Learning from the originator

Landscape image20140817 3791 ne3hol

7 consultants on what they learned from the industry's founding father: Joe Napolitan


In the early days of the campaign business, Joe Napolitan was the driving force behind what’s become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Napolitan helped found the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) and the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC), gave shape to an emerging industry, and set a standard future generations of political consultants strove to follow. He died Dec. 2 of complications stemming from prostate cancer. The man credited with coining the term “political consultant” was 84.

We asked some of the consultants who knew Napolitan best what he meant to them personally, and about his lasting impact on the industry he helped mold.

Ray Strother Partner at Strother Strategies In a profession where there are almost no enforceable rules, it is easy for hustlers with a glib tongue, party connections, luck and little ability to dip into political consulting and become an overnight but temporary star. Then, to hang on after a dose of electoral reality, they desperately become cheap-shot artists who sidestep the best interests of their clients and invent their own slash and burn ethics.

These “consultants” were always an embarrassment to Joe Napolitan. They reflected badly on a profession Joe and some other rock-solid consultants helped create in the post-Kennedy era. Joe divided the world into givers and takers. To be called a giver by Joe was a proud accomplishment.

Bill Hamilton, Matt Reese, Doug Bailey, Bob Squier, Cliff White, Joe Cerrell, and a handful of others (all friends of Joe) were among those that, by their very presence and example, forced the cheap-shot artists to lurk in the shadows. They were the givers. They set the example for others to follow.

I once talked to a redneck buddy who said that when he got into a jam in a honky tonk, or at the plant, he would ask, “What would Willy do?” When I ran into a questionable ethical or professional question, I would usually pick up the phone and ask, “What would Joe do?” Damn, I’ll miss Joe, his cigars and his quiet presence in our business.

Ace SmithPartner at SCN Strategies Joe Napolitan: Father of Modern Campaigns. If there is one thing you could say about Joe – that would be it.

This is the man whose career began at the birth of television and modern communications. Joe was one of the first to see the power of these new tools and discover how to use them to transcend the machine politics of his day. It was easy for Joe because at his core he was a methodical strategist who could look at the chess board of politics and not just know the right move, but know why he was making it.

As a young man, quite by chance, I bought a dogeared copy of “The Election Game and How to Win It.” To this day I consider this book the bible of modern campaign strategy. While many of the electoral techniques may be dated, there is clarity of thought which is as fresh today as ever.

Indeed, that same clarity which Joe always brought to his campaigns. Requiescat in pace.

Nancy Todd President of Nancy Todd, Inc. Joe Napolitan was a living legend when I entered the business in the early 1980s. I knew his work, I knew his contribution to our industry, and I knew his reputation. It wasn’t until the mid-90s, during my first meeting of the International Association of Political Consultants that I got to spend time with him and get to know him.

My oldest son, Hayden, then 8, accompanied me to that first conference. Joe and Mary had five children and numerous grandchildren by our first meeting, and their love of children and family was apparent. They made sure Hayden felt welcome and a part of an all-adult conference.

In 2005, after I lost Hayden, Joe’s heartfelt words of comfort went a long way in helping me heal. Joe Napolitan changed my world, professionally and personally. I feel blessed to call him my friend.

Richard Schlackman President of RMS Interactive Everyone knows that Joe Napolitan founded the American Association of Political Consultants, the International Association of Political Consultants, and gave form to what he called “political consulting.” Joe was the first political consultant in the modern sense. He was present for most of the milestones of our industry over the last half century.

I first met Joe in 1980, during Tom Lantos’ first run for Congress. He loved working with younger staff, soaking up their energy and their new ideas.

Joe Napolitan was the opposite of a crusty old man set in his ways. Joe was more generous with his time than most knew. Towards the end of his career, Joe focused on projects because they were the right thing to do.

He joined me in Hawaii in the 1990s on the first gay marriage campaign in the U.S.; this was many years before it was professionally safe to do so. Most consultants of his stature would have run the other direction, but not Joe. To most Campaigns & Elections readers, Joe was simply a central figure in campaign consulting folklore. For the privileged few, he was a friend and mentor.

Joe Slade White President of Joe Slade White & Company To have known Joe Napolitan early in my career was like knowing one of the Founding Fathers. He invented political consulting. I’ll never forget the famous memos that Joe would hand type (long before email) to campaigns.

They were single spaced and Joe numbered each thought and command. Joe would simply sit down at his typewriter and out would spill some of the most cogent and brilliant insights ever written about campaigns. Joe just wrote until he didn’t have anything more important to say, and then he’d stop. They weren’t burnished to please anyone but himself, and sometimes they were hilarious in their unaffected bluntness.

As a professional, Joe wasn’t out to make anyone happy. He was out to win. He hated to lose. Yet for those of us who were impossibly young, he was incredibly generous. He never lost his curiosity. He would smile with delight at some new way of looking at a problem. But he never, ever suffered fools gladly—he had no patience with them, really.

I remember one time, years ago, running into Joe in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. I hadn’t seen him for months and I asked, “How’re you doing Joe?” He fixed me with one of his patented Joe Napolitan stares and said, “Well, Joe. If it ever gets to the point where I don’t feel compelled to jump up on a client’s desk and scream at them when they want to do something uniquely stupid, I’ll stop working.”

Like Joe’s memos, it was a good lesson, in politics and in life.

Rick Ridder President of RBI Strategies & Research One of the greatest lessons I learned from Joe: Understand your role, but be direct. Be willing to say what you think regardless of the size of the client’s check book, and regardless of the revenue you may lose if you offend the client.

A story to illustrate the point: It was in the latter part of the 20th Century. The consulting team included me, Joe Slade White, Ace Smith and Joe Napolitan. We were seated with senior campaign staff around a conference table at a campaign strategy meeting.

Our client, a very wealthy Democratic entrepreneur posited the ludicrous idea of endorsing a Republican in another statewide race. We all screamed, “No!” The client was adamant that he was right.

After 20 minutes of the adamant client vs. the consultants and staff, Joe looked up, turned to the client and said, “As far as I know, none of us has made $500 million dollars in business as you have. So, if you want business advice, we may not be the right group from which to seek that advice. But, I have helped elect over 22 heads of state. Joe White here has produced media for numerous U.S. senators and governors. Ace Smith is one of the leading researchers and campaign strategists in the country, and your campaign staff will have to execute whatever campaign strategy we devise. So, you just may, may want to listen to what we have to say about political strategy and how to win your campaign.”

A day later the client called to say he had discarded the idea of endorsing a Republican. He won the election.

Tom Edmonds Past president of the AAPC and current chairman of the IAPC Joe Napolitan is remembered for many things, including coining the phrase “political consultant.”  For me, Joe was the man who extended a hand and welcomed an outsider into his profession.

I didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, but I think his greatest contribution was bringing democracy to the process of selecting candidates—empowering people, if you will. By introducing advertising, marketing and polling techniques to the political arena, he was able to circumvent the party bosses and political process which, up until then, had been dominated by officials in both parties.

What Joe did fundamentally changed the election process in the United States and indeed in much of the world. The impact of that is felt to this very day.

As someone with a background in product advertising, meeting Joe was especially important to me, because he reinforced my belief that there was a more sophisticated way to help candidates win elections.

The other life lesson that Joe left me with is not unlike what we give Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill credit for. Joe had as many close friends who were Republicans as Democrats. He could disagree with you with a smile on his face, a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. Joe is gone, but his impact on our profession will be everlasting.


Share this article


0 comments

Submit a comment

Required field are marked with “*”.