Nonetheless, Secret found himself facing rumors that CSA was taking on work for cost, or worse, for free, to keep pace with the growing competition. Word was that the frustration of confronting what he thought was a biased DCCC –– without the NCEC relationship –– had caused him to snap, and his fellow sharks smelled blood.
Feeling under attack, Secrest –– who argues that he is at least as instinctively aggressive as sharks and mother bears –– fought back hard. That, he concedes, is one way to build a reputation.
“Did we go to a discount operation? No. There’s more to it than that,” Secrest explains.
“For a variety of reasons –– races being underfunded, for example –– in our association with NCEC or the Democratic Study Group we have made available to congressional candidates a varied price structure. Right now we have a relationship with AMPAC. They pay for a benchmark and contribute it to the campaign. That’s why that perception has emerged over the years. What we have done for some NCEC-type clients –– i.e., challengers who typically are underfunded, maybe a progressive incumbent that might have worked with NCEC before –– is to offer a Tier B price scheme that saves them a little bit compared to what they would pay coming in just over the transom. It costs more than [under the contract with] NCEC, but it’s not full freight. I don’t know what other pollsters do, but I think you have to be flexible in your pricing or you go out of business.
“Another thing we do from time to time is we’ll do a project for close to cost –– an individual poll, not a full campaign –– and the rationale is that it’s good for business,” Secrest says. “I’m talking about something that helps someone get over a rough spot. We offered our services to [Seattle Mayor] Norm Rice, a former congressional candidate of ours. It’s certainly something clients appreciate.”
While reluctant to pronounce the patient cured, most agree that today’s Secrest has mellowed.
The mythology of Secrest the Aggressor, however, persists. George Burger, of the general consulting firm of Burger & Lunde, says he dreaded the prospect of working with him this year.
“From what I heard, I was prepared not to like him. I expected someone who would be terse and short and all business. And I found someone who was generally a nice guy. Maybe I’m the exception, maybe I’m the rule.”
Less than a minute later, Burger adds, “But you should know I’m the type of person who would never speak ill of a person even if I hated them because it never does you any good.”
A couple of more minutes later, Burger adds, “Winning is the only thing to these guys. Generally, it’s collegial but prickly. I have never experienced Alan negative-selling his competition.”
“It’s like it is with a doctor. Do you want someone with a good bedside manner or do you want someone who’s highly competent?” says Riley Grimes, administrative assistant to Secrest client Rep. Dave Nagle (D-IA). “Alan doesn’t inject his services by handholding or ego building. He’s pure doctor. HE doesn’t come in and micromanage the organization. He doesn’t pander to the candidates; I think there’s a great temptation among other pollsters to do that. He basically lets the product speak for itself.”
“When he gives you information, it’s not like it’s coming out of a can. It’s a precise presentation with thoroughly explained numbers. He’s prepared,” says Josh Groves, administrative assistant to Rep. George Hochbreuckner (D-NY), who first lost with Secrest in an ’84 challenge before winning election to Congress in 1986 with Secrest as his pollster. “His information is applicable to the way we want to conduct the campaign. His interpretive abilities are excellent. He brings raw data alive. He’s available when we need to speak to him about something. Whether it’s 10 o’clock at night or seven in the morning, his time is our time and our time is his time.”
Says Dennis King, administrative assistant to Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL), “Some pollsters try to become a Svengali. Alan’s a team player. Instead of trying to make the candidate fit his expectations of what the candidate should be, he listens. Some pollsters give you the feeling that if only the candidate and his campaign will get out of the way, the pollster can win. Alan is definitely not one of those. He really listens to what the candidate and campaign have to say.”
“It’s important that the candidate and the campaign manager have a good rapport and develop a certain trust,” says Bill Johnstone, Sen. Wyche Fowler’s (D-GA) administrative assistant. “IT was important to us that we have a group of consultants that work well with each other. The one thing in particular with Alan that we liked was his candor and his ability to give bad news as well as good. He’s never shied away from expressing his opinion on the bad news,” he adds with a laugh.
One congressional campaign CSA was working this year in Nebraska’s Third District threatened bad news –– for Secrest.
When the Teamsters union maxed out in contributions to his client, former party chairman Scott Sidwell, they allegedly attempted to launder payment for $5,000 CSA poll through the Lupe County Democratic party, headed by Sidwell committee chairman Morgan Berwell. While Berwell shared the results of the five-minute poll with Sidwell and Ben Nelson, a gubernational candidate and CSA client, they were not released right away to Sidwell’s primary opponents.
“This has nothing to do with Cooper & Secrest,” says Secrest.
“Alan might not have known the entire program, give that he was also doing Nelson. He might have thought it appropriate,” says Rick Ridder, general consultant to the eventual primary winner, Sandy Scofield.
“Even if it’s not a legal no-no –– and that’s a little unclear –– it’s perceptionally stupid because it looks like [Sidwell] was trying to evade the law,” Ridder adds.
The poll financing was bothersome to Scofield, but what really disturbed her camp, says Ridder, was another Secrest Letter, this one circa 1990. Under his firm’s letterhead, Secrest sent a memo to national PACs stating that Scofield flip-flops on abortion. When the Women’s Campaign Fund, EMILY’s List, and the DCCC asked Secrest to back up his statements, he didn’t, and instead rewrote the letter immediately.
“To a large extent,” says Ridder, “Alan was fed lousy data from the [Sidwell] campaign, and he acted accordingly. The Sidwell camp said a lot of bullshit and put CSA in a bad spot. But, then again, Alan might have asked more questions and one more follow-up.
“This,” Ridder continues in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I tone of voice, “is a grey area for all pollsters in serving their clients. Alan’s caught in a very broad textural question as to the role of the pollster in a campaign. He may have given advice that was ignored, or he may have been given bad information.”
Either of those scenarios would be the least surprising to David Cooper, Secrest’s former partner.
“Whatever anyone has to say [about Secret’s integrity] is innuendo,” says Cooper, who is studying the Torah in Jerusalem. “In this business of integrity, honesty, and reliability are the most important things with your pollster. Alan’s never going to manipulate or falsify or make it look better or worse. He’s going to tell it like it is. He’s one of the most honest guys I know. He’s a very rare person in Washington. He can be counted on.”
Yet another anonymous pollster offers a less fraternal but, even Secrest agrees, more accurate assessment of this tempest’s role in the political teapot. “I think hardly any of us have come to an honest sense of what the balance is between political allegiance and being in business. Alan has. He’s in business. In some ways he’s playing a more honest game than the rest of us. But he’s also not playing the same game as the rest of us.”
Editor’s Note (July 1990): Sometimes you stir the pot and the brew thickens, other times it becomes crystal clear. As this article went to press, Alan Secrest called Rahm Emanuel to “bury the hatchet,” at the urging of DCCC Political Director Doug Sosnik. “I pushed Alan to make the call,” says Sosnik. “He had some making up to do.”
“I thought it was time to put this behind us,” says Secrest.
Emanuel agrees. “He called me. We put our stuff behind us,” he says.