Obituary: Bill Cavala, a master political strategist and mentor to the pros

Bill Cavala, a one-man institution among the Capitol’s legion of campaign strategists, whose guidance both launched and sustained the careers of some of California’s leading political figures over more than 30 years, died over the Christmas holidays.


Colleagues remembered Cavala, 66, as a pioneer in political targeting and strategy, mentor to a generation of Democratic consultants and campaigners and – in a business legendary for fights and feuds – as friendly and warmhearted.


“To say Bill was a campaign genius or had great political acumen was like saying Beethoven was a great musician or Hemingway had a way with words. There is no shortage of us who passed Bill’s wisdom and advice off as our own thoughts,” said Bob Pence, one of many Democratic operatives to learn from Cavala over the years.


“In the political world we all live in, Bill was completely unique. He was the consummate pro, the most loyal of combatants, and the kindest soul,” said Gale Kaufman. “He was a mentor to us all and shared his wisdom and his friendship with no ulterior motive other than the love of what he did.”


But you didn’t have to be a senior strategist to get the benefit of Cavala’s experience and advice. Many a junior staffer plopped themselves in his paper-strewn and smoke-filled office in the Speaker’s Office of Member Services for a word of wisdom from “the professor.”


“He would talk to anyone who needed help, from the lowliest, brand-new staff to the most seasoned, highly paid professional who had just f——up big time,” one longtime staffer recalled. “He never, ever refused to talk to anyone, no matter how deeply mired they were in s—. And he never, ever made you feel you were ridiculous for asking.”


Cavala’s political roots reach back to the 60s. He was a professor in political science at UC Berkeley, but his political instincts were more real world than ivory tower.


“Bill always enjoyed explaining how he knew the `other ways’ to get to political solutions in ways that allowed for more than one to be declared the winner or to be able to claim credit,” said Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb, a graduate student with Cavala at Cal. “We will miss how, after only one drink, he was able to wink and point his finger with a popping sound while uttering pithy discernments. He had the aura of the `the gambler’ who knew when to politically `fold them’ — but he was loyal to his friends.”


Cavala went to work for Assemblymember Bob Crown, joining the likes of State Treasurer Bill Lockyer – then Crown’s chief of staff – former Senate President Don Perata, and longtime Oakland political activist Judith Briggs.


When Crown was struck and killed by a car in 1973, Lockyer was elected to replace him. Cavala ran the campaign.


“Cavala was always the `campaign strategist guy’ — we called him the professor,” Briggs said. “This was before we had polling or anything. In those first campaigns, Bill just told us which precincts to walk, and we did it.”


As many in the bare knuckles world of politics know, there’s nothing like a campaign to forge lasting friendships. Such was the case for Cavala and the generation of up and coming politicians and political operatives who emerged from Alameda County in the ‘70s.


“We were really a family, and that has never changed,” Briggs said.


Cavala virtually wrote the book on running campaigns in marginal seats – those toughest for Democrats to win and hold. He also played a key role in several rounds of redistricting. The combination made his skill set invaluable to legislative leaders.


He went to work for Speaker Willie Brown, and had served as a key campaign strategist for every Speaker since, including Cruz Bustamante, Antonio Villaraigosa, Bob Hertzberg, Herb Wesson, Fabian Nunez and Karen Bass.


“He practically invented targeted direct mail,” said Maggie Linden, who knew and worked with Cavala for decades. “In some ways, Bill was this amorphous person – who ever knew what his title was? But whether it was John Burton or Nancy Pelosi, people would seek him out.”


Cavala loved French wine, fine food and seedy bars. He had a quick wit and a quirky sense of humor. He misspelled Sandi Polka’s name during a campaign in 1979 – but from then on insisted her name was “Sanda” rather than ever admit the mistake.


Cavala had a knack for knowing how to elect Democrats to legislative seats on unfriendly turf, including San Diego and Orange County. He ran Senator Lou Correa’s 2006 campaign, a $7 million slugfest that – as Cavala predicted – came down to just a handful of votes.


He coaxed nervous candidates into campaigns with a bottle of champagne – and convinced others to spare themselves the time and energy of running when they had little chance of success.


Though officially retired from the Legislature, Cavala continued to run legislative races across the state, including Lt. Gov. John Garamendi’s special election race for Congress just last fall.


Cavala knew the limits of campaigning – how far he could bend the rules and how much stock voters would place in even the most cleverly crafted message. In one recent race, though his candidate raised close to $1 million, he sent likely voters just one piece of mail, a strategy he later explained on a political weblog:


“Those of us who have been successful in this business know that while individual voters can be inattentive to the point of stupidity, electorates have a way of absorbing information and making wise collective decisions,” Cavala wrote. “Campaigns are an effort to affect this process by supplying prejudicial information. But when electorates come to a conclusion, they cease to be in the market for information – they ‘tune out’ a campaign as ambient noise.”


Those of us in the campaign world will long remember Cavala as someone with a lot to say — and his own way of saying it — without ever making a lot of noise.

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