Saturday, June 21, 2008 | As the June 3 primary election approached, many political observers were wondering what had happened to the no-holds-barred brawl for the City Attorney’s Office that everyone had expected. Sure, attendees of the dozens of candidate forums held around the city had seen the occasional barb. But the incumbent, City Attorney Mike Aguirre, did little or no campaigning.

The candidates’ various operatives quickly concluded that the true race was not to come out on top, but to just get into the top two and secure their candidate a place in the final election. And if they all assumed Aguirre had a ticket to the final show, the race was on for who got to join him.

As it turned out, Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith won that race — reaching a tally of votes that surprised many. He rocketed past the other challengers to the incumbent. This, despite the fact that Council President Scott Peters had dumped hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into the race and purchased expensive television advertisements for the citywide race.

Goldsmith’s aides and those who wanted to get him elected identified the goal: to illustrate that if voters didn’t like the controversies that had clouded City Hall and if they didn’t like the way the fiery city attorney had tried to deal with them they had only one real choice in the race, Goldsmith.

To get the message across as cheaply as possible, they turned to Steve Powell. He normally produces television commercials for campaigns — he had cut a negative one on behalf of Aguirre’s 2004 rival, in fact — but they had to go with radio. Powell came up with a catchy riff on how it was “hard to tell the difference between City Hall and a circus act.” City Councilman Brian Maienschein was trying to make his votes on the city pension “disappear” and his colleague Scott Peters, was trying to bend over backwards to please his “labor union handlers.”

Whatever the merits of the ad’s message, it resonated. Goldsmith’s Republican’s supporters loved it and some even set it to a YouTube photo montage. It spread virally and was well worth whatever it cost.

Goldsmith won. He has a tough fight ahead for the runoff, but he has Powell in his corner. The ad man sat down for some questions about what it was like to make negative political ads; what made some work, and some not; and how Republicans could attack Barack Obama (and how they could not).

What local campaign was the most fun for you to work on?

Probably the “No on B” campaign.

The landfill? Supporting the landfill in 2004?

Right, because it was a challenge. Supporting a landfill — it is always a challenge.

OK, so what was your favorite campaign anywhere?

Probably the Wally Hickel for governor campaign in Alaska. Wally had run previously — four years before — and just gotten creamed. He had run as the Republican nominee. And this time, in 1992, he was running — and this is just a great story — there’s a small fringe party up there that thinks Alaska should not be part of the Unites States. The Independent Party. Well, Wally gets ticked. And Wally’s got millions. He owns like a third of Alaska. He’s former secretary of the interior, been governor before. Wally gets mad. He decides he’s going to jump into the governor’s race. But it was too late to run as a Republican because they had already had their primary.

And there was a Democratic incumbent?

No, Democrats had their candidate. There was no incumbent. The mayor of Anchorage, who was a Democrat, was running. So Wally goes down to this Independence Party and says, ‘I’ll be your nominee and I’ll make this big contribution to the party’s coffers if you call a special convention and make me the nominee’ and they did. So I get a call. And it was right when I had switched parties (Powell used to be a Democrat). I was starving. He says, I’ve got the race for you. It’s in Alaska, it’s Wally Hickel. He’s running as an independent so it’s a perfect segue for me as I switch parties. I said I didn’t want to get in trouble with regular Republicans. He said, no, don’t worry, he’s the real guy up there.

So I flew up there. They had been doing these spots where the guy was sitting on the couch in a plaid shirt talking to the camera. It was awful.

First thing I did is I found the guy who was traveling with him — his body guy. I said, “How’s he doing on the stump?” They said he’s great on the stump. “Has anyone shot that?” They said no. So I went out and got the lights right and sure enough he gave me three sound bites that were perfect.

Did they work?

Oh yeah. He went from 7 points down to 9 up in about a week, week and a half.

Did he win?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Back to local elections. Steve Francis. What did he do wrong?

Not seeing the data I can’t really answer that. But I’ll give you some insights that I think may have come to play here. First off, I think it was wrong not to have any shots of San Diego — identifiable shots. You know, the panoramic of the bay, which is kind of the obligatory shot. The Coronado Bridge — something that says, I am in San Diego. That’s No. 1. Two, I think, it was a mistake hiring an outside consultant. And if you step back and look at this cycle — all the campaigns — the people who had consultants from outside San Diego did not do particularly well. And there’s a reason for that. Whether they were from San Francisco like Scott Peters’ guy or from New York or D.C., they did good spots. They look nice. But they weren’t as discerning to me about what they put into the spots.

The first ones for Francis were pretty good. But when they got to the one where he’s hanging around in the park and walking around with his arms swinging and looking like a dork. That should have never seen the light of day. If you’ve got a client who has a tendency to look uncomfortable like that, you just don’t put it on the air. You get very disciplined about which shots you are going to use.

But he must have spent a couple of million on those. They have to know what they’re doing.

You’ve got to have the discipline to take a spot that you think really worked and you spent a lot of money on and everyone liked and say to yourself, you know, that thing didn’t test. We’ve got to put it in the trash.

How about Goldsmith? You just did that one radio spot. It had a viral quality about it, right? It spread.

It has been my experience that if you want to say something negative about somebody if you can make people laugh while you’re doing it, you’ll get away with it. You won’t build up your own negatives while you’re doing it.

What would you do if you were making an ad against Barack Obama?

He’s a bit of a problem because he comes off so well. He’s got such a great image and those guys have done such a good job making him look good that you can’t take him on directly. Whereas a guy like Mike Aguirre, you can maybe take them on straight up.

What’s the difference?

It’s the way they come off on camera. That’s just the way it is. I can usually tell.

If you were to make an ad for Aguirre right now, what would you do?

I can’t answer that. That wouldn’t be fair to my clients.

— Interview by Scott Lewis

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