Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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POLITICS Hype for Hire

In campaigns today, it’s hard to tell the hired guns from the volunteers.
By Dennis Holder |

KRLD ASSIGNMENTS EDITOR Michael McGee sputters angrily into the telephone. “I feel like we’ve been duped,” he exclaims. “I don’t think the campaign was being straight with us.”

For another minute or two, McGee empties his spleen against the growing hive of consultants who swarm around candidates in the current Dallas political contest. With so many paid spokespersons stepping up to the podium, it is almost impossible, McGee contends, for news reporters to let voters know who speaks for a candidate from conviction and who supports the politician because he pays him.

“A volunteer obviously has more credibility than a paid person has,” McGee says.

In McGee’s case, the particular problem came up when the station aired a sound bite from Rufus Shaw, an African-American strategist for mayoral candidate Steve Bartlett. McGee-and no doubt many KRLD listeners-assumed that Shaw was simply a volunteer who sincerely believes that Bartlett is the best man to lead Dallas in the coming years. The newsman was surprised to learn that Shaw, a columnist for The Elite News, a black community newspaper, actually is on Bartlett’s payroll.

“We thought we were getting a community leader’s opinion,” says McGee. “We didn’t know we were getting what amounted to a paid endorsement. We might have used the tape even if we had known, but we would have told our listeners that Shaw was a paid consultant.”

The misunderstanding with KRLD aside, no one has tried to hide the fact that Shaw works for the Bartlett campaign. “I am paid very well for what I do,” Shaw says candidly. But in today’s high-dollar races, it is sometimes tough for the media and for voters to distinguish between heartfelt support and hype for hire.

Especially in the mayor’s contest, where each of the top candidates will likely spend at least $1 million to win a job that pays less than $4,000 a year, political camps teem with consultants. Some, like Bartlett lead consultant Lisa LeMaster, specialize in election strategy and tactics. But others, like Shaw, collect not so much for what they know as for whom they know.

Take mayoral candidate Forrest Smith’s coterie, for example. Dan Benavides, a former political director for the Dallas County Democratic party, draws a fee as chief strategist and tactician. Dick Leggitt, a local representative for a consulting firm based in Maryland, is paid to oversee Smith’s media image. But Smith’s war chest also pays the expenses of two women-S.E. Diggles and Dorothy Dean-who offer strong ties to the Dallas African-American community as their only campaign credentials. “These are lay people,” says Smith. “They have other jobs, but they are enormously respected in the community. People who know them believe what they say.”

Spreading money among special-interest groups-which, in ethnically divided Dallas, include minorities-is nothing new for politicians. But the blurring of the line between paid staffers and volunteers may tend to mislead voters.

“I have been to functions where someone stands up to talk about what a fine person and great friend a candidate is,” says Frank P. Hernandez, currently running for mayor without paid consultants. “What they say just doesn’t compute until I figure out that they are paid for their testimonials. I don’t know if the average person can figure that out. Sometimes, they don’t tell you.”

Says KRLD assignments editor McGee, “We know that campaigns pay spokesmen. But I think we are entitled to know who the paid people are when we cover an event.”

Occasionally, the difficulty in separating the paid spokesmen from the volunteers has an ironic flip side. Some who support a candidate may be tagged as hired help even when they are not.

The Rev. S.M. Wright says his likely support for would-be mayor Jim Buerger has been tainted by rumors that he secredy works as a paid consultant. “I regret that there are some people who might think my political support is for sale,” says Wright. “But I assure you that I have never taken a cent from any campaign. And I would not. I take the side of whatever I believe is right.”

Part of the difficulty in knowing who is paid and who isn’t arises from the fact that many campaigns assign essentially identical duties to people in both categories. In the Smith camp, Diggles and Dean are paid, but a third black community worker, Gloria Freo, performs the same tasks with “no compensation whatsoever,” according to Benavides. In Bartlett’s organization, Shaw charges for his service. Cipriano Munoz, on the other hand, receives nothing as the campaign’s Hispanic coordinator.

According to Lisa LeMaster, both Shaw and Munoz act as full-fledged campaign advisers. They help decide what events the candidate should attend and when announcements and position statements will have the greatest impact. They also “check for hidden messages in our message,” LeMaster says. “They find things that might mean something to an African-American or a Hispanic that I wouldn’t think of because I am white.”

Smith says his community workers help introduce him to African-American leaders. “I know a lot of people in every part of Dallas,” he says. “But no candidate can know everyone. I have people who help me get in the door so I can talk about the issues.”

No matter what their duties, the battalions of consultants are hugely expensive. Ask Buerger, who says he spent about $1.3 million of his own money when he ran for mayor in 1987. Buerger concedes his campaign staff is lavish. (He employs one African-American consultant about whom he says, “I really can’t tell you what she does for us.”) And he will pay dearly for their services. Altogether, Buerger says he will shell out “at least a quarter of a million” for advice. Advertising, yard signs, and brochures cost extra.

A few of this year’s mayoral candidates, notably Hernandez and Dallas Jackson, say they can run without expensive consultants. “I am going to address the issues, not attempt to create an image,” says Hernandez. “I expect my campaign will cost between $30,000 and $50,000”

But the front-runners-Bartlett, Buerger, Smith, and attorney Kathryn Cain-hold image makers and minority advisers to be crucial. “You have to have these kinds of people if you want to be elected to a city wide office in Dallas today,” says Buerger.

The cost of a citywide race is one argument proponents of the so-called 14-1 plan advance to support their position. At-large races are so expensive that the average citizen cannot afford to run, they say. And seeking office from a quadrant of the city, as envisioned in four districts under the 10-4-1 plan, still requires consultants and advertising to build name recognition. Only in a relatively small single-member district, the argument goes, can a person mount a grassroots campaign on a modest budget.

The fact is, though, that even single-member district races have become expensive. Several candidates who planned to run when a May election seemed likely hired strategists at a typical rate of $3,000 to $5,000 a month.

Guillermo Galindo, who intends to run for council if the proposed 14 single-member district plan is approved, scoffs at the use of consultants. “I don’t need anyone to build an image for me,” says Galindo. “People in the community know who I am.”

Galindo already has started spending money in other ways, however. He pays high-school students $20 each Saturday to register voters in the Mexican-American neighborhoods where he will need support in an election. The student who signs up the most new voters wins an extra $10. So far, Galindo says his private voter registration drive has cost more than $2,000. He expects to spend another $5,000 or so by the end of May.

“The days when a candidate could win just by knocking on doors and shaking hands are largely over,” says political consultant Ken Benson.

If that is true, either of the election plans proposed in Dallas, 14-1 or 10-4-1, promises a bonanza for consultants. By raising the number of council seats from 11 to 15, either plan creates new opportunities for the so-called pros.

“You can’t sell a candidate unless he is a good candidate,” says Rob Allyn, Jim Buerger’s chief campaign consultant. Perhaps. But with political strategists, image counselors, speech writers and coaches, grooming experts, and community coordinators pulling the strings, it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to cut through the hype.

Who can tell what is sincere, and what ispaid political advertising?