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The Rich are Different

When political consultants take on wealthy candidates, does that mean they can milk them and their campaigns for all they’re worth? Are they simply trying to help good people get elected? Or both?

Tony Sanchez, Farouk Shami

Farouk Shami, the wealthy hair product manufacturer who now seeks the Governor’s Mansion, has already pledged his own campaign $10 million. And he’s not the first one. Just eight years ago, Tony Sanchez’s 2002 losing bid for governor relied heavily on the candidate’s personal funds. And that’s just recent memory.

Recent Texas political history is full of wealthy candidates from both parties, including some winners and some losers, some who used their own money and some who didn't: Dolph Briscoe, Bill Clements, Clayton Williams, Lloyd Bentsen, Ben Bentzin, Van Taylor, Mike Moncrief, Bill Hobby, David Dewhurst, Michael Skelly, and on and on.

For political consultants, the hired guns responsible for winning elections, obvious ethical questions can arise around such candidacies.

Having a wealthy candidate means there will be plenty of money for the campaign, but it doesn't mean the candidate can win. Political professionals, who often get paid the same regardless of the outcome, have to decide on the rules for taking on wealthy clients. While they may not agree, they all acknowledge that rules for self-financing candidates are a little different than for everyone else.

Many profess concern that consultants will simply prey on those with hefty bank accounts.

“You’ve built in a motivation for consultants to say, ‘You can win! You can win! You should run! You should run!'” says Glenn Smith, a Democratic consultant who worked on the Sanchez campaign.

Smith and others argue that the motivational structure allows consultants to take advantage of their clients. And without the need to raise money — to ask others for support — the candidates may not even improve their campaign skills.

“Part of the beauty of putting your name on the ballot is convincing others that you should be the one and having them selflessly help you,” says Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, who chooses not to self-finance despite his wealth.

McCall has a point, according to Matt Angle, the Democratic consultant who oversees the Texas Lonestar Project. Angle says fundraising can often strengthen a campaign. Donors, he said, will “defend you to other people.”

Sometimes those who have shown good sense in making money don’t keep the same control when spending it on a campaign.

“They were like children in a candy store,” Bryan Eppstein, a GOP consultant, exclaims of wealthy pols he's observed. “They were gullible and bought everything in front of them.”

The consultants agree that it takes a different set of considerations to work with a wealthy client. But at the risk of taking advantage, how does a consultant choose which clients to take on?

“I’ll take on a candidate if I know that their motives are true and right,” says Mark Sanders, who’s worked for rich candidates like Sanchez, a Democrat, and David Dewhurst, a Republican. He immediately apologizes for his charming display of idealism.

Others, not so surprisingly, take a more hard-nosed approach.

For Jason Stanford, giving preference to those who can self-fund just makes good business sense. “If you can eliminate risk from a business perspective, why not?” he asks.

But is that okay, even if a victory is all but impossible? After all, Stanford, a Democrat, just got a rather public pink slip from one of those self-funders, parting ways with the Shami campaign after less than three weeks on the job.

Eppstein says those who take on campaigns that cannot win come close to violating professional trust. Giving a candidate false hope, he says, is just plain unacceptable.

“If statistically a race cannot be won, there’s no amount of money in the world that can elect somebody,” says Eppstein. “The least important thing in a political campaign is the candidate.”

Sanders and Stanford both readily acknowledge the difficulties in being honest with wealthy, long-shot candidates.

When giving bad news to clients, says Sanders, “it’s best to be delivered starting out with the word ‘Sir.’”

Stanford concurs: “It is challenging... to make sure you’re telling someone the truth, even though they really, really don’t want to hear it.”

Especially if everyone assumes the candidate can win.

“My job is not to tell them they can’t win,” Sanders says with conviction. “My job is to find a way that they will.”

Others worry that the motivational structure for consultants can lead to a constant denial — bordering on delusion.

Tell that to Stanford, as he outlines the scenario he once envisioned for a Shami victory: “His $10 million could carry the day in the primary. And... Rick Perry could be so fatally flawed after a campaign against Kay Bailey that, despite his challenges, a self-made billionaire could present a compelling story.”

When he initially joined the campaign, Stanford says he could imagine that scenario.

“When a lump of clay shows up on a sculptor’s doorstep, you don’t think, ‘Well, it’s a lump of clay,’” he explains.

But you can’t assume it will be a masterpiece either.

“[Shami] has got to know he can’t win,” says Smith, just hours after Shami made his candidacy official by filing with party officials.  “Nobody could be that naïve.”

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Politics State government 2010 elections Governor's Office Rick Perry