Bird’s eye view of political campaign management

I n 1976, Montgomery County was fast becoming a suburban market for rapidly-urbanizing Houston. Growth was overwhelming.

Like most people, I’d never given much thought to whether political campaigns in suburban markets are professionally managed.

That year saw professional political campaign management introduced to Montgomer y County in a hotly-contested count y sher if f ’s race. Incumbent Sheriff Gene Reaves had been in office four terms (16 years) and was asking for “one more” before he retired.

A wealthy Houston businessman, Freeman Dunn, who made his residence in Montgomery County, decided to run against Reaves.

Dunn blitzed voters with a slick, well-managed campaign, highlighted by lots of advertising created by a Houston advertising agency.

It was a one-way mud-slinging war in the first primar y. Fortunately for Reaves, an ambitious former deputy sheriff, Nick Nicholson, entered the race and garnered just enough votes to force a runoff. Dunn’sblitzpaidoffwith almost 50 percent of the vote. Reaves’ suppor ters realized, almost too late, their candidate was in deep trouble.

Their initial response as the runoff campaign began was to run a mud-slinging ad similar in style to Dunn’s campaign.

At the time, I was a freelancer, writing and advertising. Reaves’ campaign people came to me and said, “We need help.” I laughed and said, “You sure as heck do. But, actually I think you may have waited too late.”

They asked me if I’d do the publicity and advertising for Reaves for the remaining three weeks before the runoff and, if so, how much money would it take.

I tossed out a figure I thought would scare them away. They agreed to it and I thought, “Dang! I underpriced myself.”

I met with the full campaign committee and told them there wouldn’t be any mud-slinging from the Reaves’ campaign. “If both candidates get down and wallow in the mud, then the voters can’t tell ’em apart.”

We had the advantage of having a candidate, Reaves, who looked like a Texas sheriff. He was leathery-faced, had steel blue eyes, and white hair closecropped in a flat-top style.

Gene Reaves dressed western and looked every bit a cowboy, which he was. He ranched on the side.

All Reaves’ advertising from that point forward was positive — dealing with Reaves’ long experience, his love for serving the people as sheriff and his family, one of his greatest advantages.

His wife was an humble, sweet woman and well-known for her involvement in their church and all its activities.

Reaves’ daughter was a nice young woma n, not too long past walking down the wedding aisle.

The son, was a 20ish youngster who ran Reaves’ modest ranching operation. Reaves was painfully shy and had a hard time talking to a group of more than three or four people.

One worrisome event remained during the last week of the runoff campaign, a live radio debate between Reaves and front-runner Dunn, a polished businessman.

We decided to take a calculated risk. If Dunn followed form and attacked Reaves’ family, then the sheriff was to say, “I refuse to be in the same room with a man who will stoop so low as to attack a man’s family in order to gain political office.”

Dunn went on the attack, very roughly, and when Reeves’ turn came, he did exactly as he’d been coached to do. He made the statement and walked out.

The evening before the primary, most of Reaves’ closest advisers donors-friends and I were in the campaign office, having done all we knew to do.

I sat on top of the desk and exhaled heartily. “Willis,” one volunteer said, “how do you think we’ll do tomorrow?”

I hesitated a few seconds, and said, “You know we had a lot of ground to make up but I think we did. And, if we win, it’ll be by less than 200 votes.”

Everyone nodded and we all went home.

Gene Reaves won by 178 votes. And, I quickly retired, undefeated as a paid professional political campaign manager.

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2011-11-10 digital edition

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