Parties unleash attack squads in governor's race
Kelly Steele says he didn't get all of the "hockey gene" that carried his father to a brief professional career in the now-defunct World...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Here's a sample of videos produced by the state Republican and Democratic parties.
Kelly Steele says he didn't get all of the "hockey gene" that carried his father to a brief professional career in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. Steele gave up hockey in high school to join the debate team and eventually became Michigan state champ.
Debate champ, son of a hockey pro — that explains a lot.
As spokesman for the state Democratic Party, the 31-year-old Steele has gained a reputation for his acid tongue and bruising style. He is relentless at digging into opponents' backgrounds and clearly relishes the chance to land another political hip check.
As he says, "Backing off and standing down has never really been a recipe for success."
This year's rematch between Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi is sure to become one of the hardest-hitting elections the state has ever witnessed. Many of the sharpest blows likely will be delivered by the state party leaders and their appointed attack men — Steele and his GOP counterpart, 25-year-old Patrick Bell.
"What we've seen emerge in recent elections is communications professionals whose job it is to push out these negative messages every day," said Paul Berendt, former chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Steele's tactics have sometimes drawn howls of protest from Republicans. But the state GOP is working hard these days to emulate the Democrats.
For months, the Republican Party has been hammering away at Gregoire with "failure of the week" news releases and snarky Web videos.
"Our role is to talk about the shortcomings of the current administration, and that can be hard-hitting," said Luke Esser, state Republican Party chairman.
The parties are doing the dirty work so the candidates don't have to.
"Candidates need to run on issues and their accomplishments," Berendt said. "If they're personally too negative, they end up driving their own negatives up."
Steele and Bell are armed with a lot of the latest technology and know-how.
They can produce videos in-house for next to nothing. The Democrats have a media-monitoring system that records all of the major newscasts and talk-radio shows statewide. That came in handy recently when the party wanted to put together a video showing newscasters raising serious questions about Rossi's new transportation plan.
Much of what the party communication shops produce is rarely seen by the public at large. Instead, it is circulated to a handful of reporters, bloggers and opinion makers. Bell said all of the releases and videos he creates are also sent out to tens of thousands of party members.
"This is ammunition for our grass roots," Bell said. "It's kind of viral marketing."
Steele started fast
Steele grew up in a small town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Though neither of his parents was big on politics, he got the bug studying political science and competing on the debate teams at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University.
After working on several Democratic campaigns in Oregon, Steele came to work for the state party here in 2006. He was immediately thrust into the high-profile battle between U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and her Republican challenger, insurance executive Mike McGavick.
Despite his relative youth and newcomer status, Steele didn't shy from the limelight. When the Democrats filed a complaint against McGavick with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Steele was the one out front accusing McGavick of taking an illegal campaign contribution — a charge later rejected by the FEC.
When McGavick made an out-of-the-blue confession about an old drunken-driving charge, Cantwell and her campaign remained mum.
Not Steele. He drew gasps from some observers with his widely publicized jab: "From privatizing Social Security to drunk driving, it becomes clearer every day that Mike McGavick and George Bush are cut from the same cloth."
Michael Meehan, who was Cantwell's chief campaign strategist, describes Steele as someone who likes to "push the envelope." He said Steele's tenacity at staying on the attack against McGavick was a big help to Cantwell.
"It kept them on their heels while we were able to be on the offense, and that was enormously helpful to our success," said Meehan, who runs his own public-relations business in Washington, D.C.
Steele and the Democrats began hounding Rossi long before he announced that he would try to avenge his 133-vote loss to Gregoire in 2004. Whenever Rossi showed up to give a speech somewhere, there was usually someone from Steele's staff there to catch it on video.
Steele refers to Rossi as a "candidate built from the ground up by right-wing special interests." Rossi calls Steele one of "Christine Gregoire's political operatives."
Last June, the Democrats filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) alleging that Rossi's Forward Washington Foundation was not what he claimed — a nonpartisan think tank. Instead, the Democrats said, it was a scheme — or, in Steele's words, a "sleazy front group" — that enabled Rossi to run an illegal de facto campaign.
The PDC dismissed the complaint on a narrow vote, though some members thought Rossi's foundation smelled bad.
Steele is always on the lookout for an opportunity to ding Rossi. When Washington held its presidential precinct caucuses earlier this year, he posted a sinister-looking picture of Rossi behind the words "We can't trust him with our future" prominently on the Democrats' caucus-results Web page. Nearly a million people visited the site that day.
Much of the party's hard-edged approach should also be attributed to Chairman Dwight Pelz, a former state legislator and King County councilman who came to the state party about the same time as Steele.
"When I get the ball, my elbows are up pretty high most of the time," Pelz said.
GOP gets tougher
Josh Kahn, who did a brief stint last year as communications director for the state Republican Party, said the GOP, for too long, did not do a very good job of countering the Democrats' attack machine.
But he said that has changed under Esser, a former state lawmaker with a communications background. The Republicans recently filed a PDC complaint essentially accusing Gregoire of campaigning on the taxpayers' dime. The commission said it did not have proper jurisdiction and turned the complaint over to the state's executive ethics committee.
Earlier this year, the party hired Bell as its communications chief. Bell graduated a few years ago from Pacific Lutheran University, where he was president of the campus chapter of the College Republicans. He was perhaps best known for his blog, "Respectfully Republican."
Bell, who after this year's election will go on a Fulbright scholarship to study climate change in Europe, comes across as more mild-mannered than Steele. He also tends to operate more behind the scenes, and he leaves most of the talking to Esser.
Bell said he doesn't like "mean-spirited politics." Though he acknowledges things could get "really nasty" in the Rossi-Gregoire race, he added, "I don't think we can win with just doom and gloom."
Sarcasm is popular
But like Steele and the Democrats, Bell and the Republicans often try to get their point across with biting sarcasm.
When Gregoire recently went on a campaign tour around the state in a bus that had Oregon plates, the Republicans said in a news release, "Gov. Gregoire has been making it harder and harder for businesses to survive here in our state for three years, so it's no surprise that her campaign hired a bus with Oregon license plates to save money."
Bell recently produced a YouTube video using footage from Gregoire's appearance at KeyArena earlier this year with Barack Obama. It was a play on one of Rossi's main criticisms of Gregoire: that she has been in state government for nearly four decades.
"The last thing we need is having the same old folks, doing the same old thing over and over again ... we need to take a new direction," Obama says, with Gregoire sitting just a few feet away.
The video has been viewed nearly 7,000 times.
Said Esser, "I think humor has the potential to be far more devastating to your opponent than the meanest thing you can say about them."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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