Starting Over: Old Democrats Hanging It Up

Two veteran Democratic political consultants who tried and failed to unseat President Bush are getting out of the business of making Presidential candidates.

Joe Trippi and Bob Shrum told The Observer last week that they are quitting Presidential politics. More than a year ago, Mr. Trippi harnessed the power of the Internet for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean during the early primary season. A few months later, Mr. Dean flamed out, and a familiar face emerged beside Senator John Kerry: Mr. Shrum, who had shaped the words and campaigns of six prior Democratic Presidential hopefuls.

Mr. Shrum, 61, is retiring from the political-consulting business altogether. He will move from the Washington area to an apartment in Chelsea and will teach at New York University. Mr. Trippi, 48, is staying in the consulting business-but just barely, this year at least. His main client, he said, will be an underdog candidate for Manhattan borough president, Brian Ellner.

“I have hung up the cleats on doing the Presidential [races],” Mr. Trippi said.

The two men’s moves are just the latest evidence of turmoil among Washington’s Democratic consultants, even as New York looks to the capital’s highly professionalized political culture as a model for local campaigns. Slowly disappearing is the colorful old model of mysterious gurus (David Garth) and tough-talking street guys (Hank Sheinkopf). Taking their place are younger, cleaner-cut professionals with similar political views but vastly different strategies and tactics.

The professionalization of New York’s consulting business, inspired by the star treatment accorded James Carville in the 1990′s, follows a familiar pattern. Something similar happened to journalism after Watergate glamorized reporters in the 1970′s: A trade became a profession, and Ivy League degrees became common in a field where college had been optional.

Washington’s political technology has always been a bit ahead of New York’s, of course, so Mr. Shrum won’t be entirely unfamiliar with the model that city politicians are now discovering. He’s a Harvard graduate, and the model toward which New York is moving is, in some ways, a Washington model.

Ironically, however, many Democrats in Washington are blaming their professional elite for Mr. Kerry’s loss. “Fire the Consultants” was the headline above a much-remarked recent Washington Monthly story, which called Mr. Shrum “the poster boy of Democratic social promotion.”

Of course, candidates and their advisors often blame each other when they lose, and each takes full credit for a victory. Mr. Shrum, for his part, avoids apportioning blame.

“My view is that the Democrats almost won the election, and we probably underestimated the difficulty of winning in times of war,” he said. “Fifty-five thousand votes in Ohio and you have a Democratic President.”

Of his decision to quit his media-consulting firm to teach, he said: “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and, though people won’t believe this, it was something I probably was going to do if John Kerry was elected President. I didn’t want to go to the White House, and I didn’t want to be an influence peddler.”

Mr. Trippi said his move to work for Mr. Ellner-which raised eyebrows across the political establishment-was nothing out of the ordinary.

“I really think we need a fresh face who thinks differently about how to do this,” Mr. Trippi said. “I think he’s going to win this thing.”

With the impending arrivals of Mr. Shrum and Mr. Trippi, New York suddenly appears to be the place where heavyweight national consultants go to retire or to recharge. This year’s Mayoral race, one of the highest-profile contests in the country this year, is also a draw, sweetened by a generous public campaign-financing system. Washington operatives Mandy Grunwald and Jim Margolis have already signed on with Democrats Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner, respectively, while the major Democratic ad firm Squier, Knapp and Dunn will again produce ads for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“If you want to do politics in 2005, there are relatively few places,” Mr. Trippi said. “New York and Los Angeles are the two I can think of.”

The Washingtonization of New York’s politics goes beyond importing media stars like Mr. Trippi or hiring pros like Ms. Grunwald or Mr. Margolis. Two major Democratic consulting firms-Squier, Knapp and Dunn and the Glover Park Group-have already established New York offices. And a new generation of homegrown consultants has gone corporate: The Global Strategy Group, for example, is handling Fernando Ferrer’s campaign, while Gifford Miller has long been advised by the Parkside Group. (The word “group,” you may have noticed, is in vogue; another successful New York firm is the Advance Group.)

In the past, New York’s most successful campaigns have been run by eccentric middle-aged men in a room. The reigning guru is Mr. Garth, the septuagenarian ad man who has advised every two-term New York Mayor since John Lindsay, and who is expected to work for Mr. Bloomberg again. (Mr. Garth, who operates out of his apartment above the Café des Artistes, didn’t return a call for comment on whether this Mayoral race would be his last.)

Other dominant local players have faded from the public eye. Hank Morris has steady relationships with two powerful politicians-Senator Charles Schumer and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi-but he’s invisible on the city scene and doesn’t seem to have a stable of younger candidates. Dick Morris, the former Clinton advisor, is now a full-time anti-Clinton pundit.

One who is fighting to keep his place at the table is Hank Sheinkopf, an Orthodox Jewish ex-cop who has had his own consulting firm since he put down a deposit on a telephone in 1981. “When I was in the South Bronx starting out,” he said in his midtown office, “people were getting thrown off roofs.” By the 1990′s, he was working for Mr. Clinton’s re-election campaign and for clients around the world. He had a banner local year in 2001, when the Democratic nominees for each of the three citywide offices were his clients.

But the consulting business is an intensely competitive one, and Mr. Sheinkopf, 55, has never stopped looking over his shoulder. A rival consultant, George Arzt, recalled that after one dispute, “he calls me up and threatens to break both my legs.” (Mr. Sheinkopf’s version is slightly different: He said the conversation took place in person and that he actually threatened to break Mr. Arzt’s head, not his legs.) This year, Mr. Sheinkopf was left without a Mayoral candidate when City Comptroller William Thompson chose not to run.

While the older generation of New York political consultants came up through local political campaigns and typically ran colorful one-man shows in which they made it up as they went along-”working off a card table,” as Mr. Sheinkopf put it-many of the new consultants came of age as Mr. Carville became a multimedia star in the 1990′s. The older generation was composed of strategists, ad men and fixers as well, often filling the gap vacated by declining party machines and Democratic clubs. Members of the new generation are professionals.

“It’s the War Room generation of consultants,” said Micah Lasher, the younger partner in the firm taken over by Squier, Knapp and Dunn, referring to a documentary by that name which focused on Mr. Clinton’s first campaign. “In my first campaign-in which Hank Morris was the consultant-I thought to myself, ‘He’s the James Carville here, and that’s where it’s at.’”

The apogee of this trend maybe the Global Strategy Group, which Jonathan Silvan and Jefrey Pollock founded a decade ago as a polling company. The two had worked for Mr. Sheinkopf, but Mr. Silvan’s vision ran to the corporate side.

Now their company has more than 30 employees in a slick, loft-like office on Broadway in the 20′s. They’re a full-service firm, offering polling, strategy and media consulting to corporations as well as candidates, Mr. Silvan said.

“We run the firm very much like a traditional business,” he said. “We’re building an asset, and winning campaigns.”

Style Matters

The difference between Mr. Silvan and his predecessors is more than a business model. It’s also a matter of class and style.

“You have the ones who go to the school of political management at N.Y.U. or Columbia, where you go in and get the theory and get the classes on polling and the classes on message,” said Roberto Ramirez, the former Assemblyman and Bronx Democratic Party leader who (in partnership with Mr. Silvan’s Global) is working on Mr. Ferrer’s campaign. “I never used a poll before 2001. Everything I did, I did intuitively.”

Mr. Sheinkopf, who has clashed repeatedly with Mr. Ramirez on campaigns, said something similar.

“I don’t get a sense of the understanding of the raw emotionalism of this town,” he said. “This is about emotion.”

It is also about winning and losing, and Mr. Shrum will bring to New York the freshness of a Presidential defeat that many New York Democrats won’t easily forget. It was Mr. Shrum who, according to Newsweek, delivered a Dewey-beats-Truman line to Senator Kerry around 7 p.m. on Election Night, when early exit polls suggested that a Bush defeat was possible.

“May I be the first to say ‘Mr. President’?” Mr. Shrum was quoted as saying.

Speaking to The Observer, Mr. Shrum wouldn’t discuss his conversations with Mr. Kerry.

“My own memory of that was, there was a point that evening when we all thought we’d won,” he said. “The point was not what I said or didn’t say. It’s that we didn’t win.”