Election - Political consultantsEarwigged

Political consultants: well-paid advice columnists or shrewd strategists?

Political consultants have a rich literary history in fact and fiction, although not a particularly flattering one. Shakespeare's Iago and Tsar Nicolas' Rasputin come to mind, as does the enterprising Italian Machiavelli, who never stopped working on his rehabilitation while imprisoned. Karl Rove, kingmaker of the early 21st century, is admired and distrusted in equal measure. We suspect that the ends justifies the means for Mr. Rove, and that that old maxim doesn't necessarily behoove a democratic republic in which the process - the means - is supposed to be the end.

When people speak of politics as a dirty business, it is most likely the consultants - perhaps whispering, We can use this 'push poll' to our advantage, in a nervous candidate's ear - that leave the bitter aftertaste in their mouths. Democratic consultant James Carville, whose shiny cue-ball head and wildly elastic twang is more familiar to TV viewers than most congresspersons', hasn't helped matters, handicapping the 2004 election on television like he was calling a horse race. And that is how political consultants often appear: as gamblers and day traders, interested in playing the system for power and personal gain.

It's a perception that offends Christian Archer, 32, campaign manager for Phil Hardberger. "If you are not motivated by a sense in your soul that this is important for the future, you can't do it," he says. Across the small room from his desk is the small closet in which Archer has spent at least four nights, catching a few winks between 18-hour days. Empty venti Starbucks - his favorite campaign lunch - are piling up on the bookshelf behind his head.

If Hardberger makes it into a run-off with District 7 Councilman Julián Castro on May 7, credit will likely go to Archer. Since he joined the campaign in January, the folksy Hardberger bandwagon has acquired an engine and a map, although not a message, say his critics. Yard signs and deluxe flyers with tear-off reply cards in the candidate's colors have mushroomed across town, and his handful of big-name endorsements have been leveraged for return. Auto magnate Red McCombs sent a letter to local businessmen explaining why he supports the judge, which serves the campaign two ways. "My philosophy in campaigning is getting people to talk to people," says Archer. And McCombs' endorsement, reported in the local daily, is also likely to help Hardberger pull critical votes away from Carroll Schubert in Districts 8, 9, and 10 - votes most analysts and consultants agree he needs.

Christian Archer, campaign manager for Phil Hardberger. (Photos by Elaine Wolff)

Through his Austin-based firm, Nathan Archer, he worked on the successful mayoral campaigns of Austin mayor Will Wynne and Houston mayor Bill White. Personal contact was key in those races, says Archer. "The field program we ran in Houston is unparalleled to anything I've heard of." Near the end of the campaign, he says, they had 90 volunteers and paid blockwalkers "knocking down four precincts a day."

Anonymous blogger Cincinnatus, writing at thejeffersonian.blogspot.com, sums up the candidates' front offices this way: "Hardberger has a real campaign manager (sorry Castro campaign) that knows how to win (sorry Schubert campaign)." Schubert's manager, Scott Pool, is spoken of with the quiet awe reserved for those who somehow throw away a sure thing. Pool ran former Republican state representative Arlene Wohlgemuth's losing bid to unseat Chet Edwards in 2003. Edwards was the only survivor among the Texas 5 Democrats targeted by Republicans for defeat in the wake of redistricting. Observers note that Pool, who picked up Schubert's reins in January, is happy to pursue the North Side councilman's strategy of playing up his Republican bonafides and virtually ignoring seven out of 10 council districts. The Current falls inside District 1, which may be why Pool hasn't returned our phone calls.

"I think that the Schubert campaign has been the worst-run well-funded campaign in the city's history," says PR flack TJ Connolly, who seems to be the only Castro campaigner who wants to admit Connolly's involvement. When asked about his role, Castro's campaign emphasized Connolly's volunteer status - "Julian knows that there are absolutely no strings attached," says Connolly - and offered instead to arrange an interview with Gerardo Menchaca. He also, in what seems to be a Castro party line, described himself as a "volunteer," although campaign manager Phillip Cortez confirms that Menchaca is on the payroll.

Gerardo Menchaca, deputy campaign manager for Julián Castro.

Menchaca, Castro's deputy campaign manager for fundraising, is a native of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, "where we have no city council." He graduated from St. Mary's Law School and has a "day job" with a local firm, but his real passion seems to be politics. He has also worked with Castro's brother, State Representative Joaquin Castro, and District 10 Councilman Chip Haass. "I like the idea that some punk kid like Chip can say, Hey I'm gonna take on the guy that Valero's backing," says Menchaca.

While the self-assured 20-something may be relatively new to the game, Menchaca has already mastered the art of taking a dig at the opposition at every opportunity. He brings up Hardberger's age (Archer made sure to emphasize Castro's youth). I ask if he's saying Hardberger is too old to be mayor; Menchaca says he had to introduce himself five times before the judge recognized him. But, he says, "I like Hardberger. I think he's lucid."

Menchaca also displays what may be the most universal truism among political consultants: They anxiously keep score in their own game. "Julián is winning," says Menchaca, referring to polls that consistently show Castro with a comfortable lead, "but I am losing." With a mere $40,000 heading into the final weeks of the race, Castro is running in far third place when it comes to funding (Schubert has more than $300,000 to spend, Hardberger approximately $200,000).

Still, "Money isn't everything in campaigning," says Archer. Not for candidates, and not for political consultants, either. At the end of the Election Day, when the votes are counted and the confetti lies trampled on the floor, "You're defined by either you're a winner or you're a loser."

By Elaine Wolff


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