Campaign aides steal show in governor’s race

October 5, 2009

SF Gate

California’s 2010 governor’s race is becoming a war of words, complete with fireworks, YouTube videos and comic relief – but it is the high-priced campaign consultants, not the candidates, who are frequently stealing the show.

Months before the first ballots will be cast – and as some of the nation’s top political guns gather at the American Association of Political Consultants conference today in Sacramento – the lively skirmishes between competing camps underscore how California-based operatives are already at full throttle, spinning, defending and carefully controlling their candidates’ messages.

Take last week, when billionaire former eBay CEO Meg Whitman – the Republican who spent more than $2.4 million on campaign consultants even before declaring herself a candidate – found herself swamped in bad press.

First Whitman faced a barrage of questions about a voting record so abysmal that she failed to cast ballots for President Ronald Reagan, Gov. Pete Wilson or even George W. Bush in his 2000 highly contested election against Al Gore.

Then, days after assuring GOP activists she is a consistently “darned good” Republican, The Chronicle disclosed that she not only endorsed and donated generously to Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, but served on her exclusive “Technology Leaders for Boxer” committee.

The team of one of her opponents, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, pounced with a flurry of videos – both serious and comic, including a “Love Boat” parody “starring” former Obama aide Van Jones – scorning her failures to vote in California and other states, as well as her GOP credentials. Campaign spokesman Jarrod Agen said her changing tales have “raised serious questions about what is true and what is deception.”

Whitman’s communications director Tucker Bounds fired back, slamming Poizner’s $21,000 in donations to former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and what Bounds called a questionable excuse – that a joint checking account Poizner shared with his Democratic wife was to blame.

The commissioner should be “vetted and questioned – not elected,” Bounds said. “For Steve Poizner, it’s not the crime – it’s the coverup.”

On the Democratic side, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has his own battle troops, led by veteran state strategist Garry South, who is known for unleashing verbal tirades on political opponents.

South has relished jabs at Newsom’s likely opponent, Attorney General Jerry Brown, describing the former two-term governor as “having more positions than there are in the Kama Sutra.”

Team Brown, whose low-key candidate only this week formed an exploratory committee, has maintained an almost Zen-like calm in the war.

Brown’s unflappable spokesman, Steve Glazer – a longtime friend of South – offered this response when asked about Newsom’s endorsement last week by former President Bill Clinton: “Have you ever quoted a shrug?”

“Campaign consultants can make the difference in the governor’s race – but it’s hard to tell which one makes the difference,” said veteran Democratic strategist Don Solem. “It depends on the plays – the quotes of the week, the quotes of the day.”

And in the 24/7 age of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, Solem said, those plays have become even more important.

“In the old days, they never would be seen or heard so much,” Solem said. “It would be the candidates’ words that mattered. … Now they speak through the consultants.”

Most of them don’t come cheap. Whitman has hired a California-centric team that is unprecedented in size, scope and cost.

Bounds earned $15,000 in June as Whitman’s communications director. Her Sacramento consultant, Jeff Randle, was paid $137,500, and his associate Mitch Zak received $90,000 between February and June, according to public records.

South’s $20,000-a-month salary – he says he has taken a cut from $25,000 – makes him a standout on the Democratic side. That’s because Glazer and an “A-list” of others, whom he says are working behind the scenes, are all doing the job for Brown pro bono, along with Brown’s wife, Ann Gust; so is another campaign adviser, Joe Trippi, the campaign guru behind presidential runs by Howard Dean and John Edwards.

When it comes to campaign consultants, “there really is no direct connection between what you put in and what you get out,” said Hoover Institution media fellow Bill Whalen. “Look at how much money (2008 Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton spent on consultants.”

Nor does size matter on a campaign team, says Roger Salazar, a former White House spokesman who also served as a spokesman for the Gore presidential campaign when “it was so bloated he had to leave town and move to Nashville.”

“When there are that many chiefs, nothing ends up getting done,” Salazar said. “Plus, you have everyone vying for the top-dog spot.”

No matter how numerous or talented, consultants aren’t miracle workers.

Warns veteran Democratic campaign consultant Dan Newman: “If a candidate has bad instincts and isn’t credible, that’s something no army of talented advisers can cure.”

High-rolling political consultants

Key consultants in the 2010 governor’s race:

Garry South, for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

Resume: The brains behind Gray Davis‘ upset gubernatorial victory in 1998 and his successful re-election bid in 2002. Dubbed “The King of Mean” for his bare-knuckles campaign style. Advised former state Controller Steve Westly in the 2006 governor’s race and Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in their presidential bids.

Pay: $20,000 a month, which includes helping Newsom raise desperately needed campaign contributions and attacking Jerry Brown.

Quote: “When you get the full grasp of Jerry Brown’s record over 40 years, it’s an embarrassment of riches. This guy’s had more incarnations than Zelig and he’s taken more positions than there are in the Kama Sutra.”

Steve Glazer, for Attorney General Jerry Brown

Resume: A backer of Brown since the 1970s, Glazer is a Democratic strategist, spokesman and nearly everything else on Brown’s bare-bones exploratory committee. He served on the Orinda City Council and consults on ballot measures nationwide and regionally. Also on Brown’s team is Joe Trippi, who used new media in Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Pay: Glazer and Trippi are donating their efforts.

Quote: On news that Bill Clinton will endorse Newsom: “Have you ever quoted a shrug?”

Jim Bognet and Jarrod Agen, for Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner

Resume: Bognet, the hard-charging campaign manager for Republican Poizner, was policy development director for Mitt Romney‘s 2008 presidential campaign and a communications adviser for Sen. John McCain‘s general election campaign. Agen, the communications director, was a spokesman for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani‘s 2008 presidential campaign.

Pay: Bognet was paid $50,806.45 for campaign consulting between April and June.

Quote: Agen on Meg Whitman dropping $15 million of her own money into her campaign: “This election isn’t an eBay auction, and you can’t win by outbidding your opponent.”

Tucker Bounds and Sarah Pompei, for former eBay CEO Meg Whitman

Resume: Bounds got lots of face time as a GOP spokesman for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign – much of it defending former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when she became a lightning rod for criticism. Pompei was a top communications aide for Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign and has been a top spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.

Pay: Bounds was paid $15,000 in June as a campaign worker, according to records.

Quote: Bounds on Poizner and his wife donating $21,000 to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore: “Poizner is the type of Sacramento politician who should be vetted and questioned – not elected.”

Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini, for former San Jose Rep. Tom Campbell

Resume: Campbell, the dark-horse GOP maverick, refuses to say negative things about his rivals. His skeletal campaign has spent three times as much on top new media experts Finn and Ruffini – than he has on consultants through June. Finn did new media for Romney’s 2008 campaign. Ruffini has worked to convince conservatives to use new media.

Pay: Finn and Ruffini’s Engage Media was paid $63,275 through June 30.

Quote: Campbell on answering his own e-mail, sometimes spending eight or nine hours a day on it: “The words are mine. I type them. I do all the research.”