By now, most Tulsa voters would seem to have at least a passing acquaintance with the active candidates for mayor in the Nov. 10 general election. Two of them--Republican Dewey Bartlett Jr. and Democratic state Sen. Tom Adelson--won their respective primaries, while independent Mark Perkins hopes to mount a successful challenge to the traditional two-party system.
But most Tulsans are decidedly less familiar with the campaign staff members behind the candidates--those who help shape and polish a candidate's image, formulate strategy, and raise the money that in many ways serves as the life blood of a campaign. In the world of politics, they are often known as handlers, though they perform a wide variety of functions and their influence on the candidate varies from campaign to campaign.
Increasingly, those top positions are filled by full-time professionals, either those who have been a member of the candidate's personal staff for some time or someone from an outside firm who is brought in to help manage a campaign. That's the case with both Bartlett and Adelson, while Perkins is running his campaign almost exclusively with volunteers.
Meet the People
Hilary Kitz, Adelson's campaign manager, has been a member of the senator's staff for five and a half years, but she's been around politics her whole life. The first campaign she worked came during her childhood, when she volunteered on behalf of her father, the mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She's spent the last 30 years in Tulsa and worked for former Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage for several years.
In her estimation, a good campaign manager is someone who likes politics "and can stay calm in a maelstrom, is well-organized and has a facility with language."
When it comes to managing a campaign, she said, there is still a large role for volunteers, and other paid staff members have specific duties, such as scheduling or media buying. Ultimately, however, there is nothing that isn't her responsibility.
"The buck stops with me," she said. "If things go well, everyone gets some of the credit, and that's good. I don't mind that. I don't ask people to do something I wouldn't do. We all share the work, and there's a lot of it."
Jarred Brejcha, Bartlett's campaign manager, didn't become involved in politics until his college days at the University of Tulsa, but he's been involved in several campaigns over the past four years, working on behalf of U.S. Rep. John Sullivan and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, among others. He also serves as executive director of the Oklahoma State Republican Senatorial Committee, helping get GOP candidates elected to the state Senate across Oklahoma.
He listed a number of traits that contribute to being a good campaign manager.
"You have to be able to prioritize and multi-task," he said. "You have to know what's most important and really focus on that."
Good people skills are a must, he said.
"You also have to be willing to give tough answers because you're also a PR person," he said.
Brejcha shares duties in the Bartlett campaign with paid consultants Karl Ahlgren and Fount Holland, along with two important volunteers, Andrea Petersen and Jonathan Grable, both of whom operate as campaign coordinators.
Howie Morgan--president of the Election Impact Group, a political consulting and campaign management firm in Oxford, Miss.--said the job of a campaign manager is simple.
"Put the candidate in front of voters," he said. "The candidate does two things--meets voters and raises money. My job is to help him do those two things and be successful. The candidate raises the money, and I get to spend the money."
Morgan managed the mayoral campaign of former Tulsa City Councilor Chris Medlock, who finished second to Bartlett in the Republican primary. He's been involved in running campaigns since his college days as Ole Miss. After an apprenticeship in Washington working with polling and direct-mail firms, he returned to Mississippi and opened his own shop.
He was fortunate enough to enjoy immediate success, winning two of the three Virginia House of Delegates campaigns he worked on in 2001 and establishing a reputation for himself as a bit of a firebrand. His most notable early victory came when he managed the campaign of Marsha Blackburn, who emerged from a field of seven Republicans in Tennessee's 7th Congressional District in 2002 to win both the primary and general elections. Since then, he's managed several successful campaigns for state and federal office for candidates all over the country.
His experience in Tulsa working for Medlock did not contribute to that string of success, but it didn't change his philosophy about what he does. Nothing replaces the value of hard work in a campaign, he said, but faith is just as important.
"You've got to believe in your candidate," he said. "I get good people elected into office. That is truly what I want to do; that is my goal in life. There are a lot of campaigns I will not work for."
Morgan said when a potential client approaches him about handling a campaign, he checks out the candidate first to make sure he or she is someone he wants to see get elected. The first thing he looks for is a genuine commitment, he said.
"I've met people who want to run for public office but don't want their phone number listed because they don't want people bothering them," he said.
By his own admission, Morgan runs aggressive, hard-hitting campaigns, even against other Republicans in primary elections. He doesn't apologize for that, though some observers have gone so far as to label his style as abrasive.
"Elections are not about the candidates, they're about the voters," he said. "Our job is to inform voters about the candidates. But I only go after [the opposition] on issue-oriented stuff."
That kind of approach can ratchet up emotions on all sides, but Marvin Branham, a paid consultant on the Adelson campaign, said it is important to maintain a professional distance when that happens.
"I always do," said the veteran Tulsa political professional, who has worked on a variety of state and federal campaigns over the course of his career. "Part of that is probably my temperament, to be able to do that."
Branham said he earned a philosophy degree in college with a concentration in logic, a department that has a large overlap with mathematics.
"All of that trains you to step back, look at a situation and put it into perspective," he said. "And that's what it's really all about."
Branham finds himself in an unusual situation during this campaign, having managed Bartlett's unsuccessful campaign when the Republican ran against Adelson for the state Senate in 2004. He's switched camps this time but said that change has not been awkward.
Then again, Branham is someone with an unusually large capacity for handling whatever comes his way. He said the current campaign is also unusual for him in that he's working for only one candidate. Previously, he said, he's had as many as 17 clients during a single election cycle.
Carrying that kind of client roster is not for the faint of heart. When asked how much of his time is spent in crisis-management mode, Branham responded, "That probably depends on your definition of crisis."
A genuine crisis only comes along about once every 10 days, he said. Brejcha said he estimates that 15 percent of his time is spent in that mode, although he added, "We want to control the message. If you're doing that, the other side is the one doing crisis management. But we're not working in a controlled environment."
Kitz said the degree of stress campaign professionals face varies from day to day and campaign to campaign.
"But every election has moments of great intensity," she said. "That's the way the system works."
Branham said much of what he does, chaotic as it might seem to the uninitiated, is simply part of the job.
"I can't afford to think of talking on three telephones at the same time, working on a computer and talking with a candidate who is standing next to me as a crisis," he said. "That's a time-management issue."
Maintaining your composure is the key, Branham said.
"To do this job, you also have to have a great deal of stamina and the ability to look at a situation that may even be emotional and may be something that is important, but you still have the ability to step outside of it, analyze it and break it down to its various parts, and determine the next course of action without being paralyzed by a very high-pressure moment," he said.
The Price of Winning
The cost of hiring an independent political consultant or campaign manager varies from firm to firm and race to race, but Morgan said he tries to keep his rates affordable. For a state House race in Mississippi, for example, he can be hired for as little as a few thousand dollars.
Regardless of whether a candidate chooses to hire him, Morgan dispenses the same advice when it comes to finding a campaign professional.
"I teach a consulting seminar," he said. "And the first thing I tell everybody is, 'Find someone who's won a race at the level you want to win at.' "
But Michael Bates, a longtime local political observer who authors the Batesline blog at www.batesline.com, cautions candidates against thinking they can buy an election simply by signing on a high-priced consultant.
"I think the more you spend, the less likely you are to get your money's worth," Bates said. "A good consultant cannot take the place of a good candidate."
Not everyone chooses to bring in professional, outside help. Perkins, one of two independent candidates for mayor, has only one full-time staff member, office manager Susan Lambert Boyle, and relies on a corps of volunteers for everything else that needs to be done. To a very large extent, he is running his own campaign, he said.
But his decision not to bring in an experienced, paid professional was not based entirely on a philosophical opposition to doing so.
"Part of it is just practical--they cost money," he said. "And my campaign is not (able to afford that.) I think it's sad that our local election for a mid-size city has gotten to the point where it costs a million dollars just to have a viable campaign. We obviously don't have that, but ... I do enjoy that part of it, that underdog aspect, that we don't feel like we're paying all the right people and spending outrageous sums of money to have a new commercial come out every week. I like it that we are attracting creative people to stretch every dollar a little bit farther and figure out other ways to get in front of people. So there's something nice about that."
Even if his campaign had much greater financial resources, Perkins isn't convinced he would have sought the help of an independent consultant.
"I have strong opinions," he said. "I don't know if there is a so-called handler out there I wouldn't clash with, just because these are professional political people, and to me, this isn't--obviously, it is politics--but it's not the traditional kind of politics. Mine comes from the heart, and it's for the city.
"So I'm unwilling to manipulate my message because it's my message," he said. "And there will probably be times when I speak a little more off the cuff and maybe it won't resonate well, but it's a risk I'm willing to take because it all comes from the heart. I do all my own writing. I don't have anybody tutoring me on the issues which means that I probably get a better understanding of them because I'm looking into them myself. I think it gives the citizens a better idea of who I am, where I come from and what I'm all about than if somebody were telling me what to say."
Even so, few, if any, political professionals believe it's possible for a true grassroots campaign, one run almost exclusively by the candidate and a crew of volunteers, to be successful in a major election anymore.
"I don't think so," Morgan said. "I think media markets are so fractured, unless you have some huge built-in constituency--unless you're the coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, and you decide to run for Congress--it's going to be really tough. It's getting easier for people to go about their lives without interacting with anyone, and politics is about interacting. Somebody has to organize that."
Kitz, Branham and Bates all maintain there is simply too much to be done in a mayoral campaign in a city the size of Tulsa. Professional help is a must, they say.
"You've got to have somebody who can make it their full-time job to shepherd all those duties," Bates said. "Somebody has to shape your message to the public and do it in a way that makes them motivated to go out and vote."
Morgan said candidates who don't use established professionals to run their campaign often do so at their own peril. There are many charlatans in this business, he said.
"I've met people who call themselves consultants who don't know what a direct mail is," he said. "There are a lot of people who want to be involved in campaigning but don't know what they're talking about."
Branham apparently has witnessed a lot of that. He acknowledged he sees a lot of mistakes being made by other campaign managers or consultants, but he declined to cite any specifics.
"I hate to train the opposition," he said, smiling.
Perkins is trying to offset his lack of professional help with aggressive use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and a video blog, along with establishing focus groups to give him input on several issues. He also said he has a handful of political professionals advising him in an unofficial, unpaid capacity, so he maintains he's not relying solely on political novices for direction.
He also refuses to accept the idea that the era in which a grassroots candidate can mount a competitive campaign in an election of this size is over.
"I hope it's not over," he said. "It'd be disappointing if it were. We need some idealism, we need some heart in this thing. We don't want to be just a sterile, political game."
Brejcha believes it's simply not realistic to believe a volunteer-dominated campaign can be successful, but he said the issue is one of accountability, not competence. In a campaign of this size, he said, a candidate's ability to convey a consistent message to voters is vitally important.
"The candidate has to hire people and hold them accountable for the message he wants voters to hear," Brejcha said. "I don't think you can hold volunteers accountable for that message."
Perkins proclaims he's optimistic about his chances, but there's little question he faces an uphill battle. Bates said the last true grassroots mayoral campaign in Tulsa to have much of an impact was in 1986, when Tom Quinn defeated incumbent Mayor Terry Young in the Democratic primary, though he lost to Republican Dick Crawford in the general election. Bates might not think Perkins has much of a chance to end that streak, but that doesn't mean he's not interested in how the campaign plays out.
"The template will always be there until somebody breaks it, until somebody comes along with a completely different approach," Bates said. "If Mark Perkins finishes better than expected, there will be a lot of people looking at what he does."
Branham indicated he would welcome any change that makes voters feel more invested in, rather than more cynical about, the political process.
"Campaigns historically have become more and more distant from the voters," Branham said. "And I think that may be a pendulum swing, because here in the last year or two, I've seen major campaigns begin to try to reconnect with voters in a more direct fashion. I don't know yet if that's a real pendulum swing, and if it is, then I think that elections may actually become more used to the idea of actually engaging individual voters than they have been for the last 20 or 30 years. And I think that would be good."
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