News & Views from 465 California Street

Political Campaigns

Clint Reilly

Anything can happen in a political campaign.

Once I was managing a campaign for the Assembly. The opposition campaign manager was arrested. I thought it was for a minor offense but it turned out that he was accused of murder. Allegedly, he had put out a contract on a business partner seven years earlier. Naturally, the press wanted to know what his boss, the incumbent Assemblyman, thought about his campaign manager’s arrest for murder. A memorable answer ended his political career and elected my client. “What my campaign manager does on his own time is his own business”, he intoned. As soon as that quote was splashed onto the front page of the local newspaper, the election was over.

In a memorable debacle, I managed the reelection campaign of San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan against Willie Brown. After six months of trailing Brown, Jordan had edged ahead in the final weeks of his election effort. A series of tough newspaper stories on Willie Brown’s alliances with special interests had cut into Brown’s lead in the polls. Brown was losing momentum daily. The election was less than two weeks away when Mayor Jordan failed to show at an 8:00 AM meeting in the Mayor’s office to prepare for an editorial board meeting at the San Francisco Examiner. His Chief of Staff alerted me that Mayor Jordan had personally scheduled an impromptu live appearance on radio. I did not know that Frank Jordan had invited Mark and Brian – prominent Los Angeles disc jockeys – into his own home on their live radio show where all three disrobed on the air in front of a photographer. By that afternoon pictures of the Mayor naked with Mark and Brian were on the front page of the afternoon Examiner and by the next morning, every other newspaper on the West Coast. A good mayor’s legacy went down the drain.

In 1993, I was the campaign consultant for Dick Riordan – a Republican businessman – running for mayor of Los Angeles who was supported by many key democratic leaders in a nonpartisan race. Riordan was not much liked by the Los Angeles Times, which endorsed his opponent, City Councilman Mike Woo. According to the Times, the businessman Riordan was unsuited to be the Mayor of one of America’s most liberal and multicultural cities. In spite of the Times’ endorsement for Woo, Riordan enjoyed a comfortable lead in the last week of the campaign. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that three reporters from the Times had phoned to schedule a last minute meeting with Riordan. We learned they intended to raise accusations about drinking and relations with former employees. Why was the Times only asking these embarrassing questions five or six days before the election?

Instead of the meeting the Times reporters expected, Riordan said nothing as the questions were asked one by one. After the reporters had finished, Riordan left the room without responding. An interval of no more than a few minutes ensued. Riordan returned and simply said “no” four times to each question and left. The Times reporters were incensed. They expected the lengthy grilling that accompanies much dialogue between politicians and the Press. I personally felt that the timing of these last minute queries smacked of partisan meddling in the outcome of an election. The Los Angeles Times had an entire campaign to pursue these and any other issues, but in the last week of an election how could Riordan adequately rebut last minute attacks? The Times backed down and no negative stories appeared over the final weekend. Dick Riordan became one the greatest LA mayors.

In our system of government, one reporter’s phone call can change the course of a campaign or a career.

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