Jennie Blackton, television and screenwriter, producer and political consultant, tells C&E about her thoughts on the 2010 midterm elections and how they have impacted her work.
C&E: Tell us about your work and what you did this past election cycle.
Blackton: The work that I have done has been almost exclusively in my job as being on retainer with the ASDC (Association of Democratic State Chairs), a part of the DNC. The reason I love that so much is because I don’t like working with federal races. That is too much like Hollywood – there are too many voices. I like to work local and state elections because that is where the real people are. In Federal races, there are so many voices to account for it just gets too muddy and difficult to make a clear decision. Just like Hollywood.
Most of my work has been down in the level of state legislatures, city council and mayoral races. The work I do is to not only my workshop (working on a given candidate’s stump speech) but to find candidates for the state party. In the case of Alaska, I found and persuaded [Democratic candidate] Scott McAdams to run for Senate. I find people worthy of doing the job in the first place – people with passion that, a lot of times, they did not know they had.
My work is also sometimes playing mom; finding out what is wrong that affects people in their district deeply that the people currently in office are not addressing. How can they be a better candidate, or be a candidate to begin with? A lot of people that I find have never been a candidate. That delights me. They find that being in politics is a matter of just speaking up.
So, as someone who worked closely with the state chairs, I would be sent in when there were people just beginning and I would come back and work a lot on what the theme of their campaign was, a la their message. How they would exploit it in terms of their stump speech, their messaging with demographics – what you say to one demographic is not how you would characterize a similar problem to another demographic. You could be talking about health care, but how you characterize its effect on a senior citizen is not how you would characterize it to a young mother, for example.
If I thought [the prospective candidate] was great, I would hopefully get a shot at writing, producing and buying their media. Usually, they only had enough money for one ad, and I don’t charge them for that. I buy my own media and I often teach people how to buy their own ads and put my commission into the ad spot buy. It is either stupid or saintly, but it gets people on the air. The perceived wisdom is that getting on the air is going to be up on the $20,000- to $30,000 range for one race. Mostly, I buy cable because people pay to watch cable, and if you pay to watch something I know the [viewership] numbers are damned accurate.
C&E: Do you not get paid for your work?
Blackton: I am on retainer from the DNC, but I get paid very little. It doesn’t matter what I am paid. I get great stories doing that, and the sitcom business was good to me. What do you need, you know? Hopefully, I don’t eat a lot.
C&E: How has the 2010 election cycle altered your approach to candidates and their messaging, if at all?
Blackton: Why do you think I am sitting here eating chocolate? It is depressing. Did you know that there are 600-some-odd [legislative] seats that flipped? I cannot tell you how many people I have worked with who are wonderful; you wouldn’t classify them by party per se, you would think they are clever and creative when it came to the use of money. These people were wonderful and I’d like to say that I don’t blame myself [for their losses], but I do. I feel bad and the public that lost them will feel terrible. Lord knows we deserve what we get now.
C&E: In what ways do you find television and speechwriting the most similar and/or different?
Blackton: Television is not an educational medium. It is a medium [that depends on] your liking one person or another person based on how much you identify with them. You do not educate people unless you are getting people to sit down and take notes. This is why TV is repetitive and why sitcoms, of which I know a great deal, are easy to like. Your gut says: “I like this guy.” If you watch Roseanne, you think, “this person reminds me of my mom or aunt.” When someone says something that resonates, it is like a haiku or poetry. It is essential – the essence of what someone believes that will affect you personally. The people on Republican side are great at that – whoever created the term “Obamacare” or “death panels” is just brilliant.
Speechwriting is not dissimilar. Speechwriting is all about showing people, in a highly structured way, what in their life you have the ability to change -- given that you can explicate that in seven minutes or less and you can make sure that you have an audience. The most important part of speechwriting is that you have an audience. If you can find something that hits the mark with people, it is the easiest polling system in the world [watching an audience react favorably or unfavorably to a speech].
When you meet someone who has a capacity to make a difference and they don’t know it, it is a truly life altering moment. It only takes one workshop, one candidate, even a sidewalk, as I say in my article [July’s feature article for Campaigns & Elections: Why I Move In With My Candidate (aka: My Client) by Jennie Blackton], is a big deal. [In the case profiled in that article] it can save a life.
C&E: Is it truly necessary to know your candidate’s voice when writing for them?
Blackton: Yes. Absolutely. One thing that bothers me more than any other is that I have seen so many generic ads. I swear there is one voiceover guy, and he does all the ads for everybody. I rarely see an ad that genuinely shows the personal voice of a candidate. That goes for mail, too.
I do guide [my candidates] but not away from their voice. They need help forming their voice into sentences. Most of the time, gold comes out and they do not believe that it is gold until it is shaped. If there is a story that relates to them, it works. If I’m talking to someone and they are talking pap about politics [it doesn’t resonate]. I started moving in with my clients to find out what people are like. When I sit down with people, I find them relating a story that moves them and it ends up moving me. I say: “use that.” It is often anecdotal. The most important part of a speech is the audience. I always try out various paragraphs of a speech in front of an audience of one or many just to see if their heads nod in agreement, which means that part of the speech or the anecdote will resonate with them enough so they'll repeat it.
C&E: Do you have any final thoughts on this year’s election cycle for our readers?
Blackton: Don’t ever stop.
Jennie Blackton is a former sitcom writer/producer, radio and TV talk show host, actress, dancer, vice president of three film companies--and now a political communications consultant.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org