Judy Bonner Amps doesn’t like to brag, but she isn’t above saying, “Three out of three ain’t bad.” She is not referring to a parlay at Louisiana Downs, but to a different kind of horse race: the November 2 election.
And Ms. Amps, the 45-year-old political strategist/publicist media consultant may make a sure-bet science out of the savagely unpredictable business of politics before it’s all over. Over the past 16 years, she’s handled scores of campaigns and candidates, and elected at least 75 percent of her clients. Tuesday, November 2, was her finest hour.
She squeaked her longtime client Democratic State Senator Bill Braeck-lein by a tough challenge from Republican Tom Pauken, re-elected Congressman Olin “Tiger” Teague, and helped produce President-elect Jimmy Carter’s impressive 44 percent showing in heavily-Republican Dallas County – a showing which most political observers agree cinched Carter’s win of Texas’ 26 electoral votes. Not a bad day’s work.
“It’s great to bat 1000,” she says, “particularly when you’re involved in tough fights. The Braecklein race was awfully close – 700 votes or so in the end. And the Carter campaign county-wide was tough too. We would have been satisfied with anything above a 40 percent showing. Forty four percent was a real victory. But you never can tell . . . that’s one thing about politics – you just never can tell.”
Amps has not always had three-for-three days. She handled Garry Weber’s unsuccessful run for mayor against Bob Folsom last spring. “I’d have to say that’s my major disappointment,” she says. “I have to give credit to the Folsom campaign. They were able to turn most of Garry’s strengths around on him. They did what a campaign has to do against a well-known opponent – discredit him.
“There have been clients who 1 knew from the outset would probably lose. But with Garry, it was so much worse because he was such a good candidate and started with so many things on his side.”
Amps started her public relations business in 1960, after seven years as a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and a year’s sabbatical in England. Oak Cliff Democratic State Senator Oscar Mauzy was her first big client, and she has since then become the chief hired gun of the Democratic liberal/loyalist faction in Dallas. Her philosophy of politics remains simple:
“You have to start from a basis of honesty. What does the candidate believe in, what is he like, what issues is he interested in and can he articulate himself on? You have to fashion the campaign strategy around what the candidate is really like.
“If you try to force him or her into a personality or an issue stance that isn’t genuine, it’s going to show up and turn around on you.
“For example, Braecklein runs a low-profile campaign, because he’s a low-key guy. He’s kind of shy and not a glad -hander. Even though he was under a heavy challenge this time, I felt it was best to stay with what he was, what he did best. Also, when you’re under attack, you’re in the position of defending yourself. What do you do when you defend except repeat the attacks, which does you no good?”
With Oscar Mauzy (another state senator who’s also one of her longtime clients), it’s just the opposite. “Oscar is a gut-fighter, so you let him campaign that way.”
Heavy research and polling are Amps’ favorite weapons. “You have to do a lot of research before you can devise a campaign,” she says. “You have to get a feel for the electorate in the district, who they voted for and when, and how many. And you need to poll to find out what issues concern them. That’s the real value of polls to me. I don’t use them for much else, because they can be tricky.”
After over a decade and a half of advising, coddling and nurturing political hopefuls, Amps has seen candidates make the same simple mistakes over and over. “The most common mistakes are overconfidence, failing to take an adequate pulse of the electorate and most of all, listening to too many people. So many candidates listen to everyone who comes along, and their campaigns reflect it. Their campaigns will take one approach one day, another the next. You have to develop your strategy and follow through with it.
“That’s what Carter did, despite his mistakes and despite all the criticism of his strategy. Ford, on the other hand, was running those upbeat commercials with that great jingle one day, and running tough ’attack’ spots the next.”
Amps’ years in the smoke-filled rooms have taught her other constants of the highly unpredictable business of politics.
On newspaper editorial endorsements: “I think they mean zero. Look at the track record. I guess in a close race, or if a candidate doesn’t have anything else going for him, it could make some small difference. For example, if Pauken had gotten an endorsement instead of Braecklein, as close as that race was, it could have made a difference.”
On the press: “The press can make or break an election. I’ll give you an example. When Garry was running for mayor, he appeared with Folsom at a gathering in Oak Cliff. Someone asked both about whether they would support a resolution against busing. Folsom said he would; Garry said he wouldn’t. That afternoon, the Times Herald plastered it all over the front page. Later, I heard they did that because they wanted to reveal that Folsom might be dangerous on the busing issue. But it had the opposite effect: It gave North Dallas a handle to vote for Folsom on. One poll I saw after the election showed that 90 percent of the people who voted thought busing was the key issue in the mayor’s race.”
On media blitzes: “Yes, they can elect or not elect a man. That’s what Folsom did. I think it’s a shame because candidates can get away with a lot of things they didn’t used to be able to. I think the public financing in the presidential race this year affected media use a lot. Imagine if Ford had been able to tap private money and spend it on media. I think he might have won.”
On the ideal candidate: “There is no ideal candidate, but Alan Steelman comes to mind. I guess someone with Garry’s looks, Adlene Harrison’s brains, Mauzy’s articulateness . . .”
On the Carter presidential win: “I think this is the first time in history when a man was elected by the black vote. If you look at it, that was the margin for Carter. Even in the South. I think he ran a smart campaign – he knew he had the middle-of-the-road Democrats, and then he went out and got the blacks and labor.”
On the American political mood: “I think there is a different mood since Watergate. I think people really want honesty, not just rhetoric about honesty. I think Carter’s a reflection of that to some extent. I also think they don’t want promises of pie-in-the-sky. Jerry Brown in California is the first of the new breed of politicians who admit to voters up front that government can only do so much and so on.”
On 1980: “I don’t know, but I read recently Connally is looking to ’80. I find that hard to believe, but you know Connally. He’s survived being indicted and tried and switching parties. He always seems to land with his feet on theground.”