What makes the California consulting industry unique? It starts with a combination of big money and big personalities.
This issue's shoptalkers: Rose Kapolczynski, president of the LA-based Democratic firm Rose Kapolczynski Consulting; Adam Probolsky, chairman and CEO of the Republican polling firm Probolsky Research, LLC; Jason Roe, partner at the Republican firm Revolvis; and Garry South, principal at the Santa Monica-based Garry South Group.
C&E: Compare political consultants in California to consultants in Washington. Is it a difference in style, attitude?
Jason Roe: It’s hard to put my finger on a style difference, but it’s easier to be a consultant when you’re based in Washington, D.C. the same way it’s easier to be based in Sacramento—that’s where the money and decision makers are. I go back to D.C. once every six weeks because, if I’m not there, I’m certainly not going to get access. You have folks that, whether they do a good job or not, are almost guaranteed certain contracts. There is a bit of backscratching in the industry.
Rose Kapolczynski: I don’t really think of it as a cultural difference. Washington D.C. is a different place than California, but in the working styles, I don’t really see much of a difference. I do agree with Jason that being present is really important and Washington and Sacramento are where a lot of decisions are made.
C&E: In terms of having a brick and mortar office, do you need to have an actual presence there or can you just fly into D.C. for meetings?
Kapolczynski: I think that’s much less important in the digital age. So much of the work now is done by emails and conference calls rather than through in-person meetings. Sometimes that’s to the detriment of decision making processes and developing a successful strategy; people lean on those tools too much. There are times when you just need a face-to-face meeting to hash things out. But I think brick and mortar offices are a lot less important now than they were at one time.
South: There are a lot of Washington-based consultants who have cast a covetous eye on California and shifted someone out here to work out of their house in Pasadena and try to claim they have a West Coast office. In general, that doesn’t work well. I think one of the classic case studies in how Washington-based folks are mesmerized with Washington-based folks is Bob Shrum. I mean, here’s a guy who, at last count, has lost not one, but seven presidential elections. But as recently as 2004, he was still being fought over. There are consultants in Sacramento, particularly on the Republican side, who have been in the business 34 years and never won a statewide campaign. Yet, they continue to be looked at as sort of the premier consultants to go to.
Kapolczynski: That might make it sound like there’s no opportunity to break into California politics, but I think there is a lot of opportunity due to term limits. There are still people who are moving up and out and find there is no place left to go. So when you end up with a huge multicandidate field, like some of the council races here in LA where you have 13 candidates running, maybe half of them want to hire consultants and campaign staff. Term limits are creating opportunities here that don’t exist in other states.
C&E: What makes the California consulting market distinctive from the rest of the industry? Is it the initiative work and the folks who just focus on that?
Roe: I think so, at least on the Republican side. We know who the initiative consultants are, and rarely do they cross into candidate campaigns. We specialize in candidate campaigns, and while we feel perfectly confident that we could do initiative campaigns, we’re not really in pursuit of that. I think the guys that fill my niche, and Republican consulting in California, are all the same four or so on the candidate side. Independent expenditure stuff is whoever is left—whoever wasn’t good enough to get hired by the candidates to begin with. We’ve been seeing that in a lot of our races. All the good consultants get conflicted out and then whoever is left gets picked up by independent expenditures. Though at some point I think candidate consultants decide they’re sick of dealing with a candidate and decide to consciously move into initiative work to not have to put up with all the grief.
Probolsky: From the pollster perspective, it doesn’t matter to me, because I usually have one of them in between me and the candidate, or between me and the initiative. I don’t have those failings with the campaigns because the campaign manager does the interface with the candidate. I only have to speak to the candidate when we’re reporting the data. So as pollsters we’re kind of ambiguous and we can really go either way.
Kapolczynski: One of the reasons the consulting business is so large in California is just the sheer amount of money in politics here. In some states, you have lots of money from corporate interests; here, some of the biggest funders of initiative campaigns are labor unions. The California Teachers Association and SEIU are usually in the top five spenders on initiatives and legislative races. So, given the size of our state, the wealth here on all sides of the aisle and the interest in influencing public policy, you just see races for city council or for the legislature attracting massive amounts of money both directly into the campaigns and into independent expenditures.
Roe: To prove Rose’s point with an anecdote about California: my senior year of high school, as I was preparing to go to college, my dad who had spent his lifetime working in Republican politics asked what I wanted to study. I told him I wanted to do campaign managing. Well, this was 1988 and he said that was ridiculous—it’s not full time work. What he didn’t know was that I was going to move to California where it actually is full-time work year round.
C&E: Is there a secret sauce to having a successful firm here in California?
Kapolczynski: Be good at what you do. South: Win some elections.
Probolsky: The market is big enough. I think there is room for anyone who wants to come in. Yes, you have to be good, you have to be able to win, but if you’re just a kid who shows up from Chicago and wants to open up a shop you can probably do 10 campaigns next cycle if you want to hustle. You can absolutely show up and embrace the environment—both the Democrat and Republican side. You show up and we’re going to put you to work. And 18 months later, there’s no reason you can’t be on staff somewhere or be a chief of staff for a legislator.
South: I moved here in 1991 and had never lived in California for a day and never done a California campaign. Within two years, I was running what was ultimately a successful campaign for lieutenant governor. Rose mentioned the council district races here, where in some cases you had 12 or 13 candidates. I can tell you that there is no way when you have 13 candidates running in a council district in LA that you’re going to get 13 quality consultants available to do those races. I couldn’t mention off the top of my head 13 consultants in California.
The reality is that some of these candidates get stuck with inexperienced and sub-par consultants that don’t serve their interests. This happened with friends of mine who were running in certain council districts. They ended up with bad consultants who didn’t know what they were doing and screwed up their races completely. So there’s enough of a market here that if you’re good and you kind of bubble to the top with a couple of races here and there, you can live the rest of your life here pretty well.