This issue's shoptalkers: John Balduzzi, president of the Democratic firm the Balduzzi Group; Blaise Hazelwood, founder and owner of Grassroots Targeting, a Republican microtargeting firm; Margie Omero, president and founder of the Democratic polling firm Momentum Analysis; and Chris Russell, founder of Chris Russell consulting, a Republican direct mail firm.
C&E: When did you all start your own firms and what led you to that decision?
Blaise Hazelwood: I started Grassroots Targeting right after the 2004 cycle. I actually started my firm when I had another job. I launched the firm and then I got recruited to go to the Senate committee, so I did both. I was part of testing and implementing microtargeting for the first time at the Republican National Committee, so I wanted to go into that field. On the Republican side, it was a field that no one was really in at the time.
Margie Omero: I started Momentum Analysis in 2001. Before that I was at The Mellman Group as a vice president. I wanted to try something new and felt like I could grow more as a pollster in my own shop. I still service a lot of down ballot and legislative races, but owning my own firm allows me to branch out and get different projects, which is much tougher to do when you’re at a firm.
Chris Russell: I was a campaign guy from the time I was in college. I did every job there was to do on a campaign before I ended up getting into mail and strategy. I had a really diverse experience in campaigns and that let me figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like. In 2008, I managed a congressional race and lost like almost every other Republican lost that year. At that point I felt like I had limited myself by not taking a big chance and going out on my own. I never had any doubt about being able to do the work; the only doubt I had was whether or not I could go out and get work. Can I get people to trust in me? As soon as I did that and got some confidence, it became a lot easier.
John Balduzzi: My experience is really similar. I came up the ranks working campaigns and then I worked at Kennedy Communications before I decided to start my own shop. Through my contacts working at a large firm like Kennedy, I developed a pretty good base of pollster friends and other consultants. I knew there was a need for a smaller boutique size firm located in upstate New York, which is where I’m originally from. That’s really why I started the shop up there. Owning my own firm has always been a dream of mine since I’ve been working races. It was something I was thinking about all the way back when I was the low man on the totem pole.
C&E: Are more operatives willing to take a chance on their own firm now given the current environment?
Omero: I definitely think there are more smaller shops that are launching now than when I started. When I started my firm I was the youngest woman pollster, sole principle. That’s actually still true.
Russell: I think you see people who love politics and they think, “I can do this.” If you do have a network of people, there’s a ton of work out there. Fewer people ascend to the highest levels, but at least at the outset there’s plenty of work to be done. The local guy can grow into the national guy because they have a firm base of clients locally and if they focus on that, it’s easier to branch out from there. That’s the idea I’ve tried to model my firm after. I’m doing a couple of congressional races right now and things are expanding, but I still service down ballot clients—town council and school board. I still enjoy that, and I don’t want to lose those clients. Someone told me last year that the moment you stop enjoying races is when you should stop doing them. I’ve taken that to heart.
Balduzzi: I think this influx of money means the industry is growing and new firms are popping up all over the place. I also think candidates are getting a lot smarter with their money. There’s now more of a choice for candidates and they’re choosing to go with some of these smaller shops that give them the opportunity to work directly with the principles. That’s obviously one of my pitches.
Omero: The other reason you see a lot of people start their own shops is because of the fluid nature of the industry. You don’t need to have the mentality that you’re going to have your firm for 40 years. It’s not a law firm. You can come and go if that’s what you want to do. You can have a firm one cycle and then go run a race the next cycle. Lots of people do that now.
Hazelwood: I ran campaigns before I worked at the party committees, but I always say that running campaigns is like running a small business. That means we all have experience. The money that flows through big campaigns, and the budgets that we have to deal with on these races—it’s very similar.
Russell: I’ve always believed that campaigns in general are great training grounds for business. So many people are specialists in their field, but political people have to do many things well. If you’re a one trick pony, it just won’t work.