Did we, as the finance committee charged, over-step our authority? Certainly, but would it have been more responsible of us to follow orders knowing that doing so would have resulted in a likely defeat, not just for Washington personally but also for the unprecedented and massively successful community organizing work that had mobilized Chicago’s African American community?
The situation we faced in Chicago is not likely to recur. Sophisticated targeting and the ability to pre-test TV spots have taken some of the guesswork out of campaign decisions. And, clearly, a “roadblock” that captures so many voters can no longer be executed.
Instead of a majority of the electorate watching one of three channels during prime time, viewers have scattered themselves over a much wider array of options, making it impossible to aggregate such an audience. Unlike 1983, it’s not possible for an overriding message to break through the fog of ideology, opinion, and junk science that now cloud our political discourse. Nonetheless, our ethically ambiguous decision begs the question: do the ends justify the means? Over long careers and many campaigns, as a general principle, we don’t think so.
Still, there are exceptions, and we believe that the Washington campaign was one. Clearly, a political professional is not comparable to, say, a medical professional dealing with a life or death decision and a misinformed patient. Yet as professional political consultants we often confront situations in which hard data conflicts with client inclinations or beliefs.
Certainly consultants have the option of simply resigning from a campaign if their advice is rejected. Occasionally, however, there are larger issues at stake, as there were in Chicago in 1983 and often are in present-day ballot initiative campaigns. In the end, we see no way around the fact that questions of ends and means have to be evaluated on a case by case basis, which only adds to the ethical ambiguity.
Some, no doubt, will criticize our actions, while others, we hope, will applaud them. We remain comfortable with our decision, given the particulars of the situation, but would welcome a larger discussion of these issues. Political consulting has become more corporatized and regimented than it was in 1983. Today it is rare for one or two individuals to be presented with circumstances like those we faced. Still, it would be better to ponder these issues before they arise instead of one day facing them in the heat of battle.
Writing in 1992, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, noted political communications authority, said this of the final TV ad we aired in that campaign: “There is not a more powerful instance of ‘reframing’ that I know of in the modern history of televised campaigning.” That was gratifying, but not nearly as much as downstream events that occurred even later.
Unbeknown to us at the time, a 24-yearold African American man moved to Chicago to accept a community organizing job two months after Washington’s victory. As he later described it, the victory had created a heady spirit and a new enthusiasm for politics in the city’s black neighborhoods. As a result, he was provoked to consider a political career himself.
Simultaneously, the 28-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who had covered the Washington campaign and had become fascinated by the work we were both doing decided to leave journalism to become a political media consultant. Exactly 25 years after Washington’s victory, the two, Barack Obama and David Axelrod, reframed politics for us all.
Bill Zimmerman is president of Zimmerman & Markman, a California-based political consulting firm. He is the author, most recently, of Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties. Marilyn Katz is the founder and president of MK Communications, a Chicago-based public policy strategy and communications firm. She is a contributor to a number of books, including her most recent, Stopping War, Seeking Justice, with co-author Carl Davidson.