Politics 2002Week of November 4

‘Sheriff Blackwell’ Tells Hired Guns: Beware

Morton Blackwell has served in many capacities in his lifelong involvement in Republican politics: youngest delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention, staffer in the U.S. Senate and the Reagan White House, mobilizer of young people into electoral politics through his Leadership Institute, master of the Byzantine world of GOP national party and convention rules, and, since 1988, Republican National Committeeman from Virginia.

Then, just six weeks before the 2002 midterm elections, Northern Virginian Blackwell donned yet another hat: sheriff of the RNC’s effort to mobilize grass-roots activity around the country for its candidates in the final 72 hours before the voting November 5. RNC has expended substantial money and time on this effort in response to complaints that the GOP is being beaten on the ground by the efforts of Big Labor and other liberal special interests.

“I intend to create a post-election report that accurately describes the successes and the failures of the 72-Hour Task Force,” Blackwell wrote September 26 in a four-page letter to his fellow RNC members. He asked for their help in a post-election naming of names: “I am calling on you personally to help me compile a list of campaign consultants and managers who successfully implement this plan and those who are obstructionists.” (Emphasis added.) Knowing well that retribution from various sources within the party could follow, Blackwell promised his colleagues that “I’ll not reveal the source of the information you share with me” if anonymity is desired.

For more than three decades, as the cost of campaigns has skyrocketed and fund-raising increasingly emphasized, Blackwell and others who cut their political eyeteeth in the grass-roots campaigning of volunteer door-to-door canvassing, mailings, and coffee klatches have watched the rise of paid consultants for television, press work, telephone banks and direct mail.

(The change in modern campaigning strikes home. Among my earliest memories of politics as I was growing up in the historically Democratic 1st District of Greater Hartford, Conn., were the efforts of local Republicans to dislodge popular Democratic Rep. Emilio “Mim” Daddario. GOP candidates such as lawyer John Bonee in 1966 and insuranceman Roger Ladd in 1968 sandwiched their campaigning in with their day jobs. Headquarters were in storefronts rather than less accessible office buildings and staffed exclusively by volunteers. TV and radio spots were produced locally, usually with a per diem announcer at local stations and, while there were no limits on donations and minimal reporting requirements, it didn’t matter much because a race for Congress at the time cost at the most $50,000.

(Fast forward: As a reporter this September covering the California gubernatorial election, I watched at a press conference as veteran Republican consultant Sal Russo dismissed door-to-door campaigning and discussed almost exclusively candidate Bill Simon’s fund-raising potential and forthcoming media buys. “It has been said that one TV spot in the right market can reach more voters than a candidate can by ringing doorbells in a year,” Russo told reporters.)

While it can be argued whether the older or newer means of reaching voters brings more success, it is undeniable that the growing deployment of costly outside consultants has repelled and diminished the ranks of those who traditionally did political chores as volunteers. A longtime friend, subscriber and Republican activist in Florida who has lived through the transformation in campaigns put it best: “The consultants hate volunteers and think they get in the way. The volunteers, in turn, refer to the consultants as the ‘brownshoes.’”

The Legacy of 2000

There is much evidence that “shoe leather politics” still packs a political wallop. Largely because of labor union members and in many cases established black leaders, Democrats are still able to produce bodies at election time who do voter turnout phoning, drive voters to the polls, provide babysitters while young families vote, and the similar chores. This Democratic “people power” in all likelihood was a pivotal factor in Democrats’ producing the closest presidential and congressional results in memory in 2000, despite nearly all election eve polls showing George W. Bush with a slight lead and significantly better results for Republican congressional candidates.

“Subsequent news coverage revealed that the Democrats had focused intensely on ‘shoe leather’ efforts,” wrote Blackwell. “Democrats even developed a new career definition: ‘knock and drag artists’ who systematically knock on doors and drag their supporters to the polls.”

Aware of their party’s distinct disadvantage in terms of “shoe leather politics,” Republicans led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Tom Davis (Va.) this year helped craft a “Marshall Plan” for emphasizing get-out-the-vote infantry campaigns over air war techniques in the final days of the ’02 campaign. Closed-door briefings were held at the last three RNC meetings on the “72 Hour Task Force” plan, with its focus on voter identification, communications to target audiences, precinct organizations, youth campaigns, absentee ballots, and ballot security.

Requirements for major financial support for such endeavors from national party sources, according to Blackwell, was contingent upon “an acceptable written plan, an adequate budget, an organization chart, competent staff hired to implement a serious ground war, etc.” He also recalled how many Republican political consultants also received briefings on the 72 Hour Task Force and that they “displayed enthusiastic support of this dramatic shift away from almost exclusive reliance on paid advertising.”

But did he really believe that consultants, who would lose $150,000 for every million dollars that campaigns do not spend on commissionable advertising, were really embracing the change? Those who benefit from such a system of profit, according to Blackwell, “have strong motives to frustrate any move to spend campaign funds on non-commissionable activities. Such people are often well-placed to control or greatly influence campaign spending.” It would be no surprise, he warned, “when they use their clout to reduce or eliminate organizational expenses in campaigns.”

So what does Blackwell want? “To help me identify and expose consultants and others who obstruct the 72 Hour Task Force this year,” he tells his colleagues. What does he want to know specifically? “Who gets paid the commissions, generally 15%, on advertising funded by campaigns and party organizations,” he writes. “Who actually decides how much of the Republican donors’ money is spent on commissionable advertising? Who opposes investing time, talent, and money on non-commissionable organizational efforts?”

The information that “Sheriff Blackwell” gets about those whom many in the party consider its “black hats” will make an intriguing story. Well aware of the power of consultants within the GOP, veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich urged the Virginian to consider “hiring a food taster and checking beneath his car for explosives.”

Winton (Red) Blount, R.I.P

Although nearly all of the obituaries of Winton (Red) Blount emphasized his background as entrepreneur, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the last postmaster general to serve in a President’s cabinet, there was another side to the Alabaman (who died on October 24 at age 81) that was largely overlooked by the national media but well-known to conservative Republican activists: Blount was one of the earliest players in the GOP of the South and, through his fund-raising prowess and tireless support of the party from the beginning, helped transform Alabama into increasingly Republican state it is today.

After attending the University of Alabama and flying B-29 “Flying Fortresses” in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Blount returned home to Montgomery to help launch a company to build fish ponds.

When Alabama Republicans waged their first Senate campaign since Reconstruction in 1962, Blount raised significant money for fellow businessman James D. Martin in his seemingly hopeless bid against Democratic Sen. (1937-68) Lister Hill. In results that made national headlines and demonstrated that the South was indeed friendly territory for conservative Republicans, Martin came within 7,000 votes (or less than 1%) of unseating the venerable Hill. Two years later, with Blount’s fund-raising assistance, Barry Goldwater swept Alabama and the state elected Republicans to five of its eight U.S. House districts.

When former AT&T Chairman Frederick R. Kappel declined Richard Nixon’s offer to be postmaster general and implement the recommendations of a commission he had headed to partially privatize the U.S. Post Office, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Blount accepted. He thereupon followed up on the Kappel Commission’s suggestions, ending the hiring of postal employees based on patronage and transforming the Post Office into the quasi-private U.S. Postal Service that was theoretically to have professional, corporate-style management.

For the rest of his life, Blount would be the man aspiring GOP candidates in Alabama went to for help in raising money and he lived to see Republicans in both of his state’s U.S. Senate seats and in the governorship three times.

But Red Blount, in his lone bid for office, was defeated by veteran Democratic Sen. (1946-78) John Sparkman in 1972. Among those working on his campaign were Perry Hooper, who would become Alabama’s first Republican chief justice, and a young political enthusiast just out of Harvard Business School named George W. Bush.