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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ CATHLEEN DECKER

Surreal Battlefield for Campaign Warriors

June 23, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER

It is a campaign rite as predictable as the coming of swallows to Capistrano.

Each season, the planes take off from Washington and land in California, dispensing their cargo of intense, Brooks Bros.-clad political consultants. A few weeks later, they are hanging out in T-shirts and khakis, their sockless feet in loafers, hoping to take the rented convertible out for a spin after their 18-hour-day ends.

Maybe that's an exaggeration. But only a slight one.

Each political cycle, California plays host to a new slew of campaign warriors, intent on cracking into the big time by biting off a victory here. They come for many reasons: money, prestige, attention, the weather, even honest-to-goodness adoration for a candidate. Win or lose, they leave a lot wiser in the ways of this politically weird state, their energy and ambition tempered by the sheer bigness and apathy of the place.

The latest political swallows landed chiefly in the campaign of failed gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi. With money to burn, he imported talent from Washington and its satellite environs, where politics matters. They came, they saw, they lost their shirts.

The home-grown consultants have seen it all before. Heck, many of them have lived it, considered Californians now not because they grew up here--most didn't--but because they have survived enough earthquakes, El Ninos, riots and traffic jams to achieve honorary native status.

So what's the allure?

"I think it's the glamour of it," said Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles resident for almost 10 years and the manager of Democrat Jane Harman's losing bid for governor.

He is being both accurate and gently ironic in the same breath, for as a campaign veteran, he knows that politics is not all glamour. He came out here, in fact, to get away from the game, after managing the losing 1988 presidential bid of Rep. Dick Gephardt.

"My motive was to get entirely out of politics," he said. "I failed miserably."

*

Glamour is hard to measure. But the other reasons political consultants debark here are easier to grasp.

Money, for one. Campaigns in California cost a bundle, and the highest-ranking staff members can also make one. Media consultants--the ones who produce television ads--generally make a percentage of what a campaign spends on commercials.

"If you do a race in California and you produce six to 10 ads, you make a million dollars," said Roy Behr, a California native and Democratic consultant. "You do the same race in North Dakota and you make $150,000. Same amount of work, same amount of ads."

Then there is the attention, the coin of the realm for D.C. denizens. California campaigns draw reporters in ways dramatically unlike, for example, the most exciting race in Wyoming.

"It is the place to do a campaign and get national media coverage," Carrick said. "The national media is addicted to the notion that California is the origin of political trends, whether we are or not."

And experience here--if it's not a cataclysmic failure--is a nice line on the resume when one is vying for a job on a presidential campaign, the highest life form in the political universe.

"Running statewide in California is as close as you're going to get to a presidential campaign," said Darry Sragow, the California-based manager of Checchi's campaign.

But come here for any reason and you'll find the state a bit hard to figure out.

A check of the most recent campaign wreckage finds ample examples, especially in Checchi's Washington-heavy campaign. He spent expensive television time blasting Harman for a congressional vote--the kind of issue Washingtonians babble over. "Who in California cares about her budget vote?" mocked one analyst.

His campaign, too, had a distinctly uptight, Eastern feel. In San Francisco one May day, his ubiquitous staffers herded reporters around like sheep--much in the way presidential campaigns do--and barked advisories via cell phone to colleagues stationed a few feet away.

At Los Angeles' Watts Towers, in the campaign's waning days, they dragged Checchi away temporarily from the television news crews he had finally managed to attract--expecting that, as on the East Coast, the crews would cool their heels until he returned. Surprise! It's California. The news crews packed up and went home.

*

Two major Washington imports to Checchi's effort, campaign director Michael Powell and media aide Brian O'Connor, leave their first campaign here convinced that the state is varied, fascinating and a heckuva lot of trouble, politics-wise.

"I didn't really have a true idea of how apathetic it is until I got out here," Powell said. "People have really become detached from politics, and I found it rather frustrating."

"This," O'Connor said, "was a pleasant surreality."

The campaign over, O'Connor has returned east. Powell, however, is sticking around a while. He picked up the phone in his beachfront Venice apartment and laughed when asked why.

"I'm just sitting out here looking at the ocean right now," he said. "Let's see. . . ."

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