Proposition 8 and California's Festering Corrupt Democratic Consulting Class

by: Matt Stoller

Sat Dec 06, 2008 at 16:15

Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson has an interesting article on the campaign against Proposition eight in California, and what they did wrong.  What's interesting about the post-mortems, though widely known, is how little scrutiny the anti-prop 8 leaders have actually gotten.  Dickinson's article is useful to a point in that he got five people to go on the record with what the group did wrong, but most of his piece is framed by sniping from anonymous top level Democratic consultants and strategists towards the (mostly) unnamed leadership of the No on Proposition 8 forces.
Matt Stoller :: Proposition 8 and California's Festering Corrupt Democratic Consulting Class

According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote....

"This was political malpractice," says a Democratic consultant who operates at the highest level of California politics.  "They fucked this up, and it was painful to watch. They shouldn't be allowed to pawn this off on the Mormons or anyone else. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and now hundreds of thousands of gay couples are going to pay the price."

"They had no ground game," says a leading Democratic consultant. "They thought they could win this thing by slapping some ads together. It was the height of naiveté."....

"The ad was a huge fucking mistake," says a top Democratic campaign strategist. "Any objective consultant who has done any research on this issue will tell you that the struggle for marriage equality is not accepted by minority communities to be equivalent to the civil rights movement. In fact, it pisses minorities off."...

What is so frightening to 'top' Democratic consultants in California that they can't discuss the reasons the campaign structure dithered and failed using their own names?  Just what are they afraid of?  Could it be that the real story here is damning to the entire Democratic California political consulting class?  Perhaps.

Let me add what I know to the story.  No on Prop 8 was run by an unwieldy bureaucratic committee that rejected help from most quarters and organized a strategy to pretend like hiding from homosexuality and Obama's opposition to gay marriage would work.  The initial campaign leaders basically thought that the pollling data showed they were going to win, were completely out-organized by Mormons, had a website "someone would've been proud of in 1996", rejected most offers to help, and finally, six weeks before the election, ceded control to prominent and effective gay rights leader Patrick Guerriero and a team of volunteers, who took control and attempted (successfully) to turn a route into a narrow loss.  I remember when the distress call went out about Prop 8, and cash started pouring in (not just through their website designed by volunteers from Google, but also through Actblue, which had Prop 8 as their top donor item for weeks); we added Prop 8 to our Better Democrats page, and Markos raised hundreds of thousands for this cause.  There's no way to tell what happened, but it seems fairly reasonable to assume that the leadership transition worked and the Guerriero was able to at least narrow the margin to where it ended up in November.

That said, this was too little too late.  You can't really run a multi-million dollar campaign like this in six weeks, so the framing and tone was set by the executive committee, which refused to make decisions for fear of offending blocks of voters. This was a centrist cautious campaign similar to John Kerry in 2004.  Campaigns like this are completely predictable, it's how Democrats have worked for decades, and though the Obama campaign provides a nice reminder of how far the party has come in just a few years, the progress is obviously uneven.

California is especially bad, because it's an expensive state and TV is where the consulting money is made.  While you wouldn't notice it on a national level because California always goes for the Democratic Presidential nominee, 'top' California Democratic consultants have a history of this kind of nonsense.  Consider their recent legacy of defeats: Gray Davis's recall in the face of a fiscal crisis orchestrated by conservative interests who helped Enron steal much of California's budget through price fixing, the embarrassing campaign to oppose Arnold Schwarzenegger for reelection by Phil Angelides who not only ran a horrific campaign but was repeatedly sabotaged by insider California consultants and his primary opponent Steve Westly, and the overfunded losing campaign to pass Proposition 87 to increase the use of alternative fuels with an oil tax in 2006.  These weren't just awful campaigns, they were embarrassingly awful, with money going to fill the coffers of the consultants who preached TV TV TV and failed to do any significant field, internet work, or basic outreach to different constituencies.  These campaigns shared the standard characteristics of the No on Prop 8 campaign; entirely TV dependent, passively messaged, no field, hostile treatment towards possible allies, and anonymous sniping from other consultants not cut in on the cash.

I don't see how Prop 8 was any different.  Geoff Kor, the head of the executive committee, hired Dewey Square principal Steve Smith to run the campaign.  In his article, Dickinson misses Smith's role, and misses that Smith, while nominally running Prop Eight until late in the game, was also working on the campaign against an anti-abortion proposition (prop 4) at the same time.  Smith was clearly overworked and took on too much responsibility, which is probably why the more labor intensive activists, such as field and web outreach, were marginalized in favor of simpler TV buys.  Dewey Square, a field oriented Democratic political consulting group run by Michael Whouley that at various points had employed three Presidential campaign managers from 2004 (Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards), itself is ensconced in a profitable racket to suck up corporate money by opposing policies like net neutrality while running these pro-Democratic campaigns on the side.  

What makes this so galling is that tt's quite obvious that the people who ran this campaign learned nothing and are simply incapable of effective advocacy for progressive causes.  What this California consulting racket wins they win by accident.  For instance, after the campaign, Smith diagnoses the primary problem as insufficient resources to get up on TV, and then pleads with the gay community not to target the Mormon church.  

"It's hard not to act out, but I'm telling you, don't act out. The spray paint on the Mormon Church, that hurts us. Any violence, that hurts us."  

Framing protests towards the Mormon Church as 'violent' is sure helpful, now isn't it?  I can literally smell the Bob Shrum on this statement, both the inappropriate attempts at leadership (who the fuck is Smith to tell people he betrayed by doing a bad job what to do) and the reluctance to demonize and personalize the fight against those with different values.  Smith also argues that the group should have released its polling numbers and done outreach to allied groups earlier:  "The community woke up. We should've done that earlier. It felt bizarre to do it, but it worked."  Smith is saying that it it 'felt bizarre' to be honest and open with allies, and then says like the community of allies was 'asleep', as if they weren't dormant because Smith had refused to correct the misimpression that the proposition was in the bag.  Unbelievable.

It's a very lazy and cash-soaked business, this California Democratic consulting world, in which risk-averse TV dominant consultants waste money from donors and lose to the right while sniping at each other anonymously like wealthy high school gossips.  And that's why these consultants won't go on the record, because they are all part of the cartel.  They have to pretend like the system itself works, that this was just an isolated instance, that there's no problem with a corporate lobbyist running two progressive campaigns inefficiently at the same time, only this instance of a corporate lobbyist-type running two progressive campaigns inefficiently at the same time.  I mean, look who else is a 'top' Democratic consultant or strategist in California - Gary South and/or Chris Lehane come to mind, and there aren't that many, so these guys are probably sources for Dickinson.  Lehane's record is wonderful; he screwed up Wes Clark's Presidential campaign and most reprehensibly took money from the anti-labor studios to go after the Writer's Guild during their strike.  Sniping at a fellow club member anonymously is a sure way to signal to others that this was simply a problem isolated to Proposition 8, instead of systemic inefficiency and corruption in the California consulting establishment itself.

But that's what it was.  This corroded group lost significant statewide races and initiatives in 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2008, in good years and bad years, by running cautious and ineffective TV dominant lazy campaigns.  I'm quite confident that Proposition 8 shook the gay community to the core, and gay rights is going to take a more radical and effective tact from now on.  Still, this consultant racket can still do a lot of damage.  In 2010, Barbara Boxer is going to be up for reelection, and she might be very heavily targeted by Republicans in a year that probably won't be great for Democrats.  She'll have a lot of money and it might just be a very expensive race; let's just hope that Boxer chooses someone other than a 'top' Democratic strategist to run her campaign.

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Speaking as a California Democrat (4.00 / 1)
It's not just the consultants.  Everything you say could be applied to the California Democrats as a whole.  Corrupt, entrenched... the only reasons Republicans haven't swept the dead wood out of office are because of redistricting lines and -- most importantly -- Republicans are even more corrupt, ideologically driven hacks.  

which is why (4.00 / 6)
despite being the most populous state and being the home to one-sixth of all Americans, we are terribly underrepresented amongst top Democratic party leaders. There is Pelosi, our Senators...and that's it. Hardly any great future leaders. Villaraigosa? Give me a break, he's been a big disappointment.

CA has a lot of deeply entrenched political problems. The state is liberal enough to keep the Dems in charge, and the Republican politicians here are generally extremist, but we need major changes in this state.

One, we need non-gerrymandered districts so these corrupt statewide Dems actually have to compete for their jobs (and the Republicans too). Second, eliminate the term limits in Sacramento that has stripped the state leadership of anyone with experience. Instead, we get corporatist/special interest/union/anti-tax zombie candidates who do their time and then move on. No senior leaders at all, nobody with more than 14 years of state legislative experience because of those term limits. And of course, eliminating our ridiculous proposition system and changing the constitution so a budget can be passed by a mere majority (rather than 66%) would help a whole lot as well.

Regarding Prop. 8, it was a horribly weak campaign and everyone knew it. Go watch "Milk" and you'll see that Harvey Milk was dealing with the same homophobic consultant class when defeating a similar Prop. 6 back in 1978. They haven't learned their history, those idiots.

The thing about Democratic consultants in CA is that they were beaten badly by McCain campaign manager Steve "Palin for VP" Schmidt in Arnold's races. The same Schmidt who got rocked by Obama's team, guys like Axelrod and Plouffe who know how to win.

CA's Democratic party has deep problems. Getting rid of these risk averse consultants would be a step in the right direction.

[ Parent ]
I completely agree, (4.00 / 2)
but I feel nonetheless compelled to point out Waxman, whose next act I am REALLY looking forward to.

There's also George Miller, Pete Stark, Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and Diane Watson, all reasonably influential in the House, and Xavier Beccera is USTR now and Mike Thompson may be Secy of the Interior.  Which is actually not bad for a delegation that only has 30 members.

You're still completely right at the macro level, but the fairness fetishist in me forced me to mention Waxman et al.

Also rereading your comment I see that you were focused more on Sacramento legislators, who are pretty much a total loss.  The statewide political process is broken.  It's actually worth directing national efforts at this problem, now that the New York State Senate is secured.

[ Parent ]
Amen, Brother (4.00 / 4)
My Assembly member -- Wes Chesboro -- could be the poster boy for your point.  A local connected Democrat with cushy jobs on the Arcata City Council and the Board of Supervisors, Chesboro got himself appointed to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.  This was, basically, a $100K+ do-nothing job.  

Then Wes got elected to the state Senate, where he did nothing for eight years. Nothing.  Term limited out, he got himself re-appointed to the Waste Management Board, while he waited for the Assembly member to be term limited out.  

Now Wes is in the Assembly, where he will do nothing.  And I'm sure that when his six years in the Assembly are up, Wes will be back at the Waste Management Board.

To think that this is the party once led by Phil Burton.  For shame, for shame.

[ Parent ]
I get (4.00 / 1)
the consultant racket, but what baffles me is the role of big funders in this.  One of the reasons people hire the big name consultants is because it helps bring in the money.  You would think people spending the money would care a little more about chronic lack of success.  You'd think the name Bob Shrum would make the checks stop.  What gives?

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

They don't want to talk about getting an ass-kicking from a bunch of Mormons (4.00 / 2)
My guess is that the consultant class is so horrified at the thought of having to admit to getting beaten at their own game by a bunch of Mormon yahoos, that they'll be working hard to identify and push other reasons for their failure(s).

At some point, whether or not they admit it, they do need to figure out who their opponents are and recognize the ways in which they misunderestimated their opposition this time around.

This was the fourth election cycle now in which Mormons have played a critical role in a key contest (rewind to Ohio 2004 for another battleground that the Mormons swarmed to the GOP's benefit).

Anyway, plenty of folks are tired of hearing about the Mormons, but our side can't just wish away Mormon clout by pretending their role in Prop 8 was a fluke. It wasn't. It was a victory the Mormons had trained long and hard to achieve. |

Where are the good consultants? (4.00 / 3)
Hard to disagree with any of Matt's analysis, including the sheer bile of it. Why should Dewey Square ever get work? Try checking out their corporate clients if you want to get sick to your stomach.

So I agree with everything Matt said. But it would also be good to hear from him any rising political consultants who are progressive, now the latest and best methods, have principles, and don't sell out during the off season.

Who does all the great work in Colorado?

Who gets credit for Tom Periello's likely win in very red Virginia?

And while I am at it, who ran such a lousy campaign for a great member of Congress Tom Allen?

Unlike the press, name names!

Some important details incorrect (0.00 / 0)
The head of Equality California is Geoff Kors, not Geoff Kor.

You conflate effective advocacy for progressive causes with running a "No" initiative campaign. Those are not necessarily the same thing. There's no question that Equality California (and Geoff Kors) have been effective at enacting progressive LGBT change in California.

It's becoming clearer (like "power lesbians" and former Executive Directors Hilary Rosen and Torie Osborne have said recently) that executive directors of advocacy organizations do not necessarily have the skills to manage or run an initiative campaign.

The real question is WHO and HOW will  the 2010 Pro-Marriage campaign be run (If the California Supreme Court doesn't strike down Prop 8 in 2009)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Mad Professah Lectures

Honestly, (0.00 / 0)
it just strikes me as cheap and lazy to lay the blame still again on the easy target of a "corrupt" consultant class.

Look, the problem here is that there are at least two sacred cows that should shoulder considerable blame for the passage of Prop 8: Obama and the AA community.

Obama's own words against gay marriage were used by advocates of Prop 8 to further their cause. Obama, of course, actually opposed Prop 8 because it was "discriminatory" -- though he always seemed to express that opposition in the weakest whisper he could manage. One should think that having his own words used in favor of Prop 8 would have led him, finally, to repudiate that use as being a great distortion of his real views, and declare, in a quite visible public fashion, his actual opposition. Instead, we got nothing out the man's own mouth to this effect (certainly so far as I've heard), and only a perfunctory, extremely low key, reiteration of his actual position on Prop 8 from Obama's campaign. Did the man respond adequately, therefore, to his clear moral obligation to straighten out the record on his own stated views? Of course not: he took the politically expedient way out. He was at the time way up in the polls, clearly rolling into a decisive victory in the election, but he refused to put any amount of political capital, even to defend his own stated position. It was a remarkable act of political cowardice.

And the AA community likewise must take a considerable portion of the blame here. It voted 70% in favor of Prop 8. Given that it was 10% of the electorate, that 70% margin essentially contributed 4% (7%-3%) to the overall margin -- the exact amount by which Prop 8 lost. And the problem is that, unlike, say, the Mormons, the AA community is the beneficiary of the progressive advocacy of equality for all, and a supposed ally in that fight. It is particularly offensive that any such constituency might be a decisive factor in denying full equality to others, and in undermining the rights of other oppressed minorities.

I simply ask, why should someone in the GLBT community, or who cares deeply about the rights of those in that community, continue to work hard for the political power of another group who will likely do what they can with that political power to sabotage those rights?

And the problem with the AA community is only worse if one looks at the situation nationwide. The homophobia in the AA community is hardly unique to California. Surveys have shown that while the white population has become far more accepting of gays over the years, the AA community nationwide, relatively speaking, has not. This creates a major obstacle to further progress for GLBT equality across the nation simply because of the numbers involved. While AAs constitute a bit over 6% of the population of California (which, again, turned into 10% of the turnout in the recent election in California) AAs actually represent about 12% of the population of the entire nation. They have already been a decisive factor in turning back full rights for GLBTs in California. Nationwide, in a representation that is double that of California, they present a far larger obstacle, if the attitudes in their community don't change quite radically. Given that the rest of the nation is already more conservative on average than the population of California, how many years or decades will it take to bring about full equality for the GLBT community if the AA community stays firm in its reactionary ways on this point?

And where is the pressure going to come from for the AA community to examine its own attitudes if it is exempted from all real criticism on the point?

I think one of the actually quite positive outcomes of the election of Obama is that AAs can now feel a real measure of acceptance by the mainstream community of America. However bad racism may be in certain quarters, the majority of Americans demonstrably don't see race as the key factor when they make decisions about whom they think is best qualified to take major leadership roles.

And with that acceptance comes responsibility to respond to legitimate and important criticism.


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