Candidates and Consultants: Separating Fools from their Money

super-pacNew Orleans    Donald Trump makes one point that is both compelling and increasingly incontestable, arguing essentially that political campaign consultants, media and mail pros, and even pollsters are rip-off artists. Typically Trump, it’s too broad based a generalization, but it is one that has not a kernel, but a ton of truth attached. An article by Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s Magazine pretty much makes the same case by allowing some of the same consultants to indict themselves and their industry out of their own mouths, mostly describing the art and science of politics as the process not so much of winning votes as separating fools from their money.

Take Mark McKinnon, a Texas political purveyor with a long list of campaigns under his belt including running media for George Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. Here’s his formula for how you can get rich in politics, win or lose, as long as your hand is in the till:

“You can do it [set up a super PAC] in five minutes with three people. You set it up and you have a treasurer and a whatever. That’s my two buddies and me. Then we go to a couple of [the candidate’s] wealthy friends and say, ‘Hey do you want to elect your friend? Well, we’ve got a super PAC here. You can give five, ten, fifteen, twenty million dollars, and really have an impact on this race.’ The donor doesn’t know anything about what we do or how we do it. We’re going to go full commission and pay ourselves really well, because nobody’s negotiating with us. For all the donor knows, fifteen percent is the standard deal, because that’s what he’s being told. This is sort of like saying, ‘Okay, you guys. The bank is open, there’s no cameras. There’s no security. Take as much as you need.’”

He’s not alone. In fact he claims he didn’t take the 15% from Bush, so he might just be more candid than most of this class. Cockburn gave another example of Vincent Harris, “digital strategist for the Rand Paul campaign, saying, ‘Sometimes 60 percent, 70 percent, 100 percent of your donation is going into the pocket of some consultant.” Cockburn also details how Dr. Ben Carson got totally skimmed when he raised his first $64 million with $57 million spent mostly on the fundraising apparatus itself. In a footnote, Cockburn details about $10 million scammed from Carson on interlocking outfits, husband-and-wife deals, and the like as they divided the spoils from his campaign.

And, as we have often discussed, Professor Donald Green and his colleagues have established for years that all of this television and direct mail, largely just doesn’t’ work, which means these campaigns are often making consultants rich while losing.

Michael Kieschnick, the former head of CREDO, the social enterprise telephone service formerly known as Working Assets, and a longtime friend and comrade in these wars sums it up for Harper’s when asked if “big money could ever be defeated,” saying,

“Yes, but only because most of the One Percent – not all! – waste most of their money in politics on expensive but bad advertising and even more expensive consultants. Since the American people agree with us on most of the issues, it is an ongoing struggle between voter suppression, misinformation, and voter turnout. If we simply shifted half of the billions spent on television into ongoing year-round, person-to-person engagement with voters, progressive candidates would dominate. But year after year, we raise more money and waste it.”

Kieschnick is singing our song, and in fact Professor Green studied ACORN’s registration and GOTV operation and used the study to make his case, so all I can really add to Michael’s argument is: Amen!

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Working Assets and Credo Defining Social Enterprise

indexSan Francisco   The buzz waxes and wanes on the value of social enterprise in the business world and whether or not it is a movement getting traction or hidden by the shadow of the global group hug being given all things tech today.  I was in San Francisco to praise the Cesar of Social Enterprise at a gallery in the business district, Michael Kieschnick, as he celebrated a triple header:his anniversary, his birthday, and his retirement from Credo Mobility.

Credo, and Working Assets before that, is at the apex of social enterprise in the USA.  Credo is largely known as a mobile phone service.  Working Assets was ostensibly a reseller of long distance service, usually for Sprint for many years.  None of that describes what they really did at all.  Over the years, largely due to Michael’s tutelage
and his team’s efforts they assembled a massive action list that could be – and often was – mobilized on issues from climate change to peace to voting rights and hundreds of issues large and small.  Credo was not just a voice for social change, but under Michael had built a megaphone that roared truth to power.

As importantly, they also put their money where their mouth was. After withstanding, somewhat uncomfortably, the praise of partners and friends last night, in his concluding remarks he cited the figure of $80 million as the sum of what they had given out to support a wide variety of environmental, peace, social justice and other organizations.  They made money to make change, not just hear a dial tone. They were not a foundation or the usual friends funding clique. They were a business that had to perform, and expected the same of the groups they supported.

He mentioned that they were the single largest funder of Planned Parenthood for example.  I know this firsthand from ACORN’s own experience since we enjoyed the Working Assets support on alternate years a number of times.  Getting on the list required a simple proposal but also a vote of the workforce.  Once there, Working Assets customers voted for who should get the money.  Since the money came from a piece of the profits, as the business succeeded, the pot enlarged.  The division of support was an even split of the pot. An organization could lobby and campaign, but it wasn’t a popularity contest. We never felt we got anything other than a fair shake, even when we didn’t make the list.

This may be too much information, so focus on the facts.  This was a huge transfer of resources to social change and campaigning organizations that desperately needed the support, and, warts and all, Michael’s design was a remarkably innovative and committed device to maintain huge commitment from his workforce to the mission and projects of the company.

Kieschnick’s sudden retirement had caught me and many others by surprise.  He vaguely mentioned some health problems over the previous year and the inspiration of his wife and her successful transition, but Michael is too important a force in the infrastructure of the progressive movement and a prod to vision and performance for him to exit the scene. It will be a challenge and a frustration for him to find a voice and platform as large as what he and his associates have built at Credo, but we need him to rise to it, and we need Credo to continue to grow and fill this space as a beacon for others and a partner for many of us.

Repeating a line I had heard him speak at many a Tides Foundation board meeting, “I just have one question…,” I had ended my two minutes on Michael by asking the same question and reminding him of his responsibility in the future.  He had whispered to me after I finished that he would be active and we would be working together on many campaigns in the future.

We are going to have to hold him to his word on that.

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