Dallas has always spent an inordinate amount of time primping before its mirror, making sure the hair is perfect and the wrinkles don’t show.
That’s why publicists and media consultants thrive here. Most spin fluff. For years, Dallas publicists concerned themselves with how often they could get their clients’ names in the around-the-town newspaper columns of Helen Bryant and Alan Peppard.
Carol Reed is among a rare breed of publicists who play an edgier game. Lisa LeMaster built an agency around crisis management. Rob Allyn’s company, before and after he sold, took on heavy political battles and tough civic challenges. But in the hardball world of Dallas politics and bond elections, there hasn’t been a cleanup hitter quite like Carol Reed. Not over the past quarter century, if ever.
Of the many words that might be used to describe her, fluffy and giddy do not spring to mind. In and out of meeting rooms, she is sharp-witted and, when she so chooses, sharp-tongued.
“She’s a Mack Truck,” says one longtime associate. “But I like Mack Trucks.”
She’s also brash, cocky, funny, and blunt. Reed became a political player in Dallas more than 30 years ago and forged her own way, from carrying the hors d’oeuvre tray to calling the shots. She’s managed or helped manage the campaigns of five of the last seven Dallas mayors: Jack Evans (1981-’83), Starke Taylor (1983-’87), Annette Strauss (1987-’91), Ron Kirk (1995-2002) and now, Tom Leppert. She carried the American Airlines Center election, the Trinity River Corridor Project, Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium, and the Dallas Convention Center hotel referendum, all tough issues that began with her side the emphatic underdog.
Reed avoided the fluffier, more traditional approach to public relations by parachuting into the Dallas scene from above. She started as a political director for U.S. Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) in the late 1970s, helped organize the Reagan/Bush presidential campaign in 1980, and was the North Texas political director for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). She lived for most of that time in Dallas, built impressive contacts here, and in 1981 decided to put her primary focus on the city.
“That’s the way the guys have done it,” she says, “and that’s the way Dallas works. There was nobody like me that was on the boards of the commissions, and now today I’m at the table with them, making the decisions about what we do, instead of being the one that just implements what they’ve decided. Which is kind of neat.”
One particular election—Ron Kirk’s first mayoral campaign—was the catalyst for her prominent rise as a difference maker. From his Washington, D.C., office where he serves in the Obama administration as United States Trade Representative, Kirk looks back and laughs and says, “I have had to remind Carol, ‘It ain’t the jockey; it’s the horse.’ I’d like to believe I brought something to the table.
“But I can’t imagine having run the campaign we did without her,” he says. “To the degree that I do have some political ego—I honestly believe candidates matter—I can tell you Carol saved me a lot of money, and she saved me from making a lot of mistakes.”
She did it by beating the good ol’ boys of Dallas on their home turf. And then she paid them back by becoming one of them.
“I’d be the first one to say old white guys just don’t get it anymore,” Reed declares. “But they’re the ones that support me. They’re the ones that made me who I am. I have this wonderful relationship.”
A Crucial Meeting
The year was 1994, and Dallas had never had a black mayor. As Gov. Ann Richards’ Secretary of State, Kirk mustered a mere 12 percent name recognition in Dallas. But most of the candidates for mayor weren’t much higher. Reed asked one of North Dallas’ most prominent citizens to call together, as she puts it, “the guys with their names on the freeways,” to meet with Kirk.
Kirk and Reed had met earlier that year when they sat on a political panel. He took an immediate liking to her sharp mind and no-nonsense approach. But he wasn’t so sure about this meeting. He says, “I would have given you a hundred reasons why it was a waste of my time to go and sit in with a bunch of, for the most part, 60- and 70-year-old, conservative white guys.”
Dallas’ image of the black leader had been shaped by the loud and proud rantings of John Wiley Price, Al Lipscomb, Diane Ragsdale. Rather than run from the race issue, Reed confronted it—in her own way. She told Kirk to keep his mouth shut throughout the meeting.
“I don’t want you to say a word,” she said. “They will say things that will be so offensive to you, but you’ve got to understand they just don’t get it. You just be still. And you won’t recognize me because I’ll be kind of like Little Gidget. But I promise you when we leave, we will have their support.”
Kirk laughs out loud now and says, “Every time I wanted to interject, Carol almost pinched my arm off. I’m sitting there thinking, in the words of Ollie North, ‘I’m not a potted plant.’ At the end of the meeting, one of the guys turns to Carol and says [Kirk’s voice growing gruff here], ‘We like him; he’s just like us.’ Of course, that scared the hell out of me.”
Reed says, “Ron has got a fairly colorful vocabulary and when we got in the elevator I said, ‘Just hush.’ When we got downstairs, he said, ‘What was all that about? How could they possibly support me? I never said anything.’
“I told him that no one has just sat there and listened to them in so long, without explaining things to them and telling them they are wrong. We got their support, got their money, and the next thing was how to translate that into votes.”
For weeks, they spent time and money attending coffees all over North Dallas. Every precinct staged a party in somebody’s home. They worked South Dallas and Oak Cliff, but the real battles were waged—and won—in North Dallas.
“And the word got out,” Reed says, “‘You’ve got to meet this guy; he’s not like John Wiley Price’—and I don’t mean to use John Wiley as the whipping boy, because I think John Wiley is great—but at that time he was a signal for not great things.”
Kirk won with 62 percent of the vote and no runoff. And when he became mayor, he leaned on Reed for advice. He won a second term with a landslide 74 percent of the vote in 1998. Within that same nine-month span, Dallas had to decide whether it wanted to build a new arena, the American Airlines Center, and whether it wanted to dump money into refurbishing the Trinity River corridor. Reed ran both elections.
Kirk says, “I tell people today that winning the arena campaign may have taken more out of me emotionally than losing my United States Senate race [in 2001]. It was unquestionably the hardest thing we’ve ever done. The passions against the arena, against the Perots, were so deep. When the early vote came in, we were down 29 points.”
Reed completely shifted the strategy.
“She proved her genius,” Kirk says. “We stopped mailing to North Dallas. We stopped mailing to voters that we knew hated the proposition. And we ran an Election Day strategy because we knew we were going to have to win on Election Day. That day when the first polls started coming in, we were still down, like 58-42, and Carol Reed told me at 8 o’clock, ‘We’re going to win.’”
They did, by 2,600 votes.
“That was probably the toughest I’ve ever done,” Reed says, “because there wasn’t anybody in town that didn’t have an opinion about it. I’ve never worked with anybody that I developed a closer bond to than I did with Ron at that time. We just went on a mission.”
Another vote on a massive urban-development project along the Trinity River provoked more outcries, more divides, and yet another come-from-behind victory. Kirk was always proud of his ability to build coalitions. Those skills, and Reed’s strategizing, sealed the $250 million project.
Her game plan, back then and to this day, is to focus on three primary areas of attack. And never stray.
“You find three things, and you execute them well,” Reed says. “You stay on message, once you’ve decided it’s the right one. I have a really good gut on when you should say something, when you should just let it alone. Timing is everything, just like in comedy.”
Also, no two elections are the same. To approach them with a sameness spells death. “If you get into a cookie-cutter approach,” she warns, “you usually do boring and lousy work. A lot of people into print and TV do that. They’ve got something that worked for them with one race, and they keep trying to re-create it.”
Dallas businessman Ward Lay, CEO of Andeluna Cellars winery, describes Reed as an organized person who “cuts through stuff” with personality, charm, and wit. When he was working with Reed on Jerry Rucker’s 1990 campaign against Rep. John Wiley Bryant (D-Texas) in the 5th Congressional District, Lay recalls, they were having trouble persuading a party official in Washington, D.C., to release some promised funds for the GOP hopeful. Reed advised Lay to personally phone the official, whom he’d known for years, and state the candidate’s case. “I did,” Lay says—and the money was soon on its way.
A bouncy cheerleader, Carol Trumbauer grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and met Gerald Reed, 12 years her senior, while out celebrating her 20th birthday. An ex-jock, Gerald was on a business trip for IBM. Four months later she dropped out of California Lutheran University, said “I do,” and moved with Gerald to Tyler, Texas.
Their daughters were born nine months apart in 1968. When the Reeds moved to Dallas three years later, Carol kept volunteering and getting involved in Republican causes, attending political functions, schmoozing, and making friends.
In no time, she had won over some strong allies. The Tower job offer was a surprise, but she vaulted from there into increasing prominence. When her marriage ended in divorce in 1998, she “celebrated” with a party at Beau Nash. She was not looking back; it was full speed ahead.
Not all of it has been smooth. She has lost a few elections along the way. And in 2004 she gambled big, went broke, and had to start all over. When the budget for a Fourth of July celebration dubbed Trinity Fest came up light, she ran up her personal credit cards to pay for it and lost a quarter of a million dollars.
So she re-evaluated her career and scaled back. One of her daughters, Angela Reed Shellene, was already working with her. She called Angela and said, “We’re going to bring a dumpster into this place and start cleaning.” Then they brought aboard Carol’s other daughter, Laura Reed Martin, who had been with the agency briefly before becoming a lobbyist in Austin. They became equal partners and in 2004 named the company The Reeds Public Relations Corp. Carol is CEO of the company, which boasts about $1.5 million in annual billings.
“Laura came back in and saved us, and we had our best year ever two years ago,” Reed says. “We have many more dimensions now. Probably for the first time in my life I don’t do much that isn’t my skill set. I don’t worry about the bills or about whether the company is solvent. I’ll come out of a meeting with three things I’ve got to do, or to come up with a strategy that no one would have thought of. If it’s three phone calls, they’re the ones nobody else can make, or I’m not making them.”
When virtual unknown Tom Leppert decided to run for mayor, he paid Reed’s agency $30,000 a month—more than three times what she made for Kirk’s first run. Leppert also ponied up $20,000 a month to Reed’s toughest competitor, Rob Allyn; $7,000 a month for radio personality Willis Johnson to get out the black vote; and, $6,000 a month to former Hispanic Chamber president Brenda Reyes.
“We [the Leppert campaign] got in really late,” Reed says, “and went purely for name identification. We sent out mailers in December and were on TV by January. We kept telling people who he is. I knew we had a shot because everyone running was in about the same place, around 15 percent.”
Now she says, “I probably have more direct influence with Tom than I had with Ron. But Ron was a political animal. Tom is a businessman, and so a lot of stuff is kind of new to him. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and he never stops working.”
Together they narrowly won what Reed calls her nastiest campaign, last year’s vote for a publicly owned Dallas Convention Center hotel.
“We were 33 points down on the convention hotel,” she says. “On the Trinity, we were about 26 points down. I think probably what I do best is get the interest groups to kind of cool their jets. When we got up in those campaigns, we stayed up.
“Harlan Crow outspent us probably 5 to 1, but I felt the firm they hired overstepped when they started attacking the mayor—that kind of stuff works in Chicago and San Francisco and anywhere else—but there’s something about here. People have this sense of ‘That’s not fair,’ and I think a lot of people who were neutral came off the bench because they were not impressed. And that made a big difference, along with the fact that we had good messages.”
These days, Reed’s as much a friend and confidante to Leppert as she is a paid political advisor. They speak often in formal and informal settings. The trust level is strong enough that much gets covered with a couple of quick questions, often just over the phone.
In these ever-changing social media times, she loathes Twitter and is reluctant to use Facebook (“Only because I have to,” she grumbles).
“I mean, I clean up my e-mails every day, but I’m not sitting on my BlackBerry,” she says. “If I’m running a meeting, you get rid of your phones and your BlackBerrys.” The notion that a 30-something professional adept at all of today’s communications outlets might rival her prompts a hearty laugh. “If you’re any good,” she adds, “that’s like a cat swatting a mouse around.”
Men, and the art of dating them, are a slightly different story. She’s been single for a dozen years and says that living together is “the Jack Kevorkian of romance”. She explains: “There’s only three reasons to get married. It’s kind of like my press philosophy: There’s usually three things you should do. One is that your biological clock is ticking and you want some kids. Two is he or she has a huge net worth and you can get your hands on it. The third reason, and my all-time favorite, is you’re getting ready to go into a criminal trial and they can testify against you.
“I have none of those three working for me,” she says. “And I’m not just going to live with somebody.”
What she is going to do is keep plugging away, and stay on the lookout for issues that require a scorecard. If Leppert decides to run for re-election or for the U.S. Senate, she says, “I’ll be with him.” Meantime, her PR firm is more than busy with corporate clients such as Veolia Water, Pfizer, Harris Corp., and Yellow Cab.
“I still think the best of what I do is ahead of me,” Reed says. “I have no idea what it will be. I know what I’ve done, so it’ll have to be pretty cool.”