Joe Shumate: Saga of a political wizard

If there was anyone getting excited about computer hardware ads in the newspaper, it was Joe Shumate.

“When we first started working together I noticed how fascinated he was with computers. He’d get excited and ask me to get a newspaper so he could see what was on sale that day at Fry’s,” said Mark Bogetich, a fan  of Shumate’s.

A “brilliant mathematician” and the son of a community bus driver, Joe Shumate became California’s behind-the-scenes Republican powerhouse.

He stumbled only once, badly, during the push a decade ago to oust then-Insurance Commissioner Charles Quackenbush. But that episode, as dark as it was, amounted to only a small bump in a long road that included handling the campaign of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin.

As the numbers guy of political consulting and a key adviser to former governor Pete Wilson, Shumate was fascinated by voter statistics and data technology. He crunched the numbers for countless influential candidates and initiative campaigns throughout California, the United States, and the world before he died last Friday at age 69.

Shumate was advising Carly Fiorina and Steve Cooley at the time of his death. Along with  an extended political family, he left behind a reputation of being Sacramento’s communication wizard, with a knack for using mathematical formulas as the basis for his political strategizing, exploiting data to create the right message targeted at the right time to the right crowd.

“He was a sharp-witted person with a tough exterior – often claiming to be ‘terrible’ – but underneath, the truth is that Joe was a person who was passionate … about investing in those he worked with,” said Fiorina.  

To those he worked with Shumate was a reliable and confident campaign strategist, a magician in his ability to “really see a campaign.”

“He was the most brilliant political demographer in the country. He had a sense of where the voter is like no one else,” said Ron Smith, Shumate’s long-time friend and colleague.
“I had been following his work for a while and I ultimately brought him to the attention of my boss and said “we gotta get this guy! Look at the work he’s doing!” said Smith, a prominent political strategist during the 1960s.  

A huge part of Shumate’s campaign vision came from his foundation in mathematics, which he studied in college while working as an office boy for the Kern County Land Company.
He was always up on the newest technology.

“When he was still in college he developed a demographic pattern to find Democrats who were likely to vote for Reagan and we were convinced that this direct mail pattern played a significant role in Reagan’s win. And he was just a college kid!” said Smith.  

Paul Livermore, formerly a ranking member of the state Republican Party, worked with Shumate for decades to reform legislative district apportionment. Livermore continuously said Shumate was “brilliant, just brilliant.”

“When there was a problem the first thing someone would say was, ‘Talk to Joe.'”

Livermore said Shumate spent his life using computers to draw better districts. Now that the issue of redistricting is on this year’s November ballot, Livermore said, “It is a tragedy that Joe won’t be here to witness it.”

Colleen McAndrews, who worked with Shumate in the late sixties at the San Francisco Republican headquarters, remembered when the newest technology came in the form of data reels and computer cards.

“I think (working at the headquarters) was his first job in politics. We were both just out of college and Joe used to carry around big 18-inch tapes in metal tins, big reels like movie tapes that he kept all his data on. He’d borrow computer time from friendly businesses around town, always pulling all-nighters with his tapes and big stacks of computer cards,” laughed McAndrews.

“Those were the days when we had a group of twenty-somethings in San Francisco who were very connected with the Republican Party,” said McAndrews.

During those days in San Francisco, Shumate met his wife Joyce who was volunteering at the headquarters.

“He was very shy and focused, but he always had a twinkle in his eye. I don’t think she (Joyce) was (shy). I think she was a good influence on him. He became more outgoing as he became more successful.”

He was like a top-notch political consultant and a top-notch pollster rolled into one, said Bogetich. “I always thought of him as the smartest person I’d ever met,” he said.
Shumate ran a prolific consulting firm, Shumate and Associates, out of Sausalito, Calif., where he lived and worked just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge from his alma mater, CSU San Francisco.

Shumate and Associates has a list of clients ranging from ballot initiatives to spot light candidates like John McCain, Steve Poizner, Carly Fiorina and incumbents like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Even though he spent his life working mostly in the shadows of politics, Shumate had his own moments in the limelight. His name gained some international recognition when he became one of three American advisors who helped Russian President Boris Yeltsin win his reelection race in 1996. The campaign caught the attention of Time Magazine, who ran it as a cover story after Yeltsin was reelected. The story was also used for the movie, “Spinning Boris.”

But after serving over 40 years in politics, Shumate had collected his fair share of controversy along with his bottomless list of clients. Political denizens can’t help but recall the disaster that struck when Shumate advised Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

Quackenbush was forced to resign after he’d laundered campaign money via fraud-riddled humanitarian non-profits that he’d created. His top advisors, who were in charge of running the foundations, benefited directly from funds that were allegedly set aside for earthquake and Holocaust victims, among other causes. Joe Shumate was Quackenbush’s lead political advisor.

While none of the money from the various foundations made it into needing hands, millions of dollars went towards creating TV ads for Quackenbush’s non-profit causes, which starred the commissioner himself. Some $175,000 went to Shumate and Associates, who designed and set up the ads.

“He felt he never did anything inappropriate. It was disastrous for him professionally but he never indicated that at all,” said Smith about Shumate’s experience in the scandal.
There was a momentary drop in Shumate’s clientele but in time things began to pick up.

“You know, he’d worked with some of the biggest names in politics. He just had a magic.”

The experience didn’t harden Shumate’s supposed soft spot for insurance commissioners – he ran Steve Poizner’s successful campaign for insurance commissioner a few years after the Quackenbush scandal.

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