Friday, November 22, 2013

Making the Most of the Offseason

Even though memories of the joyous 2013 baseball season burn bright, the truly fanatic baseball fans among us have already started think about the next season – the offseason – and all the excitement that it brings. The offseason officially opens with a variety of awards, continues with blockbuster trades and ends only when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training (that’s February 15 for those of us contemplating a trip to Jet Blue Park). Returning players will take the next few months to spend time with their family and recharge while minor league players and hopefuls will spend the offseason honing their skills and getting in shape for their shot at the big leagues. For political types the offseason is similar as elected officials contemplate whether to run again and candidates scurry to pull their campaigns together while getting duck boatloads of unwanted advice from people they don’t know. Today I thought I’d get the political offseason off to a roaring start by throwing out some tips for 2014 candidates.

As an announced candidate, now is a good time for your campaign to fall apart. If a campaign is going to have a crisis, have it now since election day is a year away, people have short memories and no one is paying attention. If you’ve got some dirty laundry to air or are expecting the departure of a disgruntled staffer, this is the time to “put out your garbage.” Voters are focused on the holidays and no one cares if your campaign has hit the skids. For what it’s worth, the window on free campaign calamities closes just about the same time the last Christmas tree (or Holiday tree if you’re at the Chafees) gets picked up off the curb.

Having said that, know that certain missteps will haunt you. Rhode Island’s political reporters are a small group and for as competitive as they are, they are also friends – with each other. An early blunder with that core group will stay with you. Right now Clay Pell is making the rounds with labor and party groups and blowing off the media calls.  If – or more likely – when he decides to run, he’s notched up the scrutiny he’ll get by not answering their questions. He’s also making folks suspect that he doesn’t know enough about Rhode Island to serve as governor.  The whispering is fierce: he probably can’t tell the difference between John from Alperts and the Cardi brothers.  Or even worse - he probably doesn’t even know where all the Almacs used to be.

If you’re running against an incumbent, you have twice as much work to do since you need to give people a compelling reason to vote for you and against the other person. It’s political Stockholm Syndrome – voters are loyal to incumbents – even if they don’t agree on most issues. Fear of the unknown prevents voters from making the leap and supporting someone new. Of course, some incumbents deserve to be re-elected, but many skate by without being challenged or facing only token opposition. If you’re going to run, don’t just be a placeholder, make a case for why you’ll be better for your opponent and show why they deserved to be replaced. Contested races don’t have to be negative, but they need to be comparative and if you don’t delineate why you would be better than the person holding the office, your chances of winning are negligible. Go big or go home.

And just as a coach might say to a slumping batter or the pitcher with an ERA higher than his age, I’ll add my last piece of advice: “Don’t listen to ‘em.” That’s right – you’ve got to run your own race and try and block out the constant stream of unsolicited input about everything from the insiders you “have” to recruit to the color of your yard signs. Every time you hear a “you oughta” you should nod politely and ask for a campaign contribution. The people who want you to win will keep talking and write a check and those just interested in dispensing their wisest thoughts will zip their lips and leave you alone. Either way, you’ll be in good shape for the 2014 political season and you’ll know who’s truly on your team and who just wants a picture with the trophy.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Clubhouse Guys

Now that we’ve gotten a little rest and a little perspective, I think 2013 could be the best Red Sox season ever. I wasn’t around for the Impossible Dream team in 1967 or really aware of the great 1975 team, but let’s face it, if you don’t win the World Series, the season ends on a down note. 2004 was fantastic -- and the only season that might come close to this one – but the great moments of 2004 were more about vanquishing the Yankees in the ALCS than mowing down the Cardinals. While the storyline in 2004 was about overcoming a curse (and the dreaded Yankees), this year was supposed to about rebuilding: mixing rookies with “clubhouse guys” and hoping to compete with the talent-laden teams in the AL East. The 2013 World Champion Red Sox defied expectations and by all accounts, developed into an all-clubhouse team, winning with grit and playing with maximum effort each day.

I usually use this space to call someone out or criticize a political move, but I’m going to rip a page out of the 2013 Red Sox book and do something unexpected: I’m going to be nice.

Rhode Island is really lucky to have Jack Reed as one of our U.S. Senators. When the John Chafee/ Claiborne Pell era ended, some folks – myself included – were concerned that Rhode Island would get lost in the small state shuffle without those senior members of the Senate to speak up for us. Other states have senators that are more high-profile and more media-hungry (think Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz) to raise their states’ concerns but Senator Reed keeps a far lower profile and focuses on what needs to be done. While he’s never done a turn on the late night talk shows, he’s certainly has been a go-to resource for the Sunday morning hosts who want to interview serious policy makers who can look beyond the politics to talk substance. As a constituent I appreciate that he’s well-informed - even if I don’t agree with some of his votes - but I’m actually a fan because he’s a clubhouse guy.

When I was working on the Sundlun campaign in 1990, then State Senator Jack Reed was running for Congress. After the primary, the democratic candidates would meet periodically for coordinated campaign meetings. One fall morning I was unloading boxes of campaign materials out of my trunk just before one of these meetings. Several of my male co-workers walked by, said hello and walked into the meeting. As I was unloading the last box, a man I didn’t know stopped and asked if he could carry the box for me – I declined since it was the last one – but he waited and opened the door to the office introducing himself. I thought, “Nice guy that Jack Reed. I wonder if he’ll beat Trudy Coxe.”

A generation later, that same nice guy – now Rhode Island’s senior U.S. Senator -- came to Bristol to swear in the new Colt-Andrews Elementary Student Government. He led twenty-five serious little faces through their oath to “be respectful and responsible” and “uphold the honor” of their school. He spoke about how important it was to be honest and to work hard and then congratulated each child on his or her election. Although this group of constituents is still ten years away from casting a ballot, Senator Reed shook every hand and posed for every photo, never looking for the exit or talking about the next thing on his schedule.

So Texas can have both Nelson and Ted Cruz and New York can certainly keep A-Rod and Chuck Schumer. We’re happy here with clubhouse guys like Jonny Gomes and Jack Reed and understand just how lucky we are.