As a longshot mayoral candidate -- even as a super longshot -- Bob Hertzberg was much like political consultant John Shallman’s other clients: a true believer with near-zero name recognition whom few people expected to win.
The difference was that Hertzberg met those expectations. He lost.
Shallman has built a career on making dark horses win.
A father of four who works near his modest Sherman Oaks home so he can pick up his children from school, Shallman in the last few years has engineered wins for three Los Angeles City Council members, four Los Angeles Unified School District board members, City Controller Laura Chick, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Democratic state Sen. Tom Torlakson of Antioch, among others.
Almost all of them had been back-of-the-pack candidates. Even Hertzberg, though he did lose, nearly knocked incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn out of the upcoming runoff.
The soft-spoken, relentlessly determined consultant was 32 when he helped little-known Democrat Loretta Sanchez unseat Orange County Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan by fewer than 1,000 votes in 1996.
In 2002, Shallman pushed novice politician Wendy Greuel past the more seasoned Tony Cardenas by 225 votes in a bruising Los Angeles City Council race, and he guided Martin Ludlow to a win over the favored Deron Williams in 2003.
He even did all right by a dead man, getting 39% of the vote and a string of political endorsements for the late Sheriff Sherman Block, who died in the middle of a brutal campaign against now-Sheriff Lee Baca.
Shallman is not the stereotypical political operative.
His office is a spare suite above a furniture store on Ventura Boulevard, just a few blocks from his house. His sister Debra is the office manager. His brother Morty does the artwork for Shallman’s political mailers and even wrote a song for one of his successful campaigns: against Hollywood secession in 2002.
He drives his father’s 1966 Ford Mustang, a silver-blue hardtop that Shallman restored last year. When the car was new, the family lived in Rock Island, Ill., and the car still bears the parking pass that his dad, Bill Shallman, used when he was getting his doctorate at the nearby University of Iowa campus.
Sanchez says she paid him $3,000 a month for her 1996 congressional campaign; it’s about a seventh of what most political consultants earn.
Sanchez said she liked the red-haired, baby-faced consultant for two reasons: First, he understood that politics was a numbers game. And, she said, he was creative enough to resort to unusual -- even bizarre -- tactics to get those numbers.
“Our biggest thing was if Bob Dornan caught on that I was a viable candidate, he could come in and squish me because I was just a little bug,” Sanchez recalled.
Suspicious that the Dornan camp was dispatching spies to check out the campaign, they set up a false front that looked too amateurish to put up a real fight. The actual office amounted to Shallman, Morty and another brother, Dan, now a U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, holed up in a tiny Garden Grove office between a Thai restaurant and a strip club.
“John had it all figured out,” Sanchez said. “If we could get through to Labor Day [without Dornan catching on], we had a chance.”
Joe Suarez, a Dallas-based insurance executive who has known Shallman since junior high school, said his friend has been leveraging victories for pet causes since they were youths.
In high school, Suarez said, Shallman organized students, parents, teachers and administrators in a campaign to reconsider a referendum to better fund the Rock Island schools, which adult campaigners had lost.
“John took it upon himself to formulate a committee and a group and go out to the public,” Suarez said. “He organized a small army to get the word out to the voters.”
Strategist Bill Carrick, who orchestrated Hahn’s campaigns for mayor and city attorney, described Shallman as “very focused, very intense and smart.”
Carrick and Shallman worked together on Block’s campaign, but on opposite sides in several recent contests, including this month’s mayoral primary and Cooley’s upset of former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.
“Usually he does metaphors,” Carrick said. “He takes small issues and tries to turn them into metaphors for larger political feelings.”
Shallman produced a mailer for Hertzberg that showed a frowning girl in a pink tutu and the headline “Where were you?” to show how traffic and congestion were affecting family life.
He had Greuel photographed filling a pothole. He is dogged and protective of his clients. “He’s willing to go for the jugular, which I think you need in a campaign consultant,” Greuel said.
She recalls taking many post-midnight phone calls from Shallman to discuss her fast-moving campaign against Cardenas. Eight days before the election, Greuel said, she sat up with Shallman until 2 a.m.
“OK,” he told her, “We have a week left. You have to raise $5,000 a day to pay for a mailer and your get-out-the-vote effort.
“If you don’t do that,” he said, “you won’t win.”
Certainly, there have been losses before Hertzberg. Although he was deputy campaign manager for Richard Riordan’s first run for Los Angeles mayor, Shallman hasn’t had a mayoral success on his own. Fiercely competitive and an avid sports fan, Shallman takes little comfort in getting Hertzberg farther than had been expected. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” he says. “There is no second place.”
The Hertzberg campaign is a good example of the way Shallman works. When the former state Assembly speaker initially decided to run, Antonio Villaraigosa was not expected to run.
So Hertzberg and Shallman figured they could pick off just enough liberal votes from Hahn and win Latino support thanks to Hertzberg’s past involvement in Eastside political campaigns.
Then Villaraigosa got in. They couldn’t run Hertzberg as a liberal. So Shallman positioned Hertzberg, who lives in Sherman Oaks, to appeal to Jews, moderates and Republicans in the San Fernando Valley.
But Hahn and Carrick parried with a campaign reminding Valley voters that Hertzberg was a liberal in GOP garb.
“They had a very dangerous strategy, which was telling people that a lifelong Democrat was essentially a Republican candidate,” Carrick said. “It wasn’t hard to exploit that.”
In the weeks since the mayoral election, Shallman has met with a possible candidate for the Assembly whom he finds interesting. He also has spent several hours with Greuel, whom he regularly advises.
Shallman is at a point in his career in which he has been successful enough at the local level to try to move up -- possibly handling a more high-profile mayoral candidate or someone running for state or national office.
But he is torn about how far to chase that dream.
Signing on to a presidential or gubernatorial campaign, he said, would mean being away from home for a solid year and a half. And with children ranging in age from 3 to 10, that’s too long.
“It’s a tough tension,” Shallman said. “Do I want to go on the road and help a great person become president of the United States, or do I want to see my kids grow up?”
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Background on John Shallman
* The San Fernando Valley-based political consultant conducted his first campaign -- in favor of a ballot initiative to fund schools in Rock Island, Ill. -- when he was a junior at Rock Island High School.
* An avid sports fan who uses football metaphors to describe political contests, Shallman runs five miles every day, works out regularly and watches what he eats. His role model for health and fitness is his father, Bill, a vegetarian who ran marathons into his mid-60s.
* He ran for office in 1994, and lost after serving as his own campaign consultant. He is a bit sheepish about that. “You know the old saying: The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” Shallman said.
* Shallman, who was born in Rock Island in 1964, drives his father’s 1966 Ford Mustang, a silver-blue beauty that he rescued from his parents’ garage.
Los Angeles Times