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Capitol Weekly profile: Gale Kaufman

Political consultant Gale Kaufman at her Sacramento office. (Photo: Scott Duncan, Capitol Weekly)

Gale Kaufman was campaigning in California before Arnold Schwarzenegger was Conan the Barbarian.

Kaufman, a bare-knuckled Democratic strategist, is as little known to the public as she is famous among political pros. When talk in the political world turns to “Gale,”  everyone knows it’s a reference to Kaufman.

More than a decade later, she is still best remembered for her clash with Schwarzenegger.

She has been the campaign commander for the California Teachers Association, SEIU and other powerful labor groups in myriad, high-profile elections — almost all of which she won. In 2012, she successfully blocked — yet again — an attempt by business interests to cripple the ability of unions to raise political cash. A partial list of her campaigns and clients can be seen here.

In 2016, in her latest contests, she successfully campaigned to legalize recreational marijuana use and extend income taxes. She’s handled ballot measures in every campaign cycle since 1998. Last month, Kaufman was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Association of Political Consultants.

But more than a decade later, she is still best remembered for her clash with Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger was still in body-building mode in 1980, winning his seventh Mr. Olympia title and preparing for what would become his breakout movie role.

Kaufman has been a potent force in California political campaigns for 35 years and counting.

Kaufman, meanwhile, was building a different set of skills in the day-to-day grind of a losing effort to return Democrat Jim Corman to Congress.

Neither could have imagined that 25 years later, they would square off in a political battle royal.

Schwarzenegger backed a series of measures aimed squarely at Democratic interests. Kaufman successfully led campaigns to eviscerate Schwarzenegger’s political agenda at the ballot box, defeating his entire package of measures in the 2005 special election. The effort, which brought the film super hero to his political knees, received national attention.

Before the battle, she sat down with Schwarzenegger chief strategist Mike Murphy — who has advised gubernatorial and presidential contenders — and tried to warn him off.

“I told him, ‘You don’t know me, you don’t have to trust me, but I could keep you from embarrassing yourself,’ ‘’ Kaufman recalled. “You’re never going to win this. I’ve done this campaign before.”

After the election, Murphy offered his own assessment.

“The easiest thing to do is to win a ‘no’ campaign,” he told the L.A. Times. “All you need is money and a lot of lies. They had plenty of both,” he said.

“I give credit for the (Kaufman) victory to $150 million. Somebody better could have done it for $100 million,” he added.

As speaker, Brown remade the once-sleepy offices of the Assembly’s Democratic caucus into a political hothouse from which a generation of consultants would emerge.

In a profession where talented people often burn out or blow up, and where clients are easily captivated by new names and faces, Kaufman has been a potent force in California political campaigns for 35 years and counting.

It is a period marked by wholesale changes to the ground rules for campaigns, from the imposition of legislative term limits to the rise of multi-million dollar independent expenditure campaigns.

While others have occasionally climbed to the top of the consulting heap, Kaufman has gotten there — and stayed there — by repeatedly winning the big races.

Every bit the product of the house that former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. built, Kaufman made her way from the Corman race in the San Fernando Valley to Sacramento, and a job at the Speaker’s Office of Member Services, a political operation headed then by Richie Ross.

As speaker, Brown remade the once-sleepy offices of the Assembly’s Democratic caucus into a political hothouse from which a generation of consultants would emerge.

But while others spent much of their careers working within the building – taking leave each cycle to run campaigns – Kaufman struck out on her own, establishing her firm in 1987.

“I was one of the first women – but really, I was one of the first people, period,” she said. “When I started my business, no one knew what a political consultant was.”

Kaufman slowly built a client list that included dozens of officeholders, including Assemblyman Steve Clute, Rep. Barbara Lee, and Jack O’Connell, who served in both the state Assembly and Senate before serving two terms as state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“Gale and Richie were never on the same side even when they were on the same side,” Katz said.

Her victories in legislative races over the years means she can claim a share of the credit for major Democratic achievements, said Richard Katz, who served in the Assembly from 1980 to 1986.

“Gale may not have been a member of the Legislature, but in effect, her imprimatur is on a lot of the progressive policies California enacted,” Katz said. “All those members she got elected owed their jobs to Gale.”

Kaufman made a detour back to the building in the 1992 to oversee the Office of Member Services, cementing a relationship with Brown that continues to this day.

At a ceremony last month where she was inducted into the AAPC’s Hall of Fame, Kaufman called Brown not just a mentor but “as close as a member of my family.”

When it comes to Kaufman and Ross, it’s difficult to know where the facts end and the legend of their long-running rivalry begins. Ross also was a close Brown associate and powerful political consultant.

“Gale and Richie were never on the same side even when they were on the same side,” Katz said.

Kaufman, like others who have worked with him, credits Ross for much of what she learned about how to run a campaign.

In 2002, Kaufman made the leap to running statewide races, starting with Jack O’Connell’s campaign for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But they ultimately found themselves on opposite sides in several Democratic primaries and, later, in tussles over the Assembly speakership.

Between their strong personalities and their dominance of the Sacramento political landscape, many Capitol staffers chose sides, with “Richie people” suspicious of “Gale people” – and vice-versa.

“A lot of it is mythology,” Kaufman said. “But ultimately, it was about business.’’

Ross did not respond to an interview request.

But the two did set their differences aside one fall evening in preparation for the 2000 campaign cycle.

In the back room of a restaurant near the Capitol, Democratic staffers gathered after hours for a final training session and pep talk before heading to field campaigns in battleground districts.

“Gale and Richie’s Rules of the Road,” featured Kaufman and Ross taking turns laying down the law to those who would spend the next two months making phone calls and walking precincts to defend the Democratic majority. They issued their final commandment in unison: “Two words: Shut the fuck up!”

In 2002, Kaufman made the leap to running statewide races, starting with Jack O’Connell’s campaign for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Labor spending to defeat Proposition 226 topped $24 million, and jockeying among consultants for a slice of the business was intense.

“We did these funny commercials with him stepping out of the ocean with flippers and a mask – with the card table,” said political strategist Robin Swanson, who then worked for Kaufman.  “That was what he was known for. What Gale tapped into was authentic Jack.”

Hokey? Perhaps. But also effective in drawing favorable attention to a down-ballot contest.

Kaufman developed close ties with CTA’s John Hein and SEIU’s Dean Tipps, and she credits both for sharing their political acumen and for helping steer business her way.

In 1998, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson backed Proposition 226, which would have required labor unions to obtain written consent to use dues for political campaigns. Labor spending to defeat the measure topped $24 million, and jockeying among consultants for a slice of the business was intense.

“Dean and John pushed hard for me to do it,” Kaufman said. “It was a real turning point for me.”

Kaufman won the gig heading up the campaign, and managed the task of keeping the many voices inside a large campaign – and the often outsized personalities who represent them – singing from the same political song sheet.

“She knows how to keep people together and focused,” said pollster Mark Mellman, who worked with Kaufman opposing Prop. 226 and on many a campaign since.  “I called her ‘tough as nails and smart as a whip.’”

Tough is certainly a defining feature of the Kaufman brand, and Kaufman doesn’t shy away from her reputation for being, well, direct.

“I’m very blunt,” she said. “I know what people say about me. But I also know how to finesse a situation when I need to.”

Prop. 226 went down to defeat, and Kaufman became the go-to choice for CTA on school bonds and other major issues – a role she has continued to play even after a new set of leaders rose through the union’s ranks.

“Doing these, the intensity, you have to have a stomach for it,” Kaufman said. “You’re always proving yourself. You have to win. Winning is really important. I took the hardest campaign I could and I knew if I won it, I would have more opportunities.”

“I’ve never heard a phone call like the one I heard between Gale and Warren Beatty.”  — Robin Swanson.

By the time the 2005 special election rolled around, Kaufman was positioned to take a leading role in the campaign against the Schwarzenegger initiatives.

Early polling showed substantial support, and the celebrity governor drew media attention wherever he went.

“He was – at the time – larger than life,” Swanson said. “There was this hubris, that he could do anything. Gale Kaufman saw the weakness in that hubris, threaded that needle and took him down.”

When Schwarzenegger planned a statewide bus tour to close the campaign, opponents recruited some star power of their own – Warren Beatty and Annette Bening – to accompany state union leaders, Swanson said.

But at the last minute, Beatty called and said he didn’t want to go.

Kaufman got on the phone.

By the end of the lengthy conversation, Beatty decided to make the trip.

“I’ve never heard a phone call like the one I heard between Gale and Warren Beatty,” Swanson said. “But by the end of the call, he was getting on the bus.”

Beatty himself later told the L.A. Times that Kaufman was “silver-tongued … and very energetic and very persuasive and no-nonsense.”

For Swanson, there was a valuable lesson about Kaufman in the dust-up.

“I don’t think people want to be on the opposite side of her,” Swanson said.  “She has had staying power. She’s still Gale.”

Ed’s Note: Paul Hefner, a former reporter and retired state worker, has worked as a political strategist for legislative and statewide campaigns.

 

 

 

 


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