap of trouble, so be a lot more careful than I or, for that matter, Nancy Casady was.
Harvard of the West Coast — Not
The real find in Nancy Casady’s alleged garbage was a seemingly innocuous piece of correspondence between Casady and a place called More University. As soon as my press secretary cum opposition researcher Lisa Ross saw it, her eyes lit up brighter than a Roman candle in an outhouse. This was because it helped confirm one of the juiciest rumors we had heard about Casady — that she was a teacher at More.
More University is to Harvard and Yale as Sodom and Gomorrah were to Jesus’ Bethlehem. It is a way-over-the-top and way-out-on-the-fringe institution that was founded back in the free-love era of the 1960s up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, it continues to offer courses in the sexual arts.
Now let me say here that I originally had no intention of attacking Nancy Casady. This was for two reasons. Most nobly, I liked the Casadys, wacko though I thought they were, so I didn’t want to get down and dirty with them. More pragmatically, I also thought any such attacks might backfire if they could be traced to my campaign, particularly because of my reputation as a dirty campaigner.
In contrast, both Lisa Ross and my campaign consultant Larry Remer were more than ready to launch a surgical strike, and they assured me it could be done without leaving any fingerprints. In fact, these Ninja character assassins wanted to go right after Casady as soon as she started going after me; and it was about the time that Casady got the Democratic endorsement that Lisa started looking deeper into the bizarre rumors swirling around the Casadys.
That’s why the document in Casady’s garbage was so useful: It not only identified Casady as a teacher for More University. It also provided a phone number to call to confirm this. It was an easy step from there to anonymously disseminate the information to Ray Huard, the reporter covering the election beat. Within days, the Union-Tribune ran a big story about it (thankfully without any link to us), and Casady’s candidacy was quickly marginalized in the eyes of the voters.
This wasn’t the best part, however. The best part was blast faxing the news story to every organization that had endorsed Casady over me. These groups now had to deal with the embarrassment of their names being associated with a sex-education teacher. This fax put an end to any possible hope that these organizations would donate large sums of money or provide large cadres of volunteers to the Casady camp. So in one single story, as newspapers can sometimes do, Casady’s campaign went right back into the garbage can from whence it came. Garbage in, garbage out.
Now at this point, you might think that I truly am the cruelest and meanest son of a bitch that ever ran for office in San Diego — as my unfortunate reputation from the mayoral race is. But let me say again in my defense that I never, ever had any intention of attacking Casady, and I never would have used any of that garbage if she hadn’t tried to win the election by going after me personally first. But all is fair not just in love and war but also in politics, and, after Casady’s gang threw the first, second, and third punches at my groin, I was more than inclined to let my Ninjas quickly knock her down and out.
The broader lesson here is one I’ve learned the hard way, and it is one that many neophyte candidates like Nancy Casady never fully understand. It relates to a simple law of Newtonian physics that applies equally to politics: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, mon candidate, while you are likely to be hit by your opponent regardless of how nice you are, you are far more likely to be hit harder and farther below the belt if you start hitting first. What goes around does indeed come back around.
The Democrat That Makes Newt Wet His Pants
Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote. — George Jean Nathan
Even as the Casady threat was receding, our campaign was gearing up to bring me home a big victory margin in the primary election. This was important: A backboard-breaking, over-my-shoulder, slam-dunk win in the primary would go a long way toward dispelling the perception that I was a perennial loser.
The task of engineering this resounding victory was left to my trusty campaign manager, Dale Kelly Bankhead — one of the sweetest, smartest, and most loyal people I know. Oddly enough, I would not be actively involved in the campaign Dale was about to wage. Instead, I would focus all of my time on fund-raising. And the reason I didn’t have to be involved is that a partisan primary election is a very different animal than a general election. Let me do some quick math for you to explain why.
Of the millions of Americans of voting age, less than half bother to register. Of those registered, little more than half bother to vote. This contrasts sharply with voter-participation rates of well over 90 percent in countries like Japan and Somalia. It also provides a pathetic counterpoint to places like Haiti and Afghanistan where voters have to dodge bullets and duck incoming mortar rounds.
Given these statistics, suppose that I, as the candidate, were to go to a supermarket to hand out campaign literature and press the flesh. How effective would this be?
In an hour, I might shake 100 hands, but only about 40 of those hands would be of registered voters. Of those 40, only about half of those would actually vote in a low-turnout primary election. And of the 20 who vote, only about 8 would be registered Democrats eligible to vote in the Democratic primary. The bottom line: 92 out of every 100 hands I would shake at that supermarket would be the hands of people who couldn’t even vote for me. That’s long odds at any racetrack, and that’s why the name of the game in a primary election is not buckshot retail politics but laser-beam targeting.
Buckshot and Laser Beams
The best way to find your voter target in a primary election is through computerized voter lists, and the best way to hit your target is through phone banks and direct mail. I don’t know much about how other states work, but in California a candidate can buy a data file that tells almost everything about a voter except whether he or she has hemorrhoids.
Information on this “voter file” includes the obvious: age, sex, and party, as well as a mailing address and, when available, a phone number. But the file also includes race and ethnicity, whether the person owns a home or rents, is married or single, and how much money he or she makes. In some cases, the voter file will even include data on the probability the voter is gay or straight.
All this demographic data is important when you work with your pollster to define and target your message — something I’ll talk more about later. But for now, in thinking about primary-election targeting, the most important piece of data in the voter file is the so-called voter history. This voter history tells you how often people have voted in past elections; and what you are looking for are the high-propensity voters who will likely go to the polls even in a low-turnout primary election.
For example, Jimmy Apathetic has been registered to vote since 1985, but the only time he ever casts his ballot is during presidential general elections. In contrast, Cindy Conscientious has voted five times out of the last five elections. In a low-turnout primary, you can save lots of time and money by excluding the Jimmy Apathetics of this world from your target list.
For the primary, my consultant Larry Remer chose a very narrow target — Democratic voters who had voted in at least three out of the last five elections. This boiled down to less than 30,000 voters in a district with over 500,000 people. It was Dale Kelly Bankhead’s job to run the nightly phone banks to reach these people with our campaign message.
In this early stage of our campaign, we couldn’t afford to pay a pollster to help craft our message. But that message was fairly obvious — at least if you accepted the wisdom of Martin Frost and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (as we discussed in Chapter Seven). Take a look at this sample phone script, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Hi, I’m Joe Volunteer calling on behalf of Democrats for Navarro. As you may know, Peter Navarro is running to help take back the Congress from Newt Gingrich, and we need to defeat Republican Brian Bilbray to get rid of Gingrich.
“Peter is a business economist and San Diego’s growth-management leader. He is strongly pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-education, and pro-Medicare. Peter Navarro is also the Democrat that Newt Gingrich fears the most. Can Peter count on your vote on March 5?”
The first sentence cites a phony organization, “Democrats for Navarro.” This creates the useful illusion of external partisan support and strong party affiliation and counters Casady’s “weak Democrat” attack. By the way, please don’t give me a hard time about this phony front-group stuff. It’s standard operating procedure in the sleazy world of politics.
The second sentence is more complex. It sets up the race as a national rather than a local contest and makes Newt Gingrich the villain. It also identifies Republican Brian Bilbray as my opponent rather than Nancy Casady. This serves the twin purposes of ignoring Casady and marginalizing her as any serious threat. Note also the word “help” in the “take back” part to connote a team player. That’s a nice little touch because a lot of people perceive me as a Lone Ranger.
The third sentence provides a shorthand label for me as “business economist.” This appeals primarily to Democratic men. At the same time, the “growth-management leader” label gently reminds voters of my past environmental exploits on their behalf and has appeal across gender lines.
The fourth sentence is a must. It articulates a platform that gives voters a positive reason to support me. I’m basically promising to protect a woman’s right to choose, preserve our environment, and support education. These are promises I know I can keep. However, I’m also promising to save Medicare, and while I’m not quite lying through my teeth here, I am well aware that this will be a much more difficult proposition.
The fifth sentence highlights the campaign slogan — “The Democrat Newt Gingrich fears the most” — and, in some sense, it is the punch line of the script. The simple message is that a vote for Navarro is a vote against the reviled Gingrich. The more complex message involves some subtle jujitsu. The idea is to transform the fear that most Democrats have of Gingrich and his agenda into Gingrich’s own fear of losing power. The intellectual link to this emotional idea is that I’m the Democratic candidate with the best chance of beating Bilbray and therefore denying Gingrich his majority.
By the way, Dale and my campaign consultant Larry Remer, as well as my press secretary Lisa Ross, all toyed with a lot of other slogans before we settled on this one. Lisa’s favorite was “Navarro: The Democrat That Makes Newt Wet His Pants,” but the rest of us thought it was a little over the top. For his part, Larry liked the irony of “Navarro: The Newest New Democrat with the Newest Ideas,” while Dale’s favorite was “Navarro: Elect Him Before He Changes His Mind and Becomes a Republican Again.”
As you can see at the end of the script, you always ask the voter whether the candidate can count on his or her vote and always include the date of the election as a reminder to go to the polls. The voter’s response then goes into the computer for further action.
At a minimum, this is what you do with the phone-bank data: The “undecideds” you call back, maybe more than once, for further persuasion. The “yes” folks you call in the get-out-the-vote operation in the 72-hour window from the Sunday before the election to about an hour before the close of the polls on Tuesday. The firm “no’s” you delete from the voter file because you should never try to convert the unconvertible.
Dale’s goal was to get five phones working six nights a week between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. — the sweet spot for reaching people when they’re home from work and still awake. (Never call any voter after 9:00 p.m., mon candidate, unless you want some cranky people voting for your opposition out of spite.) Dale’s broader goal was to reach all the voters in the target at least once and then do at least one follow-up call to the undecideds.
It was crystal clear from the very beginning of the phone banking that we were going to win — the only question was whether we’d get our landslide. Dale’s operation was reaching about 200 people a night, and the results were fairly consistent. We typically polled well over 50 percent of the vote, Nancy Casady got about 10 percent, and a third nonserious candidate who had entered the race late, Marcia Tremblay, got less than 5 percent. The rest were undecided, and if I got just half of them I’d be well over 60 percent on Election Day. No problem was indicated here.
That left the only other part of our strategy to deal with — direct mail. Like phone banking, this is a precise technique because you mail to only those in your target. Not only is direct mail useful as a reinforcement to the phone bank, it is the only way to reach the voters in your target who have unlisted or wrong phone numbers, and those falling through these phone-bank cracks can reach as high as 30 percent of the target.
Larry Remer designed our one mail piece, and it served double duty. It was both a mailer and a brochure to hand out. Particularly for low-budget campaigns, this one-piece-fits-all approach is best. That way you don’t have to spend extra on a campaign brochure, and you can take advantage of the lower printing costs per piece that you get with a higher volume.
Larry’s piece had a smiling picture of me on the front identifying me as the “Democrat Gingrich fears most.” On the back cover and inside, I was portrayed as a fighter for the people who never gives up. The subtle message here was that even though this guy is a three-time loser, he’s not a quitter.
This mail piece was sent to all undecided voters identified by our phone banks, and it was always sent the day after the phone-bank contact. Such promptness creates excellent synergy between the phone call and the mail. A mass mailing was also sent to the whole target the Thursday before the election so it would arrive in mailboxes over the weekend that most of the undecideds finally make up their minds.
While the mail piece no doubt was helpful, I wish we had not sent it. Our phone banking clearly indicated that we were going to roll to victory regardless, and it was a needless $15,000 expense. But send the piece we did — and roll to victory we did.
Rolling to Victory
Watch knsd’s incessant slow-motion replays of the now-infamous shoving match at election central involving Peter Navarro and Susan Golding press aide Nikki Symington. Look closely at the grassy knoll in the background. See, the second elbow? Yes, the truth will eventually come out.… — Los Angeles Times
I hate election nights! You bust your butt for a year or more, and it all boils down to one roll of the dice. The volcano bubbling in the pit of your stomach as you wait that night for the voters’ verdict makes a million-dollar roll of the roulette wheel in Vegas seem like a romp through Disney World.
In San Diego, the voters’ verdict is rendered at Golden Hall. This is where the election returns are publicly posted, and if you’ve never been to one of these election-central soirees, I heartily recommend it. It’s good clean American fun, it won’t cost you a dime, and it beats a good dinner and a bad movie anytime.
Golden Hall is a big ugly box on the city’s civic concourse — the Mack truck of American architecture. There’s not a single color in the whole joint unless you count brown as a color — which I don’t. But on Election Night, this empty basketball gym of a place is transformed into a red, white, and blue cauldron of excitement, frenzy, and, for many candidates, abject terror.
At one end of Golden Hall is the tote board. This is where the election returns are posted and updated throughout the evening. The messengers of these bad and glad tidings typically are well-coifed Vanna White wanna-bes with short skirts and long clipboards. It’s a real pageant up on that stage.
Around the inside perimeter of Golden Hall are the TV platforms where each station creates its own portable set complete with logos, headsets, and hair spray. On these risers, the top anchors preen and pose and compete for who can ask the most banal question of the evening. My all-time favorite is “How does it feel to lose?” (They ask me that a lot.)
In the center of Golden Hall, the teeming masses gather shortly after the polls close to hoot and holler and cheer and wave signs for whichever horse they’re riding. Not to mix too many metaphors here, but Election Central is the closest thing to a snake pit I’ve ever been in. In fact, mon candidate, you have to be careful in this kind of volatile environment. There’s a lot of pent-up emotion that gets vented on such nights, and, if you’re unlucky or unprepared, some very bad things can happen.
I know because one of the worst things that has ever happened to me in politics is an incident involving Susan Golding’s press secretary on the night that I won the mayoral primary election. Golding’s press secretary at that time was a woman named Nikki Symington. If Nikki were a dog, she’d be a pit bull. If she were a fish, she’d be a barracuda. And if Nikki were an inanimate object, she’d be a brick wall.
Anyway, that election night, after running a media campaign that made the Keystone Kops look competent, Nikki’s rear end as Golding’s press secretary was on the line. She knew it as soon as the first returns came in and showed Golding eating my dust. That’s when Nikki completely, utterly, and foaming-at-the-mouth lost it.
What happened was one of the TV stations wanted to interview me, and as I was trying to work my way through the bedlam with my wife to get to their platform, Nikki got it in her twisted head that she was going to stop me because she didn’t want me to get there ahead of Golding.
Unbeknownst to Nikki and me, one of the local TV station’s roving cameras caught the whole gruesome exchange on videotape. The next thing I knew, they were playing the tape over and over again as if this were a big controversy.
Now, this should have been a public-relations bonanza for me — “Golding Aide Viciously Attacks Navarro.” But the problem was that from the videotape, it wasn’t exactly clear who was shoving whom, because I made the mistake of shoving her arm back. I’d like to say here that it was purely a reflex action, but I’d be lying to you. It was anger, and only a little bit, but that’s still an emotion that a candidate never, ever should succumb to. You make mistakes when you do. And this was a big mistake because the video footage wound up looking like that Gnarled Granny–Fair Maiden drawing that they put in every college textbook in introductory psychology. You may know the one: When some people look at the drawing, they see the granny, while others see the maiden.
Unfortunately, at least half the people who watched the video footage thought that I was the gnarled-granny aggressor, not Nikki. Needless to say, having a guy beat up on the proverbial fair maiden was not the message we wanted to broadcast on this, my night of greatest triumph.
By the way, the broader message here, mon candidate, is that you should always assume that the camera is on you whenever you are out in public. That way you won’t do anything really stupid unless you are really stupid — and what I did was really stupid, and I’m not really stupid, but I didn’t think the cameras were rolling even though I was in a place where there must have been at least a hundred frigging cameras.
The worst part of this incident was that it took the bloom off what should have been the sweetest rose in my life — that mayoral primary victory. But there’s an interesting coda here too, because Golding fired Nikki shortly thereafter and hired some six-foot-five goon to replace her. This Wilt the Stilt made a point of trying to intimidate me every chance he got throughout the general-election campaign. Even more to the point, while he was incompetent as a press secretary, he was still several pegs up the scale from Nikki, so I was almost as sad as she was when she got fired.
Now, I’d like to tell you that this was the only altercation I’ve ever gotten into on Election Night, but how can I drive home the point that danger lurks out there for candidates if I don’t tell you about the other incident. This one happened some five months later on the night of the mayoral general election. It involved the head of the cops’ union Harry Eastus and one of his chief lieutenants, Steve Sloan.
Harry Eastus, you may recall from Chapter Two, is the jerk who accused me in one of Golding’s TV commercials of wanting to bring drug addicts to San Diego. In another blatant act of my own stupidity, I had reacted to that TV commercial by publicly ridiculing “selfish” Harry and his “greedy” union for always putting pay raises for his troops above hiring more cops to protect our crumbling neighborhoods. True though it was, it still ticked Harry off big time.
So it was with great relish that Eastus and Sloan confronted me that night to rub defeat in my face. One of my own lieutenants who, unlike Sloan, hadn’t been to the police academy’s swat team training, took umbrage at the cops’ act of gracelessness. The next thing I knew, my guy was flat on his keister.
Eastus’s only comment to me was “You’re lucky you didn’t win, you prick. You probably would have been the first mayor ever assassinated in San Diego.” This from a cop, mind you. But he was probably right.
So now you might have a better idea why I don’t like going down to election central. But go I must every time there is an election, and this was particularly true on this historic March 5 night of the congressional primary. I had to go because this night would be the best opportunity for many months to come to get my campaign message out to the electorate via the free media.
Humphrey Bogart Falls on His Sword
On election night, there is a method to engage in the media’s madness, and it is simply this. Get yourself scheduled for an interview on the highest-rated news station right at the top of the eleven o’clock news, when ratings peak. Since you can usually do one interview in about five minutes, you want to jump from there to the second-highest-rated station and try to get that one done before the 11:15 commercial break. This way you stay in the ratings groove before weather and sports kick in and viewers start to tune out.
Unlike most nights I’ve experienced at Golden Hall, this one turned out to be fun and conflict-free. Just after the polls closed, the first returns came in based on a count of the absentee ballots. I had close to 60 percent of the vote, Nancy Casady and the other minor candidate were trailing badly, and there was no way either would ever catch me.
The other good news on the tote board was that San Diego voters had turned the tables on Ross Perot’s dominatrix, Mistress Madison. It was she who was being beaten, and badly, for the Perot party nomination by Kevin Hambsch. Thus, we were now assured of our dream matchup: the Republican Brian Bilbray versus the Democrat Peter Navarro with very credible Libertarian and Perot candidates right there crowding Bilbray on his right wing.
Now on this particular night, my press secretary Lisa Ross had done her homework. She got us the first interview on San Diego’s highest-rated station, Channel 10, and it was at the top of the hour. The best part was that Bilbray had been invited up to the platform thinking that he was going on solo, so when I slipped into the chair across from him and put on my headset, you could almost see his sphincter tighten.
The contrast between the two of us that night was striking. I looked calm, confident, and relaxed, and this was partly because I had learned from previous years that the best thing to do before a big night of TV interviews is to take the day off and do nothing but eat, sleep, and swim in the ocean. But my ease was also partly because I had hosted my own TV news program for more than a year, and I felt comfortable, indeed very much in command, in front of the cameras.
In contrast, Bilbray looked like most congressmen from California do who commute every week back and forth on the red-eye from Washington, D.C., which is to say he was pale and wan and more than a little wasted. He also had a Nixonian film of unflattering, shiny sweat on his face, whereas, TV veteran that I was, I had put on a little powder makeup to smooth out any sweaty and shiny edges.
I’ll give you a deeper profile of the Honorable Congressman Bilbray in an upcoming chapter, but for now, all you need to know is that sitting in that hot seat with the klieg lights glaring, Bilbray was not prepared for what was about to come. In fact, the only thing he had going for him was actually a pretty good trick that every candidate should be aware of. His supporters had ringed the TV platform and created a wall of Bilbray signs as a backdrop for this impromptu minidebate, so that on the TV monitor I looked like I was surrounded by his troops.
At any rate, Channel 10’s anchor Stephen Clark — a self-professed conservative — started things off with a softball question to his ideological buddy Bilbray, and all Bilbray could do was hit a weak cliché to the shortstop. Then it was my turn, and, with a big smile, I took a home-run swing at him.
I should say here that it is of the utmost importance, mon candidate, that you know exactly what your message is whenever you go before a TV camera and that you stick to that message. That means no matter what question the anchor throws at you, you must either ignore the question and go right to your message or give a brief answer to the question and immediately bridge to your message.
My consultant Larry Remer and I had decided that our message that night would be right out of the playbook of Martin Frost and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This was a time, mind you, when we still believed the D-Triple-C knew what the hell it was doing. The message was this: Newt Gingrich was Public Enemy Number One, Brian “Newt” Bilbray had voted with the Gingrich agenda over 90 percent of the time, and if San Diego wanted to be rid of Gingrich, we had to get rid of Bilbray. End of story.
Before Bilbray could respond to any of this, I challenged him to a series of debates throughout the district. What he should have said was “of course I’ll debate you” — regardless of whether he intended to or not. This is because if he wanted to back out later, there would always be plenty of excuses to do so — particularly for a busy incumbent congressman with pressing matters of state to attend to. But instead of accepting my debate challenge, Bilbray danced around it like cold water on a hot griddle, and he came off looking like a cowardly, temporizing fool.
Now I know you might be thinking that I’m being more than a little boastful about how easily I manhandled Bilbray that night, but please don’t jump to the conclusion that I’m an egomaniac. I’m telling you about my splendid performance now because the next time I would meet Bilbray in a debate — many months later — it would be Bilbray who would eat my lunch. Indeed, one of the reasons why he would later nail me was that on this night, I unwisely gave Bilbray and his campaign consultants a big wake-up call.
Before I explain what I mean, let me first confess that throughout the campaign, I had a mole working in the Bilbray camp, and please don’t give me a hard time about that either because it’s also a standard campaign practice. In fact, when C-Span broadcast a feature on our race, we saw at least five people in Bilbray’s headquarters who, at one time or another, had successfully infiltrated our volunteer network on behalf of Bilbray.
At any rate, from time to time our mole — code name Sore Throat — funneled information to us. What Sore Throat told us about the aftermath of my shredding Bilbray was that it led to three important strategic decisions.
The first was that Bilbray would limit joint appearances with me as much as possible. There was nothing for him to gain, and, given my skills with the media and in debate, there was much for him to lose.
The second decision was that whenever we did debate, he would immediately attack to put me on the defensive. No more of this deer-in-the-headlights crap; he’d be Godzilla with an Uzi.
The third, and most damaging to our campaign, was from that day forward Bilbray would rapidly backpedal from the Gingrich Devil and reincarnate himself as San Diego’s most “independent” congressman — a ridiculous assertion on his part given his pro-Newt voting record, I might add, except that he would have over a million bucks to back it up.
In hindsight, it’s clear that I came on far too strong and far too early with Bilbray on this primary election night. It was still eight months before the general election, and I didn’t just tip my hand, I showed him the whole deck of cards. It scared the wee wee out of him and his handlers, and it would have been better on that night to have played a little possum, done the “aw shucks, it’s great to be here” Jimmy Stewart routine. But instead I had to be Humphrey Bogart.
This was my first mistake of the campaign, but it was a big one. For the next eight months, the only time Bilbray would venture into my space was when he was forced to by outside media pressure (this happened twice) or when he had total control over the debate format and could freely kick my butt. And, of course, he played the “independent congressman” tune like a virtuoso. You’ll see what I mean about all this soon.
Next: Triumph of Hope Over Experience
Part 1 of 4 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4