CHAPTER 23: Al Gore's Love Handles
If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?
— Zen koan
On July 2, Vice President Al Gore came to San Diego for my fund-raiser, I raised over $100,000, and I got to ride in a vice presidential motorcade. I also got to watch Al Gore inhale a chocolate cake. All in all, it was a grand day and evening, but, like many things in life, it did not come easy.
In fact, the Gore event almost didn’t come off at all, because at one point my gracious host Chuck Davenport nearly pulled the plug. If you guessed that the problem was with Congressman Bob Filner — the Grand Canyon of assholes — you win a free, one-way trip with Bob to the Aleutian Islands.
As you may recall from an earlier chapter, in my initial negotiations with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D-Triple-C) I had warned executive director Matt Angle and chairman Congressman Martin Frost that Filner would try to crash my party and raise money I would otherwise get. I got Angle and Frost to promise as part of our deal that they wouldn't let it happen.
Well, so much for a Washington, D.C., promise. When Filner heard about the event, he threatened to storm to the Democratic caucus and publicly accuse Frost and the D-Triple-C of playing favorites with challengers over sitting members of Congress. It took all of about 15 seconds for Frost and Angle to cave in to Hemorrhoid Bob.
When Chuck Davenport found out that Filner was muscling in, he got so mad that he threatened to pull the plug on the deal. Note that this would have cost the Democratic Party over a hundred thousand dollars in good, clean, Buddhist Temple-free donations. It would also have prevented me from raising another hundred thousand dollars myself. Crisis? What crisis?
Fortunately, after Chuck and I calmed down, we decided that to cancel an event with the vice president would be to shoot ourselves in the foot as well as to play into Filner’s destructive little hands. So the show went on.
What's the Price of an Al Gore, Redux
Besides Hemorrhoid Bob, the only other unpleasant thing about the Davenport event was that the White House opted to do their pre-fund-raising press event at Qualcomm Inc. rather than at Children’s Hospital. Whenever the White House does an evening fundraiser, they always schedule a press event during the day. This allows part of the bill for the travel to be charged to official business. It’s also good politics because it gets a front-page story that provides additional spin for the campaign’s issue du jour.
For months, I had lobbied the D-Triple-C and the White House to make that press event a visit by Gore to christen the new Healing Garden at Children’s Hospital. I wanted to make this happen because Darlyn Davenport was president of the Children's Hospital Auxiliary. She had played a key role raising funds to build it, and it would have meant a lot to this fine woman who is one of the sweetest and kindest people I know.
In making the case for Children’s Hospital, I told the White House schedulers that it would be great PR. It not only tapped into the theme of resentment against Gingrich for cutting funds to worthy places like Children’s, it also fit in with the personal tragedy that Gore had experienced when his son was hit by a car and spent months in a hospital recovering.
Despite my entreaties, the White House nixed the Children’s Hospital venue and instead chose a visit to the high-tech digital-phone manufacturer Qualcomm. Qualcomm is one of the most successful, most profitable, and fastest-growing companies in the country, and Gore’s visit would fit in nicely with the Clinton-Gore campaign theme of hurtling down the information superhighway. Nonetheless, I believe in my gut the real reason Gore’s staff chose Qualcomm over Children’s Hospital was because of Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs and his $20,000 check.
In soliciting a donation from Jacobs — one of San Diego’s most well-heeled Democratic fat cats — the D-Triple-C’s representative Noah Mamet had gotten subtle but nonetheless strong signals that if Jacobs were to lay down 20 grand to sit at the head table with Gore, it might be a good idea if the Veep dropped by his company for a visit. And don’t get me wrong here. Irwin Jacobs is a class act with a great company and he, along with his trusty lieutenant Alan Viterbi, have been very kind to me in my political career.
But the entrepreneurial Jacobs also has a reputation for coming in at the eleventh hour and buying things up at bargain prices, and this is what I think he might have done with the Gore visit. And of course this irritated me to no end because here Chuck and Darlyn Davenport had ponied up five times what Jacobs was giving, but because the White House already had their money in the bank, Jacobs wound up with the press event.
Al Gore's Code Name
So it was that I began my Day of the Gore at Qualcomm’s headquarters watching Al give a speech that got laughs and applause. This is because Gore has not only developed a fine sense of comic timing, he has acquired a stable of good Hollywood comedy writers. Some Gore gems that day: “If you use a strobe light, it looks like Al Gore is moving." "Al Gore is so boring his code name is Al Gore.” “How can you tell Al Gore from his Secret Service agents? Al Gore is the stiff one.”
When it was over, I went outside and met my press secretary Lisa Ross in front of Gore’s stretch limo. Little Lisa had spent days insuring that I would ride to the Davenports’ with the Veep — one of my perquisites for setting up the event — and it was supposed to be a done deal. Nobody told the Secret Service agents, however, and the closest I got to the limo was a rough hand on my chest and some directions toward a waiting phalanx of vehicles. The next thing I knew I was being ushered into some cheesy Ford Aerostar minivan that would wind up playing the caboose in the motorcade.
I remember two things about the ride. The first was how badly I wanted to find the sadist with the twisted sense of humor who decided to put me in the same vehicle as Bob Filner. (At least Bob didn’t get to ride in the limo either.)
The second thing I remember was the same strange feeling in the pit of my stomach I had gotten reading the post-nuclear-war novel On the Beach. Riding in a vice presidential motorcade is one of the closest things to a post-apocalyptic experience you can have. This is because the Secret Service and local cops clear out every potential gun-toting human or bomb-carrying vehicle within miles of the route.
So riding down Interstate 5 in the motorcade, there were no cars or people in sight, and it was such an eerie feeling, I didn’t even have time to feel bad for the thousands of rush-hour commuters cooling their heels in gridlock so one politician could go raise money for another politician.
Arriving at the Davenport house, we found the mood festive. In fact, the place looked like a circus, right up to and including the circus tent. The tent was necessary because as big as the Davenport house is, it wasn’t configured in a way that any one room could accommodate a hundred guests at a sit-down dinner. Noah Mamet’s not-so-elegant solution to the problem had been to pitch a large tent over the driveway. It would be under this tent that dinner and a big speech would be served to the fat cats. Later in the evening, a second group of smaller, $250 donors would be joined by the Veep inside the house for a little speech.
But first things first, because the most important part of the evening was the photo line with the Veep. An eight-by-ten glossy with the president or vice president is one of the reasons big donors shell out big bucks to go to political events. So my wife and I dutifully stood in a long line snaking around the building to participate in the photo op. And when it was our turn, my wife and I got to feel Al Gore’s love handles.
It was an innocent occurrence. Nothing kinky at all. We stood on either side of him, Al Gore graciously put his arms gently on our shoulders, and my wife and I each gently put an arm around his waist. That’s when I discovered why Gore wears box-cut suits almost as wide as the circus tent we were about to have dinner in.
How big are Al Gore’s love handles? Big enough to lift the Queen Mary. Boy, was it easy for my wife and me to smile for the camera; we both almost burst out laughing after copping a feel of that gelatinous White House girth. We got a great picture of the three of us too, but the only way I'm going to vote in the year 2000 for Al instead of slim, trim Dick Gephardt is if Al hits the StairMaster, and hard.
Pass the Chocolate Cake
With the photo opportunity out of the way, it was time to trundle into the tent for some political bread and circus. The first rule of campaigning, mon candidate, is to never sit down at a fund-raising dinner. Your job is to go to every table and shake every hand and let these people know just how glad you are to see them. At this event, I not only dutifully did this but also had one of the camera guys follow me around to take cameos with people who had come at my personal invitation. This is so I could send the pictures to these smiling folks later when I tried to hit them up for more dough.
Perhaps the most surprising occurrence of the evening was the warm and funny speech that Bob Filner gave on my behalf. He started it with a pretty good joke that went something like this: “You know, Peter Navarro and I have a lot in common. He’s a professor and I’m a professor. He went to an Ivy League school. Harvard, and I went to an Ivy League school, Cornell. And, as you all know, we’re both humble, shy, and unassuming individuals.” Mon candidate, there is nothing better than self-deprecating humor to win an audience, and the fact that the joke brought down the house underscored that those people in the tent had gotten both our personalities right.
After this joke, Filner played another one, this time on me. With the sincerity of Mother Teresa ladling soup to a leper, he proceeded to talk about what a great congressman I would make and how “we” needed me to take back Congress from the evil Newt. Of course, the only reason Bob made this speech was that he wanted to show Gore that he was a team player. More importantly, he knew that not one comma in the speech would get beyond that tent, because the press — including my own press secretary — was not allowed inside.
After Gore’s speech. Gore and I slipped out of the tent and went over to the house to greet the small donors. Along the way, we passed through the kitchen where a long row of chocolate cakes sat deliciously, ready to be cut for the dessert course. As I continued on toward the living room where the throng was waiting, I somehow lost the Veep. That’s when, doubling back to the kitchen to find him, I watched, my mouth agape, as an aide handed him a whole cake on a plate. (Isn’t that what aides are for?)
The Veep grabbed the entire gooey mass in his bare hands and simply inhaled it. He didn’t quite get it all into his mouth, however, and crumbs and frosting oozed from his lips. I cracked up. It was about the funniest thing I’d ever seen. (It also put his love handles in clearer focus.) But so as not to embarrass him or myself, I took my chortles into the hall and let him have his moment of pleasure.
Al Gore's Zen Koan
A few minutes later, I was looking out into the faces of about 100 smiling people crammed like sardines into Chuck and Darlyn’s living room, and I earnestly introduced the Veep. It was a nice moment in my political life even if I had to hear Gore give the same speech yet a third time in the last few hours. (The jokes were still funny.) There are only two other things to tell you about that fine night.
First, as I escorted the Veep away, my buddy Mike Portantino came up to me and begged for a photo with me and Gore for the cover of his magazine. This put me in a dilemma because Mike is the publisher of the Gay and Lesbian Times, and while I had no qualms about associating with Mike, I wasn’t sure if the White House did gay photo ops. But after looking into Mike’s pleading eyes, I said to myself “screw this,” grabbed the Veep by the elbow, and made it happen. Glad that I did too, because if politicians like Clinton and Gore are going to talk the gay-support talk, they should walk the walk.
Second, there is the matter of Al Gore’s Zen koan. It is this: “If a major political event happens in San Diego and the major newspaper in town doesn’t report it, do the voters know it really happened?”
Let me put this inscrutable koan more directly by way of making the point once again that the San Diego Union-Tribune can find more ways to screw you than Madonna. Here we have the vice president of the greatest nation in the world come to town to do a fundraiser for congressional candidate Peter Navarro, and the paper of record in town does not report that fact in its coverage of the visit.
Oops. That’s not exactly correct. In fact, the precise truth is worse. The U-T did report that fact in the article on Gore’s visit in the North County edition of the paper. But in the city edition, which just happens to cover the turf within the 49th Congressional District, that little item in the article was excised. I’m sure the paper wasn’t trying to screw me. In fact, the paper’s ombudsman Gina Lubrano assured me and Lisa Ross that the omission was done purely for “space constraints." Right.
CHAPTER 24: Henry Waxman Smokes a Hookah
Money talks. Bullshit walks.
— Pope John (Just kidding)
Two weeks after the Al Gore fund-raiser, I boarded a plane for Washington, D.C I was taking off with over $100,000 in my campaign coffers and high hopes that the great success of the Gore event would open fund-raising doors for me on Capitol Hill.
But before we get into that, let me first observe that the Democrats in Congress have no one to blame but themselves for their Joss of the House to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in 1994 and their failure to win it back in 1996. Here’s why.
The Republicans will always hold the fund-raising edge in congressional races — it’s getting close to two to one now. This is because the Republican Party is the party of the rich and big business, and its pockets are simply deeper. Nonetheless, the Democratic leadership in Congress could level this playing field, at least for the 30 or so Nancy Pelosi candidates competing for key, targeted seats. The leadership could do this by mobilizing its members to act in a coordinated fashion. Just do the math with me.
Suppose every Democratic congressperson promised to contribute or raise $5000 for each candidate in the top 30 targeted seats — an easy pledge given their ready access to campaign dollars. Since there are over 200 Democratic congress-members, this handful of people could thus ensure that every candidate had over a million dollars to get his or her message across.
Now add to this another half million in PAC money and whatever the candidate can scrounge up locally, and you wind up with each of the 30 candidates having between $1.5 and $2 million to run the race. In most cases, this would be enough to win any close race, because while the Republicans always have the money advantage, they usually get mowed down by the Democrats at the grassroots.
Well, so much for the ideal. The ugly "real” is that trying to get every Democratic congressman to pitch into the collective pot is like trying to herd cats or get Major League Baseball owners to act in the best interests of the game. This is despite the fact that every single Democrat on Capitol Hill has a huge incentive to help poor schmucks like me get elected. Being in the Democratic majority means bigger offices, prestigious committee chairmanships, less difficulty raising funds from the PAC community, even more people smooching your keister, and a host of other perquisites of power. So what’s the problem? Let me show you through the microcosm of my little campaign.
After a fitful night’s sleep at the Georgetown Inn — I had the exclusive, second-floor Honking Horns Suite, facing congested Wisconsin Avenue — my fund-raiser Steve Pederson scraped my jet-lagged body off the curb, and we joined the morning gridlock oozing its way down to Capitol Hill. While we would be visiting PACs on this visit, Steve had a much grander plan for the trip — storming Capitol Hill.
Indeed, it would be on thus trip that Steve Pederson’s considerable fund-raising expertise would really kick in. For it was Steve who knew that the Democratic congressional leadership would soon be urging its fellow members of Congress to donate funds to a list of select candidates — so we had to get on that list. And it was Steve who knew that getting key congressional leaders to sponsor our D.C. fund-raisers would ensure their success.
Our first visit was to the former Speaker of the House and now Democratic Minority leader, the Honorable Richard A. Gephardt (D-Missouri), and I found him to be nothing less than a warm, sincere, intelligent, and extremely helpful individual. More importantly, he also had the eye of the tiger — the eye of a man who wanted to wrest back the Speaker of the House’s gavel from Newt Gingrich and feel it once again in his own hands. That meant he was ready to go to the mat for candidates like me because he knew we held the keys back to power. And all the better if the candidate (me) had just brought a new major donor into the Democratic Party and helped raise several hundred thousand dollars for the cause. (Absolutely no question about it: Money talks and bullshit walks.)
So when Steve Pederson asked, Gephardt readily agreed to the “ten-call promise.” This is a typical favor on Capitol Hill, and it would involve Gephardt making fund-raising calls on my behalf to ten key political-action-committee directors — calls that would be good as gold in terms of bringing in PAC dollars.
Next on Steve’s list were two key members of California’s delegation, Vic Fazio and Nancy Pelosi. Vic Fazio is the answer to the Jeopardy question: What key I Democratic leader in Congress first won his seat in 1978 by replacing an incumbent congressman convicted of bigamy? Vic Fazio is also one of the highest-ranking members of the Democratic congressional leadership as well as the lead dog in California congressional politics. If you’re going to get support from the California caucus and get on the leadership’s targeted list, it’s got to be Vic Fazio who gives you the nod.
What amazed me was not how friendly Vic was or how helpful he would be in my campaign but rather that he was so helpful even though he was in the dogfight of his life for his own seat. In 1994, Fazio had narrowly squeaked by Republican Tim LeFever during the Gingrich revolution, and now this same right-wing pit bull was gnawing uncomfortably close to Vic’s heels (and higher) again — this time with voters in his district increasingly angered over the impending closure of McClellan Air Force Base.
But Fazio was as hungry to get back a Democratic majority as Gephardt. This was largely because it had been Vic’s bad luck to have had Martin Frost’s job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1994 during the Gingrich bloodbath — and Vic had taken more than his share of blame for the debacle.
What Steve and I wanted out of Vic, besides getting on the leadership’s list, was some help with fund-raising in the state, particularly in Sacramento. We also needed Vic’s blessing if we were to bring in donations from the other 20-plus members of the California delegation.
Vic’s advice in this regard was to find someone in the California delegation who would help champion me in the state. While we both noted that the logical person would be my fellow San Diegan Bob Filner, Vic seemed to understand better than I that this was not in Filner’s nature. So Vic’s suggestion was for me to contact Los Angeleno Howard Berman and ask him to play the role of mentor and advocate, and Steve indicated to Vic that Howard was at the top of our list of people to see that week.
Coincidentally, as Steve and I were leaving Vic, we bumped into Congresswoman Jane Harman. I say “coincidentally” because on that day Harman provided a sharp counterpoint to the effusive Fazio.
Harman is a hypertensive, 50ish woman going on 90 who looks like stress warmed over and who should be having more fun than she seems to be having. After all, she represents the Southern California coastal district where the Beach Boys used to surf, where skateboarding got its start, and where there is an annual beer-drinking and vomitfest every Fourth of July. But faced with a race every bit as tough as Vic Fazio’s, Jane was in no mood to help anyone but herself. So she limply shook my hand, wished me well, and then went on her frenetic way — never to be seen or heard from again, at least by my campaign.
Our next stop was to see Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is the mother of five, the daughter of a former congressman, and the sister of the former mayor of Baltimore. Her district covers four-fifths of San Francisco, and she is as classy as the Tony Bennett song celebrating that city by the bay.
Nancy also has one of the safest seats on Capitol Hill; every year, her reelection is a slam dunk. This means that she has a free reign in helping others like me get elected, and she takes that responsibility seriously. Steve’s goal with Pelosi was to have her help organize a San Diego fund-raiser that featured all of the women of the California delegation — from Lynn Woolsey, Anna Eshoo, and Zoe Lofgren up north to Maxine Waters and Lucille Roybal-Allard in the south. In 1994, Lynn Schenk had been able to do this, and it had been an astonishing success.
Nancy readily agreed to help put this event together and even suggested a date. Her idea was to piggyback the event with a big Clinton fund-raiser in Los Angeles. That way, all of the women of the delegation would be in the area, and they could caravan down to San Diego in the morning, do a hind-raising lunch for my campaign, and be back in LA. that evening for the Clinton soiree. Best of all, Nancy volunteered to send out letters to her colleagues asking them to attend the event, and she was even willing to make follow-up calls. Mon candidate, it truly is wonderful when you don’t have to ask for everything in the political world — when street-smart, savvy folks like Nancy Pelosi already have it figured out.
Now in the Gephardt/Fazio/Pelosi helping-hand mold, one other member of Congress who went out of his way for me should be mentioned (although there were many others). That was Cal Dooley.
Dooley is a fourth-generation farmer from California’s fertile Central Valley, and he looks more like Sheriff Matt Dillon than some wimp with a last name like Dooley. He’s also a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat who is often at odds with the more liberal Democratic leadership — a strategic necessity in a congressional district with strong Republican and Independent constituencies.
Steve wanted us to visit Dooley because we were trying to put together a fund-raiser with the agriculture lobby, and getting the influential Dooley as a sponsor on the invitation would be essential if we were to raise any significant agricultural cash. Dooley, of course, wouldn’t actually attend the event, but that wasn’t the point. The lobbyists who would come to contribute to my campaign already saw enough of guys like Dooley in the hallways of Capitol Hill. No, what Dooley’s name would do is send the appropriate signals to the money folks that I was okay.
It is probably also worth noting here that under most circumstances it would be well nigh impossible for a challenger like me to raise money from agricultural PACs. But my incumbent opponent Brian Bilbray had not only made a number of anti-agricultural votes. He had also made the rookie mistake of getting up on the House floor and bad-mouthing the agricultural lobby, particularly sugar and peanut interests. So Steve had seen an opening and we were hoping to drive a Brinks truck through it.
What I really liked about Cal Dooley was not that he welcomed us right into his office without an appointment or that he immediately agreed to co-host our agricultural event — which he did. Nope. What was even better is that Dooley remembered that Brian Bilbray had voted against one of the most important subsidy programs for California farmers. And it was Dooley’s feeling — which would be borne out later by fact — that this vote alone would allow us to leverage considerable PAC dollars from agricultural interests.
From Good Luck to Bad Karma
Besides trying to raise money from the agricultural community, the other D.C. fund-raiser Steve and I were planning was with the free-market wing of the electric utility industry. That’s how we ran afoul of our first real congressional jerk, Ed Markey of Massachusetts. The first sign that Markey would be a problem was Henry Waxman said that he wouldn’t meet with us directly. Instead, he pawned off Steve and me on one of the most pompous aides on Capitol Hill I’ve ever met, although I am told that pompous aides on Capitol Hill are as ubiquitous as roaches in a New York apartment.
I had met Markey almost 20 years before when I was a research associate at Harvard’s Energy and Environmental Policy Center. At the time, Markey was a big opponent of nuclear power, and I had gone to talk with him about the issue. In the process, I had committed one of the biggest faux pas of my young political life.
What Markey and I had in common then was that we were both in our 30s, but with our boyish countenances we looked like kids. So when this kid came out and started talking to me without introduction, I assumed he was one of the congressman’s aides — not the real deal himself. You can imagine my embarrassment when after 15 minutes with the guy I found out my mistake. That happened when I asked when I would see the congressman, he said I already had, and off he went on his merry way.
My bad karma was to continue with the Honorable Ed Markey, because, as it would turn out, Markey was on the other side of the utility issue that I was trying to leverage in my fund-raising campaign. Let me explain by first introducing my all-time favorite lobbyist on the planet, Mark Irion of the Dutko Group.
Lobbyists Are Us
The Dutko Group is one of the most influential lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., and it is famous or notorious — take your pick — for hosting lavish fund-raisers for both Democrats and Republicans in its spacious headquarters. Well, Steve Pederson thought that maybe the Dutko Group would do me just such a favor, so we had called upon one of Steve’s contacts there, Pat Mitchell. He helped handle the Democratic side of the firm’s business.
Much as Pat wanted to help us, he let us know that with the Republicans in power, Gingrich and company were making it very uncomfortable for the folks at Dutko to host events for anybody but the highest-ranking Democratic incumbents — so challengers like me were non-starters. Nonetheless, Pat was sympathetic to my plight, so when the topic of utility deregulation came up, he had an idea.
Dutko had a number of utility clients who wanted to push a radical deregulation bill through Congress. Since I happened to be one of the leading academic advocates of such radical deregulation, these clients might find it in their self-interest to get financially behind my campaign. So Pat introduced me to Mark Irion, a vice president at Dutko who headed the utility section.
If you were to put Mark in front of a TV audience and ask each person to guess his occupation, no one would guess lobbyist. Pediatrician, botanist, high school teacher, assistant to Mr. Rogers, or maybe even public-interest lawyer. But never lobbyist. While he has the grace and charm for the job, there is not an ounce of sleaze or guile in or on him.
Fortunately, Mark took an immediate liking to me, as I did to him, and he jumped into my campaign with both feet. The grand plan that he and Steve developed was to put together several fund-raisers with the “white hat” utilities that favored radical deregulation. One of these events would be in Washington with lower-ranking energy lobbyists. However, Mark also wanted to corral a group of chief executive officers in the Dutko box at the Democratic National Convention for the same purpose. After he had cranked the numbers, he figured we might be able to raise as much as $50,000 in PAC money if we played our cards right. That’s one of the many reasons I like Mark — he thinks big.
Unfortunately, it was also Mark’s idea to send me over to Ed Markey’s to see if Markey would cosponsor the D.C. event. This is because Ed Markey is one of the leading energy gurus in Congress. I regret to inform you this was not the best idea Mark Irion has ever had.
In fact, Mark himself had been a little leery of it and cautioned me at the outset that it was a gamble. The problem was that Markey represents a state served by Boston Edison, and he has also developed a close relationship with Southern California Edison. Both of these “black hat” utilities were fighting hard against rapid utility deregulation, and I was the Antichrist to them. So it may not surprise you that Markey absolutely refused to help sponsor my energy fundraiser. Still and all, Ed Markey was not my biggest disappointment on Capitol Hill. That would have to be Henry Waxman. Hands down.
Peter in Wonderland
Waxman is a short, bald, earnest man who smiles about as frequently as it snows in Los Angeles. But in the upscale, tony neighborhoods of West Hollywood and Brentwood and Bel Air that he represents Waxman is as close to a political god as you can get. Together with his sidekick Howard Berman from the San Fernando Valley, the Waxman-Berman machine had controlled L.A. politics for decades.
Steve and I went to Waxman for a specific purpose. We wanted him to host a fund-raiser in San Diego targeting the Jewish community. In that community, Waxman is an icon, and his hosting of such an event was a guarantee of at least $20,000, and probably a lot more. More importantly, Waxman’s blessing would once and for all remove the cloud of anti-Semitism that had hung over my head since the mayor’s race, in at least a segment of San Diego’s Jewish community.
I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my life, and at least some of the time there has been a grain of truth in the accusations, but the anti-Semite label that Susan Golding helped pin on me in that campaign was even more outrageous than her pornographer ploy. Here’s what happened.
At one point in a speech, I had openly criticized scam artists like Charles Keating and Michael Milken for ruining the American economy. A would-be ally of Golding’s was Don Harrison, editor of the newspaper Jewish Heritage; and Harrison used that criticism to wave the bloody shirt of anti-Semitism at me because Milken is Jewish.
This was about the cheapest shot anybody has ever taken at me in politics, and all the more so because it came from some pious hypocrite hiding behind the shield of religion. It also astounded me, because, for starters, I didn’t associate Milken with being Jewish. More importantly, I was surprised that anyone would even try to defend the king of junk bonds on the flimsy basis of religious persecution.
Unfortunately, the charge stuck, particularly with some of San Diego’s Jewish Democrats who perhaps needed a good excuse to back the Jewish Republican Golding. Henry Waxman could have helped me heal this long-festering wound. However, I could tell about 30 seconds into the meeting that it was not going to be. But at least I got a good laugh out of the visit.
Walking into Waxman’s office, there was little Henry sitting in a big chair at an even bigger desk, a gigantic picture window behind him with a stunning view of the Capitol. For some reason, he looked to me like the blue caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and the only thing missing was Henry puffing on a hookah.
Talking to him that day, I thought Henry maybe could have used a hookah, because he’s one of the tightest people I’ve ever met. While Dick Gephardt, Vic Fazio, Nancy Pelosi, and Cal Dooley had all been outgoing and friendly, Waxman hardly said a word. He just stared at Steve and me as we spoke — only occasionally nodding his head.
Finally, I popped the question: “Can you come down to San Diego and do an event for us in the Jewish community? It would really mean a lot for my campaign.” He said he’d think about it, and maybe he did, but the thought never got out of his mind — despite repeated follow-up requests by Steve and me. And while Waxman did send me a check very late in the game, I can’t help but think that it is the Henry Waxmans and Ed Markers and Jane Harmans and Bob Filners of the Democratic Party who are ultimately responsible for its fall from power.
CHAPTER 25: My Handicap with the Handicappers
The newsletter is primarily used by lobbyists to make money decisions.
— Charlie Cook on the use for his Cook Political Report
While Steve Pederson and I were barnstorming Capitol Hill, my press secretary Lisa Ross was busy trying to spin the Washington press corps. Lisa’s spin was that I was competing in one of the top 20 races that would determine who controlled Congress and that with a vice presidential fund raiser now on the horizon, I had become one of the hottest candidates in the country.
It was pretty good spin, and if people in the national press started writing it, it would help my fund-raising enormously. The problem, however, is that the two most important people in the media weren’t buying it. These guys were the “bookies” of Washington politics — Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg. Through their subscription newsletter “racing forms,” they handicap the congressional races for the PAC community and the broader Washington establishment.
These two newsletters have a minuscule circulation. However, the few hundred PAC directors and corporate lobbyists that comprise the bulk of their readership also happen to be the most important political people in D.C., at least when it comes to raising money.
Now here’s the difference between a horse-race handicapper and a congressional-race handicapper. At the racetrack, how a handicapper rates a horse has no impact on how the horse runs. The handicap only influences how the bets are spread across the board.
In contrast, when a political handicapper like Charlie Cook says you can’t win your race, he's just saddled you with an extra hundred pounds of weight to carry around the track. Indeed, when Cook rates a close race like mine “leans Republican” instead of “toss-up,” he can reduce the amount of money a Democratic challenger like me can raise from the PAC community by more than a hundred thousand dollars. This is because many of Washington’s PAC directors don’t take the time to do their own research into a race. Instead, they use the Cook and Rothenberg newsletters as their funding bibles.
The upshot is that what Cook and Rothenberg write about a race often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If Cook and Rothenberg say you can’t win, then you can’t raise enough money to win.
Now, if these guys were honest brokers who called all races fairly, I wouldn’t really have a problem with this. In fact, their newsletters could save a candidate like me a lot of time and money. I could read about whether I could win the race and only throw my hat into the ring if Cook and Rothenberg — the Siskel and Ebert of congressional races — gave me two thumbs up.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe that either one of these guys fits the honest-broker bill, and of the two, Cook is probably the more dangerous to a Democratic candidate’s health. This is because, at least among the PAC directors I talked to, Stu Rothenberg has a reputation of leaning Republican himself in his projections of races.
To understand this possible bias, you have to understand where the Republican Rothenberg’s career began. He is an unabashed right-winger who got his start at the conservative Institute for Government and Politics in Washington. Given his right-wing roots, his prognostications are taken with a liberal grain of salt by many of the Democratic-leaning PACs who fear that Rothenberg's hidden agenda is to maintain a Republican majority in Congress.
Charles E. Cook Jr., however, is a slightly more complicated beast. This good ole boy from Louisiana started out in politics in 1972 as a high school senior working on the campaign of Democratic Senator Bennett Johnston. Cook also has worked for the Democratic Policy Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and did a turn as the regional director for the 1980 presidential bid of Teddy Kennedy.
Unlike the apparently thicker-skinned Rothenberg, the once liberal Cook seems sensitive to the criticism of harboring bias, and over the years he’s tried to distance himself from the Democratic Party. In my view, however, in trying to look fair, Cook’s pendulum sometimes swings too for the other way, and he winds up giving some Republicans — like my opponent Brian Bilbray — an unwarranted edge.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
My press secretary Lisa Ross had set up a meeting between Cook and Rothenberg and me to try to get them to reevaluate the “leans Republican” rating both had given to the 49th Congressional District. Lisa thought that rating was ridiculous for a lot of reasons, and she was right.
First, in our polling Bilbray had a very low reelect number. It was under 40 percent consistently, and anything less than 50 percent means an incumbent is in trouble. Second, Bilbray had a voting record incongruent with the majority in the district — he was anti-environment, anti-Medicare, anti-abortion, and anti-gay.
Third, this was a presidential election year, and that meant a high voter turnout. As turnout increases, the percentage of Democrats voting relative to Republicans increases significantly. Indeed, while in a low-turnout race my 49th District might lean Republican, in a high-turnout race it leans Democratic.
Finally, yes, I was a candidate with considerable baggage. However, I also had 90 percent name recognition, a strong core constituency, and proven campaign and fund-raising skills.
Of course, sitting around a big conference table with Cook and Rothenberg, this all fell on deaf ears. Because while all Lisa and I wanted to talk about were the reasons I was going to win, all Charlie and Stu wanted to talk about were the reasons I was going to lose.
Now here’s what I find most interesting: Cook would eventually change his evaluation of my race to “toss-up" based on many of the same reasons that Lisa and I had offered to him. However, Cook would only make this change a few weeks before the election, and by then, it was too late to have any impact on my PAC fund-raising.
In my view, this was nothing short of a screw job because Cook’s holding back the “toss-up" label cost me tens of thousands of dollars in PAC money and really hurt my chances of winning. Indeed, this is the broader problem I see with congressional handicappers. They have too much influence over the balance of power in Washington.
Consider this: Of the 535 senatorial and congressional races that Cook and Rothenberg handicap each political cycle, over 400 of these races are slam dunks that any damn fool could accurately predict. All you have to do is look at party registration and campaign cash on hand and presto! you pick a winner.
This means that where Cook’s and Rothenberg’s expertise really matter are in the handful of swing races like mine. And given that a thumbs down can all but doom a candidate, it follows that the PAC community has given Cook and Rothenberg far too much power.
My bottom line? If the Democrats want to get the Congress back from the Republicans, they should stop listening to people like Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg and start thinking for themselves.
CHAPTER 26: I Play the Straight Man at the Gay Pride Parade
I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.
— Calvin Coolidge
On July 27, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Hillcrest, arm in arm with members of the San Diego Democratic Club. On the face of it, this was about as plausible as Norman Mailer walking down the aisle to remarry one of his battered ex-wives. I’m not talking about walking in the parade per se, but just that I was doing it under the banner of the San Diego Democratic Club — a gay-and lesbian organization that had declared political war on me just two years earlier during my race for county supervisor.
I am of the school that believes, for the most part, that gays are born and not made. That is, I believe — and there appears to be significant scientific evidence to back me up — that there is a genetic predisposition to be gay. This is an important distinction because it means that any attempts to convert gays to heterosexuality and thereby “cure” a psychologically rooted “illness” makes about as much sense as trying to turn a duck into a chicken or Rush Limbaugh into a tender and humane, gay-tolerant individual.
More importantly, this distinction clearly suggests that the sexual practices of gays and lesbians are not “perverse” — at least not from any biological standpoint. Accordingly, gays should not be condemned for their sexual orientation but rather treated as other individuals in our society are, which is to say, fairly and equally.
Having expressed my tolerance on gay issues, I nonetheless wish I had never taken a position on gay rights. This is because my strong pro-gay positions and subsequent descent into the labyrinthian hell of gay politics played a major role in my losing both my mayor’s race and my county supervisor’s race.
So Much for Tolerance
My falling on the sword of gay politics began innocently enough in 1992 at a mayoral debate in Hillcrest sponsored by the aforementioned San Diego Democratic Club. Let me say at this point that the San Diego Democratic Club is one of the biggest charades in San Diego politics. This is because many unsuspecting voters believe that an endorsement by this club is equivalent to an endorsement by the official local Democratic Party.
Not so. In fact, if there were truth in political advertising, the club would have to call itself something like “A Small Handful of Gay and Lesbian Activists Who Happen to Be Democrats but Frequently Screw Their Party and Their Fellow Gays to Promote I heir Own Political Agenda.”
Anyway, as part of appearing at the debate, I had to fill out a questionnaire stating my positions on a panoply of gay issues, the key ones being domestic partnership and needle exchange. At that time in my political career, I was too naive to realize that you don’t have to take a position on everything. Nor did I realize that the best political strategy is often to take no position at all — particularly on issues as controversial as gay rights. Instead, being the policy wonk I am, I carefully looked at the domestic-partner and needle-exchange issues and wound up strongly supporting both.
Domestic-partnership laws allow both homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples to share in the same job benefits as married couples. For example, if Jack is living with Jim or Jill, and Jack has health benefits at his job, domestic-partnership policies make it possible to put Jim or Jill on the policy. Such laws make sense because they allow unmarried couples to gain financial security in a world where things like health care and pension benefits are becoming more and more elusive.
On the surface, needle-exchange might seem like a disgusting and even wacky policy, and you’ve heard the simplistic patter on talk radio: “Give needles to drug addicts so they can safely shoot up? Get real! Let these disgusting degenerates kill themselves with dirty needles and we’ll be rid of the vermin."
Nice try, but the fact is: The biggest victims of dirty needles are not the dopers themselves but the non-drug-addicted, sexually active women between 16 and 35 who have the poor judgment to sleep with the dopers. It is these women — and their children — who wind up doing the long, slow death dance of AIDS. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the National Institutes of Health, Yale University, or the American Medical Association, which supports such programs. Or, better yet, check out the successful needle-exchange programs in Hartford and Baltimore and San Francisco, which have saved thousands of lives.
In light of the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of these programs, let me now get as close to hyperbole as I will ever get in this tale. Here goes: Demagogues like Susan Golding and her mentor Governor Pete Wilson who oppose needle-exchange programs just to win elections may as well be the brutal murderers of innocent women and children. They are no better than the gangsters they are always threatening to put behind bars, and, in fact, Golding and Wilson are much worse than the gangsters because they are smart enough to know better.
Smart enough to know a hot issue when she sees one, too, is Susan Golding. Because Golding took that needle-exchange issue and rammed it so deep into my carotid artery that I saw red for the rest of the election. The worst of this demagoguery was a commercial featuring Harry Eastus, head of the cops' union, intoning that if elected, I would bring drug addicts to San Diego. I regret to say that this commercial played particularly well in conservative hotbeds like Rancho Bernardo and La Jolla, where these rich, smart people, too, should know a whole lot better.
The “Navarro Loves Drug Addicts” commercial wasn’t the most devastating one the Golding sleaze machine ran against me, however. That had to be the one about me selling city hall to pornographors. The story behind this bears reporting not only because it has its roots in gay politics, but because it provides one of the most tantalizing unsolved mysteries in San Diego.
The Case of the Devious Drag Queen
Let me set the scene for you: It’s late summer, a few months before the general election, and my mayoral campaign is foundering on the shoals of financial insolvency, while Susan Golding has amassed close to a half million dollars of developer money to crush me. Looking for a quick infusion of cash, I schedule a gay fund-raiser against the strong advice of my advisor Richard Carson, who warns me, “Any money that you raise in the gay community now will cost you even more money later to undo the damage.” Pig-head that I was, however, I pushed ahead, and spearheading the effort was Michael Portantino, publisher of the leading gay newspaper in town, the Gay and Lesbian Times.
Mike’s a great guy, and if there has been any benefit from my support for gay issues, it has been getting to know him and a close friend of his, Mark Morgan. Like me, Mike Portantino is too outspoken for his own good, but he’s probably done more to help me in politics than any other individual in San Diego (except, of course, for my key financial donors).
Mike cast out his gay fund-raising net far and wide, and on the anointed evening, he delivered almost $30,000 in campaign contributions. But my elation that night from receiving those funds was wiped out by a phone call the next day from a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter asking for comment about a campaign contribution I had received from an alleged pornographer. The events that were to follow would culminate in an ugly and decisive turning point in my campaign, so first let me give you the facts and then let me tell you what I believe really happened.
The facts are: I received a campaign contribution from Robert Smith on the evening of the fund-raiser. The check was delivered to Mike Portantino with the help of a transvestite drag queer named Nicole Ramirez Murray. On that same evening, Smith was arrested on the charge of “conspiracy to distribute obscene material.” The next afternoon I was called by the Union-Tribune reporter.
Since at that point, I had not reported this contribution on my campaign filings — indeed, as far as I know, only Mike, Nicole, and Bob Smith knew that I had it — I inquired of that reporter how he found out about the check. His answer was that he had gotten an anonymous tip.
The next day a big story appeared in the Union-Tribune with allegations that my campaign was funded by pornographers. During this same time, Susan Golding’s campaign conducted a poll with a set of questions comparing public attitudes toward candidates who are funded by developers (like her) versus candidates funded by pornographers (like now, supposedly, me). Shortly thereafter, Susan Golding began running a TV ad accusing me of selling city hall to the pornography industry.
This TV ad was an absolute killer, and I got about as angry as I ever got about anything when I saw it. Big mistake! Because at this point, one of my aides, John Wainio, began advocating that I should publicly attack Golding at our next TV debate for having a prostitute on her campaign committee. The prostitute in question turned out to be the transvestite drag queen Nicole Ramirez Murray, and she had, in fact, previously been busted for sex crimes. The problem, however — and what Wainio didn’t tell me — was that Nicole’s arrests had been years before, and Nicole had done much to rehabilitate herself, including becoming one of the city’s leading AIDS fund-raisers.
This was an important piece of information that Wainio withheld from me because without it, I walked into what I believe was a carefully laid trap. I took Wainio’s advice and, on TV, let Golding have it with both barrels. The next day Nicole held a press conference and showed a picture of me side-by-side with her when she was in drag.
The picture, of course, was meant to convey my hypocrisy. After displaying it to reporters, she burst into tears on TV, cried about how vicious I was, and, while admitting her past wrongs, talked about how hard she had worked to rehabilitate herself. It was a remarkable performance straight out of Tennessee Williams, and my “martyring” of Nicole hurt me more than even Golding’s original pornography ad because it made me look mean and nasty, two of the worst attributes a candidate can evince.
So the mystery that has lingered unsolved in my mind is whether Golding just got lucky with the way this episode fell out or whether it was all an elaborate trap into which I ingloriously fell. Based on the circumstantial evidence that I have collected, here’s what I believe may have happened.
First, Nicole got a picture snapped of the two of us at an AIDS fund-raiser. (Mon candidate, don’t ever allow yourself to be photographed with a transvestite.) Second, Golding’s brain trust — probably Tom Shepard — thought about how her campaign could counter my potent charge that Golding was funded by developers — and w'hat better way to do that than to allege funding by pornographers. Third, Nicole, who already supported Golding, was enlisted to solicit a check from Bob Smith for one of my fund-raisers. Fourth, and if this is true it is truly outrageous, the cops, who had endorsed Golding, were enlisted to bust Smith. (The evidence in support of this supposition is that the bust happened on the very same night I got Smith’s check and, perhaps more importantly, the charges were dropped after the election.) Fifth, Nicole or one of her emissaries leaked the fact that I had received the tainted check to the Union-Tribune. Finally, Wainio promptly went to work for Tom Shepard after my defeat. That makes me wonder whether he had been working for Shepard all along while on my campaign. It also makes me wonder whether he urged me to attack Nicole knowing it would be a public relations disaster.
Well, I say this to Nicole and Wainio and Shepard and Harry Eastus of the cops’ union and Golding: If, in fact, you all really planned this drag-queen caper as I believe you did, then hats off to you, because it was one of the most well executed and brilliant political traps in San Diego history. But I’ll probably never know.
What I do know is that this was not the only bit of treachery inflicted upon me by gay politics. Indeed, if The Case of the Devious Drag Queen was the most treacherous, then The Cabaret Caper had to be the funniest — although I still haven’t been able to laugh at it, and I'm still not sure whether it was intentional treachery or sheer stupidity by the gay hairdresser who pulled it off.
This caper happened two days before the mayoral general election on a prime-time Sunday night live TV debate hosted by KNSD, the local NBC affiliate. Earlier that day, my campaign manager Beckie Mann had gotten a call from a gay hairdresser who volunteered to do my TV makeup for that important night. Well, why not?
Here’s why not: The makeup, including gobs and gobs of mascara and eyeliner, was applied in such a fashion that when I sat down in my chair across from Golding for the big debate — a debate to be viewed by several hundred thousand voters — I looked more like a cabaret queen than the city’s next mayor. I’m sure it cost me thousands of votes, and it might have even cost me the election.
The Vichy Gays
So gay politics have not served me very well in my career, and the biggest insult added to my various mayoral injuries was the vocal opposition of the San Diego Democratic Club to my candidacy for the board of supervisors in 1994. In that race, this “Democratic” club endorsed Republican Ron Roberts for the only Democratic seat on the board, and the person I hold most responsible for this treason is Rand Conley.
I first met Rand when he was the volunteer treasurer on the Valerie Stallings city council campaign, and after Stallings’s victory, I asked Rand to be campaign treasurer for my mayor’s race. He agreed but only if I promised to include a computer with the job. I thought that was more than fair because there would be a lot of paperwork involved, but unbeknownst to me at the time, my campaign manager put the kibosh on the deal for lack of funds and simply told me that it had been Rand who had backed out. The upshot was that Rand thought I was a liar who had reneged on our deal, and. while I’m not sure this was the main reason behind his actions, Rand did wind up getting even with me in the supervisor’s race.
In that race, Rand led the charge against my endorsement by the Democratic Club, arguing that City Councilman Ron Roberts deserved the endorsement because he had just gotten taxpayers to foot almost half of the bill for a new $2 million, 27,000-square foot building for the AIDS Foundation. Appropriating this money in the middle of a campaign was pretty shrewd on Roberts’s part. However, I also thought it was pretty dumb for the members of the San Diego Democratic Club not to sec through this obvious political opportunism. And what I found doubly galling was that, more than any other politician in the city, I had stood up for gay issues and never wavered.
Equally outraged was Mike Portantino, who had always regarded most of the leaders of the Democratic Club to be “Vichy Gays” — far too willing to collaborate with the enemy than fight for the good of the community. And to Portantino, Roberts dearly was the enemy — as councilman he had never fought for gay issues and as supervisor he never would.
Unfortunately, neither Mike nor I had the juice to stop the Roberts endorsement. With the help of key players like Craig Roberts, Rick Moore, and Doug Case, Rand Conley carried the day for Roberts, and the San Diego Democratic Club’s endorsement dealt me what turned out to be the death blow to my supervisor’s race. While I still carried the gay precincts handily with upwards of 60 percent of the vote, the Democratic Club’s endorsement managed to shave off what should have been a 75 percent margin, and I wound up narrowly losing that race.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Predictably, Ron Roberts has been a big disappointment to the gay community on the board of supervisors. Ironically, too, Roberts’s “bribe” to the San Diego Democratic Club for its support — taxpayer subsidies for a bigger building for the AIDS Foundation — turned out to be the foundation's financial undoing. Unable to raise enough operating funds to keep its new Titanic afloat, the foundation abruptly closed its doors two years after it had opened them — nearly a million dollars in debt and leaving its 2600 clients to go elsewhere for help.
Perhaps the failure of Ron Roberts was why one of the first calls I got after declaring for Congress was from my old nemesis Rand Conley. While he never apologized for supporting Roberts, he made it clear that this time he would do everything he could to make sure I got the full support of both the San Diego Democratic Club and the broader gay community. And that was how on July 27, I found myself marching arm in arm with the Vichy Gays.
CHAPTER 27: More Baggage Than Samsonite
Initially, I was motivated by the sense that I could play a part in changing the political system and making it more equitable. The sense that you can make a difference and make government better is still a factor, but other motivations drive me now....
— Tom Shepard, political consultant
In an ideal political world, the campaign pollster plays Edgar Bergen to the candidate’s Charlie McCarthy. For it is the role of the campaign pollster to put the winning message in the candidate’s mouth. For this reason, the campaign pollster is arguably the most important member of the campaign team.
The pollster I wanted to do my race was Bob Meadow. I wanted Meadow because he knew more about me — in fact, had done more to me — than any other pollster on the planet. He helped orchestrate Susan Golding’s devastating negative campaign against me for mayor. He sliced and diced me as the pollster for Harry Mathis in our city council race. On top of all that, he once worked for Brian Bilbray, so he had a pretty good read on my current opponent as well.
Bob had actually called me shortly after I had declared for Congress to express a strong interest in doing my race. On the face of it, that might sound strange given our past history, but Bob was at a stage in his career when he was trying to complete the leap out of non-partisan local politics into the Big Pond — the national partisan stage. That meant finding Democratic congressional clients.
I had been delighted to get Bob’s call and welcomed him right onboard. What happened next, however, was pretty ugly and illustrates just how hard it is to beat the power structure in my little town: As soon as word got out that Meadow was taking my race, Tom Shepard called Meadow and put the hammer down.
Darth Vader with a Mustache
Tom Shepard is San Diego’s Darth Vader of political consultants. When the power brokers want to blast a reforming Luke Skywalker out of the galaxy, Tom is the guy most likely to get the nod. Strange. Because Tom Shepard had started out in politics on the other side of the fence, as a 1960s-style radical out to reform San Diego’s political system.
It had been Tom Shepard who had first gotten Bob Meadow out of academia and into politics to fight that battle. That was in the early 1980s. Shepard had just started his consulting firm, and he had recruited Meadow from the political science department at UCSD to do polling for Roger Hedgecock’s mayoral race.
At the time. Meadow, Shepard, and Hedgecock all considered themselves to be white-knight crusaders fighting on the side of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But a funny thing happened on the way to Utopia. During that race, Hedgecock went head to head with two very wealthy opponents, and, at least according to the indictments issued by the district attorney, Hedgecock got around that financial disadvantage by using Shepard's consulting firm to launder money from a major contributor — almost $400,000.
Shortly after Hedgecock took office, he and Shepard were indicted. Bob Meadow was named as an unindicted co-conspirator and granted immunity from prosecution so he could testify against Hedgecock. The rest is history: Hedgecock resigned from office in disgrace, Shepard cut a plea bargain deal that strengthened the D.A.’s case against Hedgecock, and Shepard and Meadow wandered for a long time in the political wilderness.
To their credit, Shepard and Meadow have made remarkable recoveries. Although it took them almost ten years to return to the pinnacle of their professions, they did so as part of the team that helped win another defining mayor’s race in San Diego’s history. This time, however, these much more cynical Old Turks were on the side of establishment-candidate Susan Golding fighting the new reformer — yours truly.
For Tom Shepard, the mutation from radical visionary to guardian of the status quo has been most grotesque. Having once been indicted for one of the worst crimes in politics, he’s chosen to practice his profession out of the same muck from which he was resurrected. Indeed, ‘Tom Shepard-type tactics” are now part of the local lexicon of San Diego politics.
For Bob Meadow, the mutation is perhaps more benign. In his own mind, he seems to have adopted the ethics of a lawyer, meaning that any client he works for has a right to the best polling possible. If that entails smear tactics and mudslinging, then so be it. That’s simply part of winning — and it’s nothing personal with the opponent, as it so often is with Shepard.
I should say at this point that the most chilling conversation I’ve ever had in politics was with Bob Meadow. In an unguarded moment, I asked him whether he had felt any qualms about attacking me in the mayor’s race for my alleged ties to pornographers. His answer surprised me because in giving it, his eyes lit up and he got very animated. "Hell, no” was his answer. He thought it was brilliant. That, mon candidate, is what you are up against when you brandish the cudgel of reform.
Anyway, when Tom Shepard heard that Bob Meadow was working for me, he called Meadow and told him not to — at least if he wanted to get any more polling business from Shepard. Since Shepard was a big part of Bob’s meal ticket. Bob called me to back off from my race.
End of story? Not quite. Because I could tell from our conversation that Meadow was quietly seething inside from having to buckle under to Shepard’s blackmail. So several months later when I got the Democratic Congressional (Campaign Committee to cough up $20,000 for my polling, I came up with a possible way around the Shepard veto and called Bob to discuss it. I told him that since it was the D-Triple-C that would pay for the polling, it would be the D-Triple-C that would be Meadow’s client — not me. That gave Meadow the excuse he needed — so back onboard he came.
There are two basic instruments used by campaign pollsters to probe voter psyches: the focus group and the opinion survey. A focus group is like a choreographed bull session. You put 8 to 12 voters in a room, guide them through a series of questions about your candidate and his opponent, give them great latitude in responding, videotape their responses through a one-way minor (with their knowledge, of course), and then analyze the results.
Unlike with an opinion survey, the group you select is usually not a random sample of the entire electorate. Rather, you typically put together a group of swing voters from a particular demographic group. In my case, preliminary polling indicated I was running up against an attitudinal brick wall with: (1) older Democratic and Independent men who should be voting for me out of partisan loyalty but weren’t, and (2) moderate Republican women whom we might move to our side because of Bilbray’s anti-choice extremism. It was these two groups that Bob Meadow wanted to test, and that’s what we did the last week of July.
The result was a videotape that, at least for me, was even scarier than the first Alien movie — scary because these focus groups revealed to me a frightening part of my personality that I had been denying even existed. It’s that evil twin part of me that always comes out at the absolute wrong political moment like a demon possessing my soul, it exhibits itself as an arrogance or disdain or obnoxiousness or meanness or anger or pettiness — all traits that are lethal in politics.
It therefore was a humbling experience to watch these men and women talk about this phenomenon because I realized that these folks — a solid slice of the San Diego electorate — had seen right through me. One woman who had watched several of my debates said, “It’s like everything is a war with him.” All too true — I’m wound pretty tight.
Another, recalling the day the city council had refused to put the PLAN! Initiative on the ballot: “He’s always throwing temper tantrums,” while still another who objected to my treatment of Susan Golding during the mayor’s race said, “He comes off as very harsh” and “He gets very adversarial over everything.” Perhaps the most sage observation came from the only supporter at the table: “He should stick to ideas rather than resorting to personal attacks." Indeed.
Of course, watching the video for the first time, my psyche tried to fight back: “Didn’t these bozos understand just how many times I had been beaten down and battered by the power brokers in this town? My anger was justified!” “And why shouldn’t I have kicked the crap out of Susan Golding after she called me a pornographer who wanted to bring drug addicts to San Diego. She deserved it!" And as for having that so-called temper tantrum the day the city council refused to put the PLAN! Initiative on the ballot — defying the will of 100,000 San Diegans who had signed our petition: “Damn straight, I shouted at those idiots for ignoring the public interest — anybody would have.”
But by the tenth viewing of these focus groups, I realized my excuses were just so much temporizing garbage. I also realized — with the sharp and sudden pain of an angina attack — just how much I had blown it politically. It never was because of my positions or policies that people refused to vote for me. In fact, most people agreed with my policy agenda.
Rather, the problem was my personality. The fact is, mon candidate, that most folks would rather vote for a nice person they sometimes disagree with than for an asshole who perfectly represents their views. And with that insight came the fear that in my race for Congress, I would have more baggage than Samsonite. That fear was confirmed in spades when Bob Meadow handed me his report from the more comprehensive public-opinion survey that we conducted the week after the focus groups.
Ask Not for Whom the Poll Tolls
With a typical full-benchmark opinion poll, you call a random sample of three to four hundred respondents, with each call taking about 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Such a poll can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on the pollster and the sample, but it can give you an accurate snapshot of voter attitudes as well as a critical road map for campaign strategy and message.
Such a poll usually starts out with a broad question about whether the respondent thinks the country is “on the right track.” This is a way of segmenting the sample into happy and unhappy campers — with unhappy campers being more likely to vote against an incumbent like Bilbray.
Next, respondents are asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of a list of organizations and public figures. In that list, you always include both your own candidate and the opponent, and it was this question that was the source of some of my worst news in the poll. It showed that both Brian Bilbray and I had name identification of about 90 percent — astonishingly high for someone like me who’s never held public office. But it also showed that I had equally astonishingly high negatives, meaning that while 26 percent viewed me favorably, an even larger number, 33 percent, had an unfavorable opinion of me. In contrast, Bilbray’s ratio was a healthy 41 to 19 percent, favorable to unfavorable.
In the open-ended question that followed, respondents were asked what they liked or disliked about me and Bilbray. On the plus side, people described me as “intelligent, gives a good appearance, determined, energetic, and honest." On the negative side, however, the responses were much like those we had gotten in the focus group: “overbearing and obnoxious, arrogant and insincere, dishonest and untrustworthy, too much like a politician, does not really believe in anything, a mudslinger, a perennial candidate, an opportunist, a loser.” Ouch. No. Big ouch.
Ordinarily for someone with negatives as high as mine, the game would be over. There would be no hope of overcoming that. But with an extraordinary and brilliant pollster like Bob Meadow, the game wasn’t over at all. So let’s keep going.
The next poll ingredient is the reelect question, followed by the first trial heat. Meaning that you start by asking, If the election were held today, would you Bob Meadow vote for Brian Bilbray or someone else? This reelect question showed Bilbray down in the 35 percent dumps — meaning that a nobody would beat his somebody. However, in the trial heat with me, Bilbray rose to 50 percent as compared to only 27 percent for me. Big ouch again.
But it ain’t over till it’s over. Because once the first trial heat is complete, what ensues is a long list of questions about the negative and positive attributes of each of the two candidates. The idea is to better educate the voters about each candidate’s pluses and minuses and then do the all-important push question. That is, at the end, you redo the trial heat to see how many voters have been pushed to your side by the information that you have given them.
Typically, the candidate’s positives and negatives have been developed with the help of the opposition researcher, and the goal of the poll is to winnow the long list into a few salient items that will constitute your basic message. Of the items, several will be positive messages why voters should vote for you and several will be negative messages about your opponent.
With me, we didn’t have to waste valuable polling time to test my negatives. We already knew what they were. As for Bilbray, we tested his votes against the environment, children and seniors, Medicare and Social Security — truly a Gingrichian horror show.
We also tested specific items such as Bilbray’s widely publicized statement that he favored white men’s rights. What was most interesting and most disconcerting, however, is that none of these issues yielded a wooden stake to drive through his vampire heart.
Nonetheless, that stake eventually did emerge toward the end of the poll. What Meadow had figured out from the focus groups was that my problem was personality based rather than issue based. So the logical thing to do was to test whether an apology for my past behavior might lead voters to forgive me.
Good thinking, Bob, and The Apology had an enormous impact on my favorable-unfavorable ratio. In fact, after the “Apology” question in the poll, my favorables rose higher than Bilbray's, to 49 percent as compared to only 36 percent for my negatives — a huge swing.
Next, Meadow tested the Vote of Your Life — yet another way to get me and my personality out of the equation. The idea here was to make the race not about me and Bilbray but about whether Gingrich would remain in control of the Congress. The incredible news here was that once the race was characterized as one of the 20 most important in the country that would determine whether Gingrich stayed in office, my favorable rating jumped to 57 percent. In the final push question, I moved from losing the race by 50 to 27 percent to winning it by 49 to 43 percent.
Wow, were we stoked at that result! This poll not only seemed to offer strong proof to the winnability of the race, it also cemented our relationship with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a campaign it would go to the mat for — both financially and logistically.
The Campaign Message
From the poll came our three-pronged campaign message. First, there must be The Apology: I would apologize for negative campaigning in the past and do so in a way that I would be perceived as being a better person for it.
Second, the vote must be characterized as the Vote of Your Life. As Meadow wrote in his polling report, “If you want Gingrich — and all that entails in terms of cuts in Social Security, Medicare, education, environmental cuts and threats to a woman’s right to choose — then Bilbray is your choice. If you want to protect us from cuts in Social Security and Medicare, student loans, a loosening of environmental laws and to protect a woman’s right to choose, then vote for Navarro."
Third, we had to make sure that voters understood the extremist record of Brian Bilbray — because the poll indicated that they didn’t. Meadow’s idea was that since people currently viewed Bilbray as a moderate, we had to say something like “Bilbray went to Washington as a moderate but came home an extreme Gingrich conservative, no longer representing San Diego’s moderate values.” Moreover, we had to convey this portion of the message gingerly, by expressing disappointment with Bilbray rather than through a mean-spirited frontal assault that would exacerbate my reputation for mudslinging.
It was this three-pronged message that we would take to the voters through our TV commercials. In the original plan, the only ad I would appear in would be The Apology, which we hoped to excerpt live from my upcoming speech at the Democratic National Convention. After that, credible third parties — Ed Asner and President Clinton, as it would turn out — would communicate the Vote ofYour Life message. Finally, and importantly, because of our severe budget constraints, we had to hope that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would take care of exposing Bilbray’s extremism record through some kind of independent expenditure effort. (This was a hope, I regret to say, that was only half and halfheartedly realized.)
A Cautionary Coda
The only other thing I should from Navarro campaign commercial tell you about campaign polling is this: It can lose you an election just as easily as it can win you one if you don’t recognize that times — and voter attitudes — can change in a heartbeat.
For example, in my mayor’s race, the poll question that got the highest response had to do with bashing developers. It became the major message of my primary election campaign and no doubt it helped propel me to victory.
However, in the general election, I flat-out wanted to drop the “Don’t Yield to Developers” theme and move on a “Jobs and Economy” message. I figured that I had milked all the votes I was going to get with the developer message and that I wouldn’t lose those votes to a developer pawn like Golding. Therefore, to broaden my base, I had to broaden my message.
Good thinking, Peter. But my campaign consultants wouldn’t have any of it. They wanted to keep going with what the poll was telling them, i.e., developers. This led to at least two shouting matches between me and them, and to this day I’m still angry at Eric Jaye and Michael Terris for being so dogmatic and poll driven about that campaign. Because, in the end, I didn’t trust my logic and instincts, I caved in to their pressure, and it was just one more reason why I lost that election. Indeed, my campaign consultants didn’t anticipate how a steadily deepening recession during the campaign would make me vulnerable to an attack by Golding that my no-growth policies were destroying the economy.
I’m telling you this now because I would suffer the same kind of shifting-sands fate in my congressional race. While the anti-Gingrich, Vote of Your Life message was highly salient in our July poll, four months later the Republicans would have successfully inoculated themselves against that message with the counter-theme of the need for a divided government. To wit: since Bill Clinton was probably going to be reelected, the country needed a conservative Congress to hold a liberal president in check.
We’ll talk more about all that in a later chapter. For now, let’s move on to the unveiling of The Apology.
CHAPTER 28: More Skeletons Than the Smithsonian
The great curse of public life is that you are not allowed to say all the things that you think.
— Woodrow Wilson
Brian Bilbray and I had the first debate of the campaign during the first week of August. It was a smashing victory. Who won, however, depended on to whom you talked. Let me explain.
This first debate was held at UCSD as part of a monthlong summer session on Politics and the Media for several hundred high school students. The debate was televised on the UCSD cable TV channel, and while this wasn’t exactly network television, the debate would be shown repeatedly as a rerun over the next several months and a surprisingly large number of people would see it.
As would be the pattern throughout the campaign, Brian Bilbray tried hard to duck this debate. After our first impromptu meeting on the tube the night of the primary election, his handlers had decided that avoiding me — particularly on TV — was their optimal strategy. But try as he might, Bilbray couldn’t duck this one, and that was because the woman organizing it. Shannon Bradley, wouldn’t let him.
The trump card in such a situation is for the debate sponsor to state that the debate will go on without the reluctant participant. Few things strike more fear into an incumbent than the threat of an empty chair with his or her name on it during a televised debate, with an explanation from the moderator that “despite repeated invitations. Congressman So-and-So refused to participate.” So Bilbray came. But as it turned out, I wished I had ducked.
This was because it would be at this debate that my brain, trust would unveil the new me — the kinder, gentler Navarro. Not only would I launch The Apology for negative campaigning, I would also have to him the other cheek every time Bilbray bashed me with his brass-knuckles tongue.
Mr. Rogers is not a persona that I’m familiar or comfortable with. I debate like I used to play basketball — aggressive, tough, and, yes, with the occasional foul. But if there is one thing I have learned from a decade in politics, mon candidate, it is this: It is all too passible to win a debate but wind up losing votes.
This seeming paradox is easily resolved by recognizing that what most people do when they watch a TV debate is watch — not listen. Thus, even if you destroy your opponent with your rapier wit, keen insights, powerful intellect, and superior knowledge, you’re still going to lose votes if you look like a jerk doing it — and, unfortunately, I do that a lot.
In Search of a Level Playing Field
Now you might think that campaign debates sponsored by organizations like the League of Women Voters or by a major radio station or, in this case, by a leading university would be fair and impartial. But, in truth, political debates rarely are. The problem is that there are always ways to manipulate them.
For example, with the league of Women Voter-sponsored events — which are most political debates in San Diego — the league always relies on written questions submitted by the audience. So all you have to do is have your supporters stuff the question box with questions designed to reinforce your campaign message.
For talk-radio debates — like the one I would soon be subjected to on The Roger Hedgecock Show — such manipulation is even easier. You jam the phone lines with your own callers and let these callers play Zingers Are Us at the expense of the hapless opponent.
In this case, however, with the University of California, I thought the process would be immune to such treachery. But I have to hand it to the Bilbray campaign: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Because somehow that campaign managed to infiltrate the student conference and get its Republican young guns to manipulate the debate agenda.
At least, this is what I was told; and I found out by serendipity. One of my corporate supporters in Orange County called me out of the blue and said one of their interns was attending the conference. The intern was concerned that I was walking into an ambush, and after reviewing the secret debate questions that this young lady had kindly smuggled out for us, I saw what she meant: Of the questions we would be asked that night, most of them were much more consistent with the campaign message of Bilbray than with mine, and at least one of them would be a loaded gun to my head.
The worst of these Bilbray-message questions had to do with illegal immigration and affirmative action. Bilbray is vociferously anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action, he was running hard on these two themes, and any discussion of them would play well in the area that the debate would be broadcast.
On this point, I should explain that the UCSD campus is located in the northern part of the 49th Congressional District. That meant the broadcast would reach voters in key Republican neighborhoods like La Jolla and swing-voting Clairemont. In both areas, Bilbray's anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative-action messages would resonate well. Moreover, they would do so without any risk of offending Democrats in the southern portions of the district, since these areas were beyond the reach of the UCSD signal.
As for the loaded gun that Bilbray would put to my head, this had to do with the debate question that would be asked on student loans, a topic that had provided me endless embarrassment going back as far as my 1992 mayor’s race. In that race, the San Diego Union-Tribune had dispatched a reporter to Boston to research my background. While that reporter missed a lot of really good stuff — I’ve got more skeletons in my closet than the Smithsonian — the reporter did dig up an old legal Judgment against me for nonpayment of a $1650 student loan.
In my own defense, I had paid the loan off in full. However, I had done so only after receiving a notice of default. It was an incident born not of any intention to evade payments but rather of carelessness in providing the bank with my forwarding address. It turned out to be a careless moment, however, that would help define an entire political campaign. The upshot was that while I was in Washington, D.C, working on a project, the legal wheels in Massachusetts had ground on unbeknownst to me and found me guilty.
To this day, I still get people who razz me about the loan; and if there is any advice I can give here — particularly to the younger folks with political aspirations who might be reading this — please remember that your whole life is what you bring to the table when you run for office. Accordingly, be ethical and honest as you live your life, and especially don’t be careless about legal matters.
Having the debate questions in advance was a great gift because it allowed our campaign team to prepare a counter-strategy. Since we knew Bilbray would throw mud at me right after expressing his strong support for the student-loan program, my response would be in three stages. I would first point out that "Mr. Bilbray” and Newt Gingrich had voted to cut such loans by tens of millions of dollars. With that factual foundation laid. I would then express my strong disappointment in Mr. Bilbray for engaging in negative campaigning. From there, I would launch The Apology.
So when the time came, that’s exactly what I did — but it sure wasn’t easy. What I wanted to say when Bilbray upbraided me for being a scofflaw was this: “Of course, Brian Bilbray never had any problems with paying his student loans. That’s because this ignorant bozo never went to college.” (You see how mean and nasty I can get.)
Interestingly, my performance that night got a mixed response. My pollster Bob Meadow was pleased, as were my campaign consultant Larry Remer and my campaign manager Dale Kelly Bankhead. On the other hand, we got negative calls from my hard-core supporters — people who had stood by me for years precisely because I was the kind of tough guy who didn’t take any crap. To these folks, the kinder and gentler Navarro had been a big disappointment.
More evidence of this mixed response came the next day as I was walking precincts in Clairemont. Several older and crusty Democratic men insisted I had gotten my ass kicked and told me they were going to vote for Bilbray. In contrast, several Republican women said they were going to vote for me because I had “stuck to ideas” rather than “gotten personal,” as Mr. Bilbray had.
In hindsight, I suppose you’d have to call the debate a draw — except for one thing that I believe sharply tipped the scales in my favor: That debate wound up saving my campaign $50,000 in television commercials.
How? Well, clearly Bilbray's consultant Tom Shepard had no clue that my apology that night had been planned and that it would become the linchpin of our campaign message. Because if he had figured that out, he surely would not have run the TV ad that he soon did.
From our point of view, the Bilbray campaign’s anti-Navarro ad was perfect. At the beginning and end of the ad was some bad footage that everyone would ignore, with a bad announcer mumbling something about me and dirty campaigning. In the middle of this unmemorable celluloid pastiche there was clear, excellent footage of my apology during the UCSD debate. Unquestionably, The Apology would be the only thing people watching the ad would remember.
“My God, Bilbray’s campaign is doing The Apology for us! How stupid can these people be?” That’s what Larry Remer shouted at me over the phone 20 seconds after he saw the Bilbray ad. I could almost see him jumping up and down as he said it. Bob Meadow had an almost identical reaction — along with a big laugh.
That Bilbray’s campaign did the TV apology for us was fortuitous for another reason. As you will see in the next chapter, our plan to get great TV footage from my speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a flop.
Next week, part 4, the conclusion: "Zen and the Art of Running for Congress."
Part 3 of 4 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4