We knew that in a California district near the coast it would be a close race but we hoped that the recent influx of techies and geeks to the new internet firms that had recently set up there might tip the balance in our favor. It didn’t. Whoever said that once students graduate from college and start to earn a real income they become more conservative, had not lived in California. You can take a kid out of UCLA but you can’t take UCLA out of the kid. Not for a decade or more, or at least until they become homeowners and parents.
The campaign had been reasonably well-planned and carefully budgeted. But in June our treasurer suddenly took ill and had to drop out. As a stopgap measure, all the chairs of the major committees were given sign-off authority on expenditures as long as they stayed within their budgets. Not a good idea. Then the communications committee chair was sent out of town to Boston to fill some urgent need with his firm. The communications consultant agreed to serve as interim chair and the spending authority for that department transferred over to him. We had hoped to replace both the treasurer and communications chair quickly but new candidates were not forthcoming. The campaign was already in full swing and the candidate and the rest of the leadership team were so busy with their own responsibilities that they had no time for recruiting. The interim arrangements we had put in place seemed to be working, so we all just sort of let things ride.
The communications consultant turned out to be a loose cannon. He immediately contracted with the best advertising agency in town to come up with a series of very impressive TV, radio and print ads. At a leadership meeting we questioned using such a high-price firm and he assured us that it was okay since they had agreed to work pro-bono. We congratulated him and thought him a genius and told him to charge ahead. What he did not disclose was that it was only the actual creative time of the firm that was pro-bono. The camera crew, the transport, the insurance, the edit room, the duplicating, the admin overheads and several other subs still had to be paid.
The website design and management turned into a nightmare. The consultant contracted a firm that specialized in fabulous websites for major corporations. It was “interactive.” When a donor came to the website they were presented with a picture of the White House and Capitol building in collapsed ruins, brought down by runaway government spending that had left the country bankrupt. It had a full flash opening with dissolves and music and voiceover. Viewers could then pick and choose among different cuts in spending and other conservative budget options that would help to restore the country. With every billion dollars in spending cuts a section of the collapsed building was visually restored. After several trillion dollars over the next ten years everything was returned to its former glory. It was an incredible tour de force. Conservative economists had been consulted and confirmed that the figures were accurate. It was an exceptional teaching tool that made a very complicated federal budget very visual and understandable. But it cost a fortune! The original estimate was going to be $25,000. Again, the consultant presented the estimate and we agreed that if they could put a site like that together quickly then it was a really good deal. Again, what was not revealed was that the initial fee was the cost to be paid directly to the design management company. They then subcontracted out much of the work to free-lance web designers. All those economists that supplied and confirmed the figures – they charged hundreds of dollars an hour for their time. The team that was assembled to put the site together all worked 100 hours a week to get it up, debugged and working. The hosting fee was a staggering $10,000 a month. By the time it was in full operation in late August it was the best campaign website in the country. We were all so proud of it.
Then the bills started coming in. By the end of September we realized that the communications cost were a heart-stopping $500,000+ over budget. We faced a disaster. We held an emergency campaign executive meeting and demanded an explanation from the consultant. He sat there and in righteous indignation explained that he had been hired to run an effective campaign and that this was what you had to do to run one. Not only that but his reputation was on the line as a professional creative person and he wasn’t about to be associated with anything half-assed and cheap.
We fired him on the spot. We then had no choice but to cancel many of the best spots for TV ads, most of our radio ads and print ads and stop any further work on the website. The consultant then send us a letter of complaint pointing out that a major portion of his income was tied to placement of the TV ads and that we had unfairly diminished his income, and so he sent a bill for “only a portion” of what he would not now receive as an ad placement broker. For all we could tell, he was sincere in his claim, deluded perhaps but sincere.
After the cuts to our plans and some desperate attempts to raise more funds than we had planned to, we ended up with over $400,000 in unpaid invoices. Our candidate was on the hook for all of it. He was a very committed wonderful young man in his mid-thirties, a high school teacher and a dad with a wife and two children. He had scores of friends and his students adored him but he had no money and had already refinanced his small home to launch his campaign. This would bankrupt him and ruin his chances for a future career in politics.
I met with an official of the GOP and laid out our problems. I had expected a tongue-lashing but instead he just sighed and said, “Get Shorty.” Yeah. Right . . . and so what do Elmore Leonard and Danny DeVito have to do with this? The official stated in a matter-of-fact way that we weren’t the first and we weren’t the worst. “Shorty” was the go-to guy, the “fixer,” who the party turned to when campaigns faced financial disaster. He had been a bankruptcy lawyer but found political chaos much more interesting and far more lucrative. He was already working on three other campaigns in the south-west. His real name was Bruce Goldberg but he was only 5’ 3” and everybody just called him “Shorty” – but not to his face. I protested that the last thing we wanted was another high paid consultant. We had already been burned. The officer simply assured me that Shorty would not cost us “one net cent.” He would only take payment based on his performance and that he never charged anything until the debts had been paid off and he then took a portion of the excess. So what did we have to lose? The guy was either incredibly good or had “balls bigger than brains.” We called him. His voicemail just stated, “I’m busy. Send me an email.” We emailed. He replied with a time and date for a meeting with our campaign leadership team and a shopping list of the documents we needed to send him ahead of time.
There had been twenty people on our leadership team. Ten showed up for the meeting. It was illuminating how many claimed a conflict in their schedule but who had been able to accommodate any campaign event just a few weeks earlier. But the ten of us who did show obviously felt a very strong sense of responsibility for the failure of the campaign and for the burden that had landed on our candidate.
Our campaign chair, a revered and distinguished pastor of the local mega church, opened the meeting by circulating an agenda and noting that we would begin with an explanation of what went wrong with our campaign and finances and each member present would be asked to share their insights. Shorty interrupted, “What!? Like, do you think I’m stupid? I know how you got into this mess. It’s all here,” he said pointing to the stack of documents we had sent him. “is anybody else here so stupid you don’t know how this total schmozzle happened.” No one answered. “That’s what I thought. Ok, foist things foist.” He sounded like a stereotypical Jewish lawyer from the Bronx – probably because he was a Jewish lawyer from the Bronx.
He explained how he worked. He would reduce our indebtedness to zero or he didn’t get paid. Once the debts were covered he got paid up to $150,000. Anything we ended up with over that amount was ours to keep. What if, one of us asked, the amount over and above the debt was less than $150,000. Shorty said he would then reduce his fee write off any shortfall. But that it wouldn’t happen. The money would be there. It always had been.
Next he handed out a piece of paper to each one of us and told us to put down our personal monthly incomes from all sources before taxes. He collected them and pulled out a calculator. After a couple of minutes he announced, “Okay. Every one of you guys is going to have to live on 95 percent of your income for the next year. Five percent goes to the campaign. Anybody here got a problem with that? ‘Cuz if you do then I assume it’s because you don’t care if you bankrupt your candidate ‘cuz I see here that most of you ain’t starvin’.” No comments. He told us we were off to a good start. He would personally call all those members who weren’t at the meeting and get them to do the same. We had just reduced our debt by over $100,000 by “putting our money where our mouth is.”
He then noted that $45,000 of the debt was in unpaid salaries to our eight administrative staff. He demanded to know which of the staff were either wealthy or had rich husbands and could afford to wait another month or two to get paid. There were three like that. He did more calculations and then noted that we had $35,000 owing to people who had trusted us and who would suffer if they were not paid. We agreed, somewhat shamefully. Shorty then pulled a checkbook out of his briefcase. He handed us a check for $35,000 payable to the campaign. It was a loan and it was to be used to make payments the next day to staff members. It was unacceptable and dishonorable to ever cause a working person to suffer because of some so-called professional’s incompetence. We nodded. What could we say?
One more thing. He asked us, “Getting money costs money. How much are you willing to spend before you can’t live with it. If it costs you ten cents to raise a dollar, nobody has a problem with that, right? But if it costs ninety-five cents to raise a dollar then everybody has a problem with that, right?” Right. “Okay, so draw me your line in the sand. What’s the highest overhead cost you’re willing to accept for getting your campaign paid off?” Silence. Our attorney then spoke up and stated that he thought that we could probably live with fifty cents on the dollar, but anything above that could draw unfavorable publicity from the media. “That’s what everybody says. Fifty percent, ‘cuz of the media. But let me tell you something. The media don’t give a s*** about you guys. You’re losers. You’re boring. All they care about now is trying to embarrass the guy who won. But fifty cents we can do and it will take you twelve months. If you’re willing to go sixty cents the debt will be gone in six months. Seventy cents it will be gone in one month.” We settled on sixty-five.
“Deal then. I’ll see you guys back here in two months.” “Excuse me, Bruce,” our attorney interjected, “but shouldn’t we have some sort of contract with you before going ahead?” Shorty shrugged. “Sure. Anybody here didn’t understand this deal?” He got up walked over to the attorney and stuck out his hand. “Deal?” The attorney tentatively shook his hand and ever more tentatively replied, “Deal.” “That’s good. There ain’t no loopholes in a handshake.” With that he walked out.
Two months later we were back together. The debt was completely gone. Shorty’s loan to the campaign had been repaid. All of our salaried staff had been paid in full. He walked away with his check for $150,000 and we had just under $50,000 in our bank account.
Here’s what he did:
1. Five percent of the monthly income from twenty people adds up to 100 percent of our average salaries. That brought in $80,000. Shorty gave us the option of paying it monthly or in one lump sum. About half did the lump sum. Some did quarterly payments. Only a couple paid every month.
2. He negotiated with our major creditors. He gave them a choice. Did they want to take a high school teacher to court, force him into backruptcy and end up with no money anyway or did they want to accept sixty cents on the dollar. All except one agreed to his terms. The one who refused could have afforded the shortfall but was just stubborn. To this day his bill has not been paid. It was “a matter of principle,” Shorty explained. It was not right to accept a writedown from all the other creditors and then pay one of them 100 percent. That would be highly unfair to the rest.
3. One of our biggest creditors was the direct marketing agency we had used to do our direct mail and telemarketing. Shorty gave them a choice. They could either agree to receive nothing of what was owed to them or they could do one more mailing and one more phone campaign to all of the donor list (except those who had given over $500) and they could keep 100 percent of what they brought in. They were motivated for obvious reasons, did as strong a program as any they had done during the campaign and ended up getting over 80 percent of their invoices paid.
4. A very well-known conservative Senator from a neighboring state agreed to come to our area and spend an entire morning meeting with twenty of the local corporate elite and talked with them about all sorts of government policies, and listened to their concerns and suggestions. Every one of the attendees paid $5000 for the opportunity and they all thought it was the best $5000 they had ever spent, even the Democrats. The Senator was exceptionally well-informed, very forthcoming on government policy and projections and very blunt and direct in his advice. We remarked on his generous gift of his time and Shorty just shrugged and said, “It’s part of his job. Noblesse obliges and all that. Goes with his turf.”
5. We had one special event. The CEO of our largest local tech corporation had recently been active in promoting donations for African children with AIDS and had made a trip to Kenya to show his support. Shorty announced a new award, sponsored by Geeks Without Borders/Campaign to Elect Benton Harper, and presented the CEO with the humanitarian of the year award. The whole local tech world was invited and since everybody else did business with the honoree, every other firm and all his executive staff bought a table. It was $200 a plate and the net proceeds where explicitly going to our campaign. Four hundred people attended. The cost was about $60 a person. The rest was profit.
7. He secured the services of an expert major gift fundraiser. She personally visited over half of our high end donors – those who had given $500 or more. Shorty paid her $1000 a day and she brought in three times her fee.
That’s how he did it. In two months it was all over. Some of our creditors will not likely work with us again, but there are always more eager service providers out there. And we learned a very hard and expensive lesson about control of expenses and the use of the wrong type of consultant.
(Note: the above story is fictional. It has been provided to give potential contributors an example of they types of stories we hope they will share with fellow conservatives.)