Outcome Isn’t Good for BAD Campaigns : Politics: Management arm of the Waxman-Berman power bloc suffers stinging setbacks with defeats of Levine and Davis. ‘Stealth’ tactics provoke wide criticism.
It was a bad election night for BAD Campaigns.
The vaunted campaign management arm of the liberal political organization headed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) not only lost two U.S. Senate primaries, but it appears to be losing a state Senate seat sought by one of its closest allies in the organization’s Westside stronghold.
With an undetermined number of absentee ballots left to count, state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal trailed Assemblyman Tom Hayden by 277 votes. Although Controller Gray Davis was the underdog in his contest with Dianne Feinstein, the consultants had pinned their hopes on Rep. Mel Levine to be their first U.S. senator, but Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) beat Levine badly in a three-way race with Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy.
As acknowledged masters of last-minute targeted mail and TV campaigns in which the candidate often remains out of sight, BAD has been often imitated and sometimes beaten but has never taken it on the chin as on Tuesday night. In fact, their 1992 primary campaign tactics provoked considerable criticism.
“We should probably cut ourselves a big slice of humble pie,” Berman said about Levine’s failed candidacy. “Either he shouldn’t have been in the race or the strategy was flawed,” Berman said. “I don’t know which.”
While epitaph writers are sharpening their pencils, political consultants say a rough night does not portend the demise of a political dynasty--or even more than a trough in an otherwise Olympian record.
“Their mystique has been damaged,” said Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “A proven strategy that has been successful for them in the past didn’t work this year.”
Hoffenblum and Democratic consultant Clint Reilly agree that the group may be down but hardly out. “It’s premature to announce the death of the Waxman-Berman machine,” Reilly said.
However one characterizes the losses, friends and foes ponder BAD’s setbacks amid such factors as Republican-controlled reapportionment, the “Year of the Woman” and anti-incumbency fervor.
The BAD partners, Michael Berman, who is Howard’s brother, and Carl D’Agostino, offer no excuses for the losses. “It happens,” shrugged Michael Berman. “If you want to call it a failure, fine. If you want to call it our fault, fine.”
Some critics are doing just that, particularly in the Levine race. His supporters have groused that an attractive candidate was not properly showcased and did not even look appealing in his own commercials.
“I heard from people who met Mel Levine and said they couldn’t quite understand why they don’t get him out more,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate for the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School.
The BAD strategy has always been predicated on the contention that voters do not focus on candidates until the last minute, which is the time to reach them with a barrage of mail and television ads. Until then, BAD candidates spend much of their time raising money for postage and television air time and gaining endorsements.
In a year when voters were revolting against anything to do with politics as usual, this strategy became fodder for news stories about Levine’s stealth candidacy. “They were using an ‘80s strategy in a 1992 revolutionary year,” said one Berman-Waxman loyalist who did not want to be quoted by name.
Other loyalists insist, however, that Levine’s campaign was right on target and he was rising in polls taken by others (BAD eschews polling) when Los Angeles--and their campaign--went up in flames.
“Mel’s strategy was predicated on a period of (voter) attentiveness in May,” said Assemblyman Burt Margolin. “People weren’t making the connection between the riot and (Mel’s) message.”
Indeed, his after-riot law-and-order message, though restrained, got Levine in hot water with some liberal voters, yet failed to move more moderate Democrats into his corner.
“Liberal women voters who were going to vote for Levine . . . read the riot ad as permission to vote for Barbara Boxer,” Jeffe said.
Jeffe says that Berman and D’Agostino either misread the strength of women’s anger after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings last fall--or took the women’s vote for granted.
“The decisions at BAD are made by . . . men who have known for a very long time what the electorate wants, but that electorate has changed,” Jeffe said. But she added that even if the consultants had read the mood perfectly, they may not have been able to do anything about it.
The women’s vote was also a factor in the Westside state Senate race where Catherine O’Neill received 27% of the vote in a three-way race with two powerful incumbents with high name recognition, Hayden and Rosenthal.
But the key to that race and BAD’s problems goes back to state reapportionment last year after Pete Wilson, not Dianne Feinstein, became governor.
Until the 1990 reapportionment, Michael Berman was the acknowledged master of drawing safe Democratic districts around the state and on the Westside. The Legislature and Congress soon became populated by liberal Jewish members of the Berman-Waxman alliance, which operates like an extended family. The BAD firm is their home where it’s one for all and all for one and loyalty is paramount.
But the relative lack of population growth on the Westside has cut the number of districts, leaving too many officeholders with nowhere to go. Where there once were three Westside congressional seats controlled by the group, now only Waxman’s district remains. Howard Berman’s new district is in North Hollywood and points north.
“What really broke their back is when they lost control of reapportionment,” Hoffenblum said.
Jeffe said she thinks Rosenthal’s trouble may be more a reflection of BAD’s loyalty to him as a longtime associate. They stood behind instead of pressuring him to cede to another BAD candidate with fewer negatives as a Sacramento insider.
“So much for the ruthless BAD machine, huh?” she said.
Though he ran an unrelentingly negative campaign against Rosenthal and O’Neill, Hayden still offered advice to the BAD boys. “I hope they will give moral reconsideration to their approach,” Hayden said. “Just raising money and having stealth campaigns doesn’t work.”
Hayden financed his campaign with $700,000 from his own wealth and prior campaign funds, garnering such adjectives as “slimy” from opponents for his mudslinging.
Though Hayden is a 10-year Sacramento veteran, his attacks on Rosenthal as the consummate insider were effective. Until the waning days of the race, Rosenthal did not respond, then came on strong by equating Hayden with George Bush on the grounds both “would do anything to get elected.”
The Levine campaign also refrained from attacking Boxer and McCarthy, which may in retrospect have been a mistake. Then again, BAD’s one attack in the Davis-Feinstein race boomeranged when critics suggested that comparing Feinstein to felon Leona Helmsley was sexist and anti-Semitic.
The BAD camp insisted that the ad was misunderstood and was only meant to suggest both women blamed others for their problems.
Reilly points out that successful political consulting requires risk-taking. “Having the guts to play the game and risk losing is what makes you successful in this business,” said Reilly. “If they would have won, everybody would have called them geniuses.”
Then there is what Reilly calls “the reality of the moment. There’s more realities to politics than consultants.”
If nothing else, the 1992 primary was definitely a reality check for BAD. But Republican consultant Hoffenblum predicted a comeback amid “a lot of problems.”
“When you lose control of reapportionment, you become more a victim of fate,” he said. “Fate was not on the Berman side this time.”
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