By Tina Pamintuan
Political consultants usually have high profiles. They're paid big bucks to work on presidential and congressional campaigns, telling candidates what color sweater to wear and when to have photographs taken with their families. They show up on TV, talking to Sam and Cokie about their client's new ad campaign. And they're usually suit-wearing, card-carrying wage slaves -- most of them work for big, Washington, D.C.-based firms.
But independent political consultant Michael Connolly has a decidedly lower profile. You won't find him on TV, but you might find him sitting on his living room couch, with a slice of pizza in one hand and the remote in the other, taking a break from his "day job" doing freelance PR work. It helps pay the bills while he's getting his new career airborne.
The New Kid
Though he's a new kid in a profession where image is everything and past results mean even more, he's managed to garner business from some pretty big names -- Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, for one. Maybe it's because he already has some pretty strong credentials. During some of the most tumultuous months of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Connolly worked in Washington, D.C., writing press releases and materials in the press secretary's office of the House Judiciary Committee.
A self-proclaimed "political nerd," Connolly's voice is a mixture of excitement and nostalgia as he recalls the fitful few hours of sleep he got each night, the tense office atmosphere, and the constant adrenaline high.
"I loved my time on Capitol Hill," Connolly says. "But in any organization the size of Congress, there is a good deal of bureaucratic friction. There was a 'hurry up and wait' mentality. And I'm kind of a snappy mover. I don't stand still very long."
Indeed, less than a month after leaving his job on the Hill, Connolly moved to New Hampshire to join his wife, Bernadette. Far away from suburban Virginia, the area where he grew up, went to college, and started his professional career, Connolly began freelancing from a small desk in the bedroom of the couple's apartment. Free from the constraints of a "regular" job, he also started work on a business idea he had been thinking about for several years.
As a college student, Connolly worked as a volunteer writing press releases and speeches for local politicians in Virginia. From this experience, he knew that most political consulting firms were too expensive for local candidates who often run for office on tight budgets. Connolly reasoned that there was nowhere for the "little guy" to get affordable, high-caliber consulting. Connolly's idea for a discount political consulting firm was born.
Doing His Homework
Any Business 101 student will tell you that, when venturing onto uncharted business ground, the first step is to ask the big question: "Is there a market for this service?" Connolly set out to answer this question by discussing his idea with his Washington, D.C.-based contacts in the business. Given that it was an entirely new way of approaching political consulting, the feedback was not always encouraging. However, Connolly remained undaunted. "Every two years, there are more than 450,000 political races and 1.5 million candidates across the U.S," he explains. Many of these campaigns, he says, don't have the budget to pay for the big firms.
That's where Connolly comes in.
Connolly's business, politicalguy.com ("America's Discount Political Consulting Firm"), is the Filene's Basement of political campaign consulting. He hawks services like "talking points" and "strategy sessions" at discounted prices.
The George W. Bushes and Al Gores of the world probably won't be calling Connolly's toll-free number any time soon. Which is perfectly fine with him -- he's cast his line in search of minnows, not whales.
"I don't think [modest budgets] are any excuse for [local] campaigns and politicians not to have quality communications service," Connolly explains.
Unlike the big firms, Connolly offers a per-service fee rather than a per-hour or monthly rate. To come up with competitive prices, he surveyed politicians who had run for local offices; they suggested prices to Connolly based on what they would be willing to pay for such services.
Most of Connolly's offerings concentrate on his skills as a writer. For instance, $199 buys a first draft of a speech or an op-ed piece. In addition, cash-strapped politicians can opt for one of five "Multi-service Packages." To get a campaign off on the right foot, a candidate might choose the "Kick-off Special" ($299) which includes an initial strategy consultation, as well as help crafting an announcement speech and developing talking points on the main issues.
Or there's the "Rapid Response" package for candidates on the receiving end of bad press -- say, the media finds out a candidate was known as "Joe Blow" in college, not for his relative anonymity, but for a certain propensity to snort anything white and powdery. Connolly will craft a letter to the editor for the candidate, write him a speech responding to his critics, and help him get through interviews with local reporters -- all within 24 hours and for the low, low price of $399. Not bad for pulling yourself out of a boiling political cauldron, or at least lowering the temperature a few degrees.
Connolly also targets politicians already in office, thus making for steady work in both election years and non-election years, when business would otherwise be slow. Indeed, the services that help a candidate get into office are the same ones that will help him or her stay on the local political scene.
The Ethics of Politics
Donkey, elephant, or whatever else, Connolly's happy to work with just about anyone. He doesn't turn down clients on a partisan basis as many of the big firms do; however, if he feels uncomfortable with a candidate's stance on an issue, Connolly may decline to work with him or her on that issue.
For example, Connolly is no proponent of tax increases, but he'll work on a press release stating a candidate's support of such increases. Abortion, however, is another issue. Connolly's conscience would prohibit him from working with a candidate running on a pro-choice platform. Lucky for him, city council and state legislature elections are more likely to be fought over candidates' views on potholes or local schools.
Indeed, knowing the local flavor and the community's biggest issues is essential to running a successful campaign. So how can Connolly provide help to politicians in, say, southern California -- a far cry geographically and culturally from New Hampshire? "The people who are going to come to me are going to be members of a community who have grown up in these areas," Connolly says. "Usually if I can talk to these folks for a half-hour, I can get the gist of what they're trying to do and help them find the right way to say it."
Simply put, the candidates will have to know the community and issues themselves. Connolly's job is to help the candidates hone their messages and communicate them effectively to the voters.
Doing the "Meet and Greet"
Schmoozing is a skill that both politicians and IPs must master -- and one that Connolly knows he has to practice. He admits it's somewhat of a struggle to get over the initial impulse to let a potential client walk by without introducing himself. "Even with people I have no reason to be intimidated by," he says, "I can be very shy. It's just my nature." Connolly keeps his shyness in check by reminding himself that his success depends making these contacts.
"I just have to logically, consciously tell myself, 'Okay, I'm not going to eat, if I don't talk to this person,'" he says.
He has other tactics for finding clients, too. Direct mail allows Connolly to showcase his strength -- writing. Connolly gets his mailing lists from local political groups. It also helps that politicians are well-known members of their communities whose contact information is usually easy to find. And he landed his first client, Jeffrey Howard, a gubernatorial candidate from New Hampshire, the old-fashioned way: "Basically, it was a cold call."
Though things are looking good for Connolly, he admits that the fear of failure still nags at him. "Who knows? Maybe the [candidates] out there that can't afford these big firms, maybe they don't want any help at all and then I'll just be out on my backside." Why bother then? "It's an adventure," he says. "I look forward to seeing it through."
October 2, 2000
Primary Editor: Katy Demcak
Illustrator: James Stringer
Production: Fletcher Moore
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Tina Pamintuan is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her.