Political Junkies Are Mayoral Battle’s Generals
Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and his challenger, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, took their places behind their respective lecterns in a Koreatown hotel ballroom, politely answered a few questions, then proceeded to rip into each other.
By the time the moderator had coaxed the contenders back to the issues, the Korean American community leaders were hanging on every word.
But no one was listening more intently than the men charged with honing the candidates’ messages.
Ace Smith, Villaraigosa’s campaign manager, in a crisp white shirt and dress slacks, hid behind a phalanx of TV cameras, hands in pockets, head down. Barely five feet away, Kam Kuwata, a consultant for Hahn, positioned himself, poker-faced, against the back wall, his khakis rumpled and his arms folded across his Pebble Beach U.S. Open navy sweater vest.
Bill Carrick, the man who led Hahn to victory in 2001, hunched forward in his seat like a basketball coach, raking his hand repeatedly through his thicket of hair.
Missing was Parke Skelton, Villaraigosa’s lead strategist. But that was nothing new: The consultant known for his liberal ideology and tangle of curly hair stays behind the scenes. He was holed up in his Pasadena office, coloring with his 2-year-old daughter, Zora, before wading through dozens of phone messages.
In high-stakes races such as this, the candidates have legions of advisors, pollsters, fundraisers and “surrogates.” But these are the experts hired to lead the crusade.
They are quintessential political junkies so well-known that, like “J.Lo” and “Britney,” people refer to them by single monikers: Ace, Parke, Kam and Carrick. So what are they doing that’s so valuable the candidates pay them hefty fees for less than a year’s work? And hire them again, even when they lose?
The consultants map the route to election day. They choose the venues for news conferences, prep the candidate for debate and, perhaps what’s most crucial, help decide the mix and message of direct mailers and TV ads. Pollsters repeatedly take the pulse of voters, but the consultants find those people whose pulses quicken for their candidates.
As much as they say it’s all about the candidate, it’s also about their careers. Smith has managed other campaigns, but never one this high-profile. A win for Villaraigosa could catapult him from the drudgery of opposition research to commanding campaigns.
For Skelton, a Villaraigosa victory would be revenge for the brutally negative campaign Hahn used to clobber his opponent four years ago.
Carrick and Kuwata have basked in plenty of success, including Hahn’s mayoral win four years ago. His reelection would show they could steward a spectacular come-from-behind victory.
And whichever pair loses -- well, they’ll just spin it as beyond their control. And go on to the next campaign.
At 49, Skelton is not as woolly as he was when his shoulder-length hair and a full beard spooked at least one client.
“I looked like Peter Kropotkin,” he said with a laugh, referring to the Russian anarchist of the turn of the 20th century.
He spends his free time listening to Appalachian bluegrass music and rereading Icelandic sagas. Epic struggles are the kinds of plots he relishes. “Relatively uncontested reelection work doesn’t interest me,” Skelton said. “I need the warp and woof of a really interesting campaign I could lose.”
He didn’t always love that. There were periods when he went through the final couple of weeks of a campaign with a stomachache. In 1991, as he stood poised to ascend to the bigger political races, Skelton lost three races by a combined total of fewer than 1,000 votes.
“I was catatonic,” he said. “I didn’t get off my couch for a week.” Fortunately, his girlfriend, Alison Morgan, didn’t think he was a loser. He and Morgan, a ballet dancer and actress turned political fundraiser, eventually married and now have two children.
Over time, he said, he realized he could lose a race and still live -- not to mention get another job. “I love L.A. politics -- more than anything else I do,” Skelton said.
Skelton works with his partners out of a stark Pasadena loft decorated with 1950s Mexican art posters. He stays in touch with Villaraigosa’s team via conference calls. He avoids actual campaign events, but made an exception to take his 5-year-old son to the Van Nuys event where former presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) endorsed Villaraigosa.
“I would love to be an elected officeholder,” Skelton said. He just doesn’t want to be a candidate. “I can’t imagine sitting down for five hours and calling people for money.”
Skelton won’t disclose how much money he will earn in this campaign, but city Ethics Commission records indicate his consulting company -- SG&A; -- has been paid $140,000 through the end of April.
Skelton was a quarter of an academic year away from his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at UCLA when he organized a successful campaign to pass a rent-control initiative in Santa Monica. After he won, he was launched. His trademark has become clever direct mail, and hoisting opponents on their own petards.
When Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat representing the 29th Congressional District, ran in 1996 for state Assembly against Paula Boland, Skelton made a collage of Boland’s attack mail and put it on Schiff’s own mailer. “It asked, what do we know about Paula Boland?” Schiff recalled. “And then it said, ‘Paula Boland obviously doesn’t like Adam Schiff very much.’ ” The mailer proceeded to dissect Boland.
“Voters don’t take this as deadly serious as we do,” Skelton said. “They aren’t disposed to believe attacks on a campaign. They need to know you’re responding to them and that you don’t think it’s true.... But humor helps deflect it.”
Skelton, who guided Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful 2001 campaign for mayor, said he never expected to win four years ago. “We couldn’t get more than 20% of the African American vote,” Skelton said. “And in making the decision to run this time, my mantra was: Can we get 40% of the black vote? If we can’t, we shouldn’t run.”
Skelton knows the knock on him is that, four years ago, Villaraigosa didn’t counter Hahn’s attacks harder and faster.
This time, Skelton wasted no time striking back at a negative Hahn ad in the primary campaign.
“We wanted to send a message in the primary that we were not going to let any hit go unchallenged,” he said.
The negative battle has been dialed up this week as Hahn tries to close an 11-point gap in a Los Angeles Times poll.
“I think we’re prepared for any possibility,” Skelton said. “Within an hour of Hahn going negative, we’re ready to respond.”
Villaraigosa is ready to counterattack largely because he has Ace Smith. A pioneer in the field of opposition research, Smith has burrowed deeply through records for information -- often dirt -- on opponents and his own clients.
Smith’s speed-reading skill -- he can inhale a 400-page book on a cross-country flight -- helps.
“I probably personally know their records better than either of them do,” he said while sitting in a restaurant not far from the office space he rents in Little Tokyo. Over a lunch of udon noodle soup -- which he eats sparingly -- he is courtly, his words measured, his steely blue eyes intense.
On the telephone or in e-mails, it’s a different story. He’ll deluge editors and reporters with the tidbits that skewer and deflate his opponent’s statement du jour.
“Ace is very good at the rapid response,” said former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who has been helping Villaraigosa on the campaign trail, and even played the role of Hahn in Villaraigosa’s debate prep.
“When Hahn first started saying, ‘Antonio, we want to see your e-mail,’ Ace was right there saying, ‘See our e-mails? We haven’t seen your appointment book that you’re required to release.’ It allowed the candidate to be above the fray.”
When Villaraigosa attacks, some see the hand of Smith at work. The campaign manager said his client is markedly more aggressive than he was four years ago. “One of the fundamental rules of politics is if someone is attacking you, you have to respond,” Smith said. “If you sit there and take it, you’ll lose.”
Win or lose, his company -- SCN Public Relations -- has made $67,500 for consulting and polling, according to Ethics Commission records. Smith said his take is about $8,000 a month.
Two days after the May 17 election, he’ll head for a craps table in Las Vegas. “I love to gamble. I win more than I lose,” he said. His luck elsewhere has been mixed.
Smith, 46, got his first taste of politics as a 13-year-old volunteer for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, a landslide loss.
Raised in San Francisco, he managed the campaign of his father, Arlo Smith, a former district attorney, when he ran for state attorney general in 1990. He lost to Republican Dan Lungren. “Closest race in California history,” Smith said quietly. “A heartbreaker.”
Four years ago, he ran businessman Steve Soboroff’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor, then joined Villaraigosa’s losing effort during the runoff. Like any gambler, he feels his luck is about to change.
Smith still resents the TV commercial Carrick created four years ago, which strung together a Villaraigosa letter to the White House on behalf of convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali, a photo of a crack pipe, and a grainy image of Villaraigosa. The candidate has said he made a mistake writing the letter nine years ago, but he and others denounced the ad for its sinister overtones.
“He stepped over a line,” Smith said.
“He was never in a frame with the crack pipe,” Carrick said. “This [issue] about the grainy photo -- what am I going to do? ‘Hey, Antonio, I’m going to do an ad about the Vignali letter. Could you come over and let’s roll some footage so we can make sure you look attractive?’ ”
Carrick, 54, is known for his Southern courtliness and wry humor. But these days the South Carolina-born Carrick is a bit grumpy. His candidate is trailing the challenger, he’s having a hard time selling the mayor as a nuts-and-bolts guy and, for what seems like the hundredth time, he’s defending that Vignali ad.
Carrick came up in national politics, working in the 1980s on the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). But he didn’t think Capitol Hill was the right place for him. “I never thought I was where I could make a difference,” Carrick said.
And he figured a guy who wrote funny lines for Ted Kennedy’s appearances at Gridiron Club dinners in Washington could never get elected in South Carolina without sacrificing his liberal politics. So the self-described “failed jock” who enjoyed the competition of basketball and football found a less frivolous -- his word -- arena for competition in campaigns.
“I know people think this is lucrative work,” he said. “I’m in this to make a difference.”
That said, he’s not poor. He shares a home in the Hollywood Hills with his wife and two elderly schnauzers. His firm has been paid more than $2 million for television airtime and production costs. Carrick and his partners take a small commission on TV and radio airtime and ads, he said. Ten percent is standard for the industry in California, analysts say.
Though Carrick has worked on national campaigns, such as Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s failed presidential runs in 1988 and 2004, in California he is known for his long association with Sen. Dianne Feinstein. He worked on her 1990 gubernatorial campaign, which she lost to Republican Pete Wilson, but helped get her elected to the Senate three times, including 1994, the year of a Republican landslide.
Carrick said he has admired James Hahn since he became the first elected official in Southern California to publicly endorse Feinstein in her 1990 gubernatorial primary, when most Democrats were backing John Van de Kamp.
“That was a sign to me that he wasn’t a typical politician,” Carrick said. “He was willing to do something a little out of the box.” Carrick has been helping Hahn ever since.
Helping Hahn means mostly staying out of his way, Carrick said. “We don’t sit around and try to figure out how to manage Jim Hahn. This is not the selling of the president. He is what he is. And you just try to make the best case for him you can.”
He won’t handicap his candidate’s chances, but he offers a philosophical epilogue: “If he loses, you’ll see the contours of how he could have won. And one of the ways he could have won was to reappoint [former Police Chief Bernard C.] Parks. Antonio wouldn’t have been here today.”
The Stage Manager
Whereas Carrick rants, Kam Kuwata is low-key. But they are completely in sync on the message about Hahn. Sit them down at the end of the day at the Marie Callender’s restaurant they have come to love, and they can finish each other’s sentences.
“I’m pretty controlled. I may not be calm, but I’m controlled,” said Kuwata, 51, who grew up in Sierra Madre.
“I was told at a relatively young age that there are jockeys and horses,” he added. “I didn’t want to be the horse.”
At a Hahn event, Kuwata is the kibbitzer. Outside a public school in Hollywood one recent morning, Kuwata chatted up reporters and the volunteer whose job it was to arrange the podium and the props at the event.
But when the mayor’s hybrid sport utility vehicle pulled up, it was all business. Kuwata conferred behind car doors with his candidate. And afterward, like Ace Smith on behalf of Villaraigosa, he was ready to offer his spin.
Kuwata entered politics as an errand runner for the late Alan Cranston, the venerable Democratic senator from California, and moved up the food chain of Cranston’s Senate operation. Unlike other consultants who say they wouldn’t dream of telling a candidate how to act or dress, Kuwata once stopped Cranston, on a shopping trip to a Beverly Hills store, from buying a pair of red-and-white checked pants that looked like an Italian restaurant tablecloth.
Kuwata joined Carrick on Feinstein’s Senate campaigns, but he didn’t automatically follow Carrick to work on Hahn’s first mayoral campaign in 2001.
He interviewed four of the 2001 candidates -- Villaraigosa, Hahn, Xavier Becerra and Kathleen Connell -- before deciding on Hahn: “This is going to sound canned, but I thought he had the best sense of why he wanted to be mayor.”
Ethics Commission reports indicate that Kuwata has been paid $45,000 so far.
Kuwata, who lives alone in Venice and worries that he needs to clean the grout in his shower, falls asleep to Jon Stewart on TV and wakes up to Don Imus on the radio in the morning. “Alan,” he said of his mentor, Cranston, “taught me you don’t need that much sleep.”
He loves the fact that a political campaign faces a time limit and rushes toward its deadline. “I have a very short attention span,” he said with a laugh.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
This story makes reference to Bill Carrick’s “wife.” In fact, he and his female companion are not married.
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