Condit Turns to Shrewd Campaign Strategist

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

You don't want to be his enemy. You don't necessarily want to be his friend. But if you're in a tight spot, chances are you'd want to have him on your side.

So it was natural that Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres), fighting the most difficult battle of his career, would turn in recent weeks to Richie Ross, one of California's most seasoned political veterans and an advisor to Condit for 20 years.

This was not altogether unfamiliar terrain for Ross, who is part of a team counseling Condit. Fourteen years ago, advising a San Francisco mayoral candidate caught in a personal income tax controversy, Ross recommended going public, answering all questions, telling the truth and writing a letter to voters explaining his mistake.

"I did it," the candidate, Art Agnos, said last week. "It worked."

For Condit, however, going public appears to have backfired.

And as the congressman's nationally televised interview on Thursday was derided by pundits, politicians and others, some questioned whether Ross has lost his touch--or whether his client failed to heed his advice.

Ross, 51, is known in the insular world of California politics as a no-holds-barred campaign strategist whose favorite game is a sport called hardball. Some describe him as a junkyard dog, pugnacious, cutthroat. Others call him pure salvation, a genius with well-honed instincts and a taste for underdogs.

He was once one himself. In the summer of 1974, he and his wife, Juana, and their two children were flat broke in San Francisco and lived in their cramped Chevrolet Vega. He said they spent nights anywhere they wouldn't be chased away, including Golden Gate Park.

It was around that time that he and Agnos met. Ross was an intern in Sacramento who needed a ride from the capital back to his family in the Bay Area. Agnos obliged.

"As we talked, I became sort of captivated by this bright, young, 23-, 24-year-old who was struggling to get a master's degree and support a family and had deep convictions," Agnos said.

Today, compliments tend to be on the record; criticisms--many hot enough to scorch a note pad--are decidedly anonymous. Only the brave, or those out of the business with no plans to return, will censure Ross with their names attached to the comments.

"I have a lot of respect for Richie. . . . [He is] someone I wouldn't choose to be on my team, but I sure wouldn't want to be running against him again," said Mike Hernandez, a former Los Angeles city councilman who came up against Ross in 1986. "Those are not the kinds of campaigns I particularly enjoy taking part in."

In 1986, Hernandez was vying for the 55th Assembly District seat vacated by Richard Alatorre. Richard Polanco was his competition for the Eastside spot. Hernandez had left a job at Pacific Bell to help his mother run her business; she was one of the first bail bondswomen in California.

While in her employ, Hernandez said, he largely dealt with men and women who had been detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But that's not what you would think, he said, if you had paid attention to the Polanco campaign.

"They tried to portray me as the person who was why rapists, heroin dealers and child molesters were on the streets," said Hernandez, who ultimately lost the close race and bowed out of politics this year after being arrested for cocaine possession and serving out his final term on the City Council. "They tried to undo my character because I had real strong roots in the district. . . . That was the race that Richie Ross engineered."

Mixed Reviews of His Work

Ross is "capable of being profoundly shrewd and innovative. When that works, it works," said one Democratic strategist, who worked with Ross on John Van de Kamp's run for California governor in 1990--a race that many say Ross mismanaged. "He's got a ton of candidates who swear by him. I would suspect that he has a ton of former candidates who would like to wring his neck."

Democratic consultant Darry Sragow, who has worked side by side with Ross and occasionally against him, describes the strategist as "somebody you'd much rather have as your friend than your enemy. . . . I don't have any direct evidence, but we all think it is true that if you cross him, he does ultimately get even in some major way."

Ross does not deny many of the negative characterizations. He acknowledges that he has "run some pretty tough campaigns" and that "in the heat of competition, lines get blurred."

"I have done things in campaigns of which I am not proud and would not do again," he said Friday. "Some of those things I would not defend and do not deserve to be defended. However, as Dick Daley said, 'Politics ain't beanbags.' This is a contact sport."

Former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento), a friend of Ross' for more than 20 years, describes the former New Yorker as one of the few consultants who readily admits making a mistake--and then takes steps to ensure it does not happen again."

"That's a remarkable quality," Isenberg said. "Most politicians spend our time after a defeat defending what we did instead of reviewing it and learning from it."

Ross himself gave a glimpse into his pit bull style in 1997 during federal court testimony against Proposition 208, a voter-approved campaign finance reform initiative.

One provision of the measure would reward candidates who voluntarily cut back their own spending by saying so on the official campaign booklets sent to voters. Wealthier candidates who refused to curtail their spending would be identified with the political equivalent of a "scarlet letter."

On the witness stand, Ross was asked what action a candidate might take to overcome such a negative identification. He suggested that a candidate might unleash an avalanche of mail berating the election officials.

Ross has won more often than he has lost, but he too has suffered public setbacks in his long career.

In 1986, for instance, then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's power was severely weakened when more than half a dozen Democrats lost elections that they had been expected to win. Ross, Brown's chief of staff at the time, directed the losing campaigns.

A month later, Brown announced that Ross was taking an indefinite leave of absence. Brown said his then-37-year-old aide "wants to dedicate some time to 'self study' in an effort to master the skills of his craft."

Ross left the state payroll and immersed himself in learning about public opinion polling, emerging technologies and disciplines that could be employed in political campaigns. Recharged, he returned to campaign consulting soon after.

His next major race was Agnos' mayoral campaign, and it proved Ross' resilience.

"I think he is a political genius in developing strategies that are successful in capturing the essence of the candidate and conveying that to voters," Agnos said. "In my case, the genius was his idea of me writing a book that became the theme of my campaign in 1987."

The book, Agnos said, conveyed to voters that he was "more than just the usual pretty pictures with a few headlines." Ross suggested it. Agnos wrote it. Ross edited it. Every voter in San Francisco received it.

After overcoming the brief scandal caused by his failure to pay taxes on $65,000 in income, Agnos ended a come-from-behind campaign with what he described as "the biggest landslide in the history of San Francisco politics."

Since then, Ross worked hard for the successful passage of Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that requires at least 40% of the state's budget to be reserved for schools. He managed Cruz Bustamante's successful race for lieutenant governor in 1998, when the former assemblyman became the first Latino elected to a statewide California office in more than a century.

"The biggest characteristic about Richie and probably why he's doing what he's doing for Condit is that he's always been for the underdog," Agnos said. The United Farm Workers union before it was hip. Native Americans. Latino candidates before they began to take off. Agnos in 1987.

A former seminarian, Ross was recruited by Cesar Chavez to organize for the United Farm Workers. It was while working on behalf of migrant laborers that Ross met his wife, who was a farm worker. They have four children and live in Sacramento.

Ray McNally, who runs Republican campaigns for the Assembly against Ross' candidates, said Ross has rolled up brilliant victories and experienced some dismal failures.

"His campaigns can soar like an eagle or be as flat-footed as a platypus," McNally said. "He has moments of absolute, sheer brilliance, and other times he needs a flashlight to find his way."

In light of the allegations against Condit and the congressman's handling of them last week, political figures across the nation agreed that Ross and the others on Condit's comeback team will need all the talent at their disposal to salvage the troubled lawmaker's career. On Friday, Ross refused to discuss Condit's performance on television or divulge details about the campaign to save Condit.

"I don't want to go there," he said.

But asked whether there is any hope for Condit's career, Ross replied: "I think it will be very difficult for the congressman to get beyond this issue."

He added, "I've never been a Monday morning quarterback. At age 51, I don't want to try out for that job."

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