Consultants for Chaos

Christopher Caen | October 20, 2014 | Story Politics

As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.

Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud

As the bluest of blue states in the Union, California boasts the country’s most effective Democratic machine. There’s a Democratic majority in the capital, along with a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and state controller; three of the state’s four largest cities are governed by Democratic mayors; and both U.S. senators and 38 of its 53 congressmembers are proud, braying donkeys.

In years past, the campaign operatives of the California Democratic apparatus focused their attentions on a small but growing sliver of the voting public—independent voters—boiling the art of Democrat-versus-Republican races down to a science. Step one: Get the party to support your candidate, so that he or she wins the primary. Step two: Win—because, well, you are Democrats.

Then one morning, the conquistadores woke up in the middle of the jungle. In 2012, Californians approved Proposition 14, which mandates top-two, or “jungle,” elections, in which the top two primary finishers, regardless of party, face off in November. Now, up and down the state, Democrats are fighting one another with a zeal we’ve never seen before in a general election: In Santa Clara County, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren is facing off against Robert Murray; here in San Francisco, “the Davids”—Chiu and Campos—are engaged in a brutal mud-wrestling match for Tom Ammiano’s seat in the Assembly. In the South Bay, more Dem-on-Dem blood is being shed in Ro Khanna’s fight for Mike Honda’s congressional seat. And in every race, strategists are digging into dark corners to round up votes. “With two Democrats running against each other,” explains Rose Kapolczynski, consultant for secretary of state candidate Alex Padilla, “the Republicans and the independents are up for grabs. Republicans become swing voters in a race like that.”

Consultants are finding themselves trying to appeal to these newly relevant voters without simultaneously alienating the more familiar Democratic voting blocs. It’s a tough line to walk: “In L.A., you hardly had to give a hoot what the Republicans thought,” says Eric Hacopian, a Democratic political consultant from Southern California. “Now, you really do.”

But not necessarily enough to seek out a GOP endorsement: When I ask one consultant if he would accept Republican support, I’m met with an uncomfortably long pause. “Ah, I wouldn’t,” he says. “I think that would be so damaging to your Democratic base.” As Hacopian says succinctly, “You might talk about small business, which appeals to Democrats but also Republicans, so you find things that are central to your message...but you don’t go out and say, ‘Hey, I love guns after all!’”

If Democratic consultants are, in effect, driving a car without lights along a cliff at midnight, unions are doing the same—with a cliff on both sides. In elections past, life was pretty easy for labor. They poured money into the campaign of the Democrat they favored in the primary and then sat back and watched him or her beat the tar out of the Republican candidate in the fall. Now they find themselves in an entirely different place, making a new set of calculations as they deploy their money across the state. A local pollster puts it best: “Labor is more split right now in California, which is why the far left is losing their shit.”

“Now there are many more races in play in November, like Honda and Khanna,” says Kapolczynski. The added competition makes for more interesting elections, and perhaps more substantive policy debates. But Democratic leaders fear that it could be detrimental to the party’s long-term goals. “Some people say this is terrible because the money we are using in the Democrat-on-Democrat race could be used out in the Central Valley to pick up a new Democrat,” says Kapolczynski. Kevin Acebo, the ex–deputy mayor of Los Angeles, echoes the sentiment. “I think [primary winners] don’t really have the deep pockets to compete, and they still have to worry about the fall.”

Even worse for party harmony, a jungle primary pits the good old boy networks of Democrats and union bosses against each other. “Many times in the primary,” says Kapolczynski, “it’s not policy differences—it’s personal relationships: ‘We’ve gotten to know this guy, and we know he’s always there for us.’” When I ask one political consultant how deep these personal ties run and whether they actually drive union endorsements, he laughs and says, “The endorsements are really decided on who went to high school with whom and who is fucking whose sister.”

Given the union complication, the need to sway Republican votes, and the general unfamiliarity with jungle races, the unexpected beneficiaries of all the madness may turn out to be our own homegrown crew of political ninjas. “For the consultants, more people are going to look to the San Francisco model, where it’s been Dem on Dem forever,” says local operative David Latterman. “The rest of the state is going to have to learn from us.” Some consultants, Latterman says, are discomfited by the need to shoot friendly fire at their party brethren. “Some of these guys are in their hearts lefty, and now they have to go hit their own kind.”

That’s not so much of an issue for San Francisco apparatchiks, their nerves steeled by many an intra-party battle. “I have no problem at all attacking the far left,” says Latterman. “I’ve been doing that most of my career in San Francisco.”

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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