Political advertising is not exactly built on a foundation of honesty. Campaign literature tends to fall somewhere between glib hyperbole and outright deceit. Perhaps in no other area is this more evident than in the seedy world of "slate mailers."
"The only thing worse than the mailers themselves are the people that sell them," says L.A. Republican political consultant John Thomas. "They're bottom-feeders — fake consultants."
If you are on record as ever having voted in an L.A. municipal election, this month your mailbox will jam up with photo-filled mailers in advance of the March 5 primary for mayor, City Council, city attorney, controller, Los Angeles Unified School Board and community college trustees.
But not all mailers are created equal.
Take a lesson from 2012, when a colorful flier sent by "Citizens for Good Government" depicted an American flag and photos of Republicans Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan on its front and on the back an elephant and endorsements for Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Emken.
The inside pages, however, touted some surprising names: Democratic State Assemblyman Mike Gatto and Democratic candidate for district attorney Jackie Lacey. It encouraged a Yes vote on Proposition 30 (raising taxes to plug up the state deficit) and No on Proposition 32 (which aimed to limit unions' ability to raise money for politics) — the exact opposite of the Republican Party line.
But on that and many other slate mailers, the "endorsements" have asterisks. Those asterisks indicate that the candidates have, in fact, paid to be on the flier; no party is endorsing them at all.
The 2012 slate mailer contained a disclaimer that Citizens for Good Government was not an official party organization (of either side), and that, well, you'd simply gotten sucked into looking at a bunch of very small advertisements by people wishing to hold political office.
"There's a limit on how far you can defend it," admits Tom Kaptain, who produces the Citizens for Good Government mailer, plus a Democratic-themed slate mailer called "Democratic Voters Choice" — another completely meaningless group.
Those groups' mailers soon will appear in a mailbox near you. You might also get the "Budget Watchdogs Newsletter," the "CA Law Enforcement Voter Guide" or the ubiquitous "COPS Voter Guide."
"Voters don't understand," says Bob Stern, a good-government advocate. "They don't understand that candidates are paying to be on it. And they don't understand that the group name doesn't necessarily reflect what the group stands for."
Kaptain, a former political consultant, defends his profit-making slate mailers as "a way to help my friends, and keep my finger in." He says he could earn more money as a lobbyist — in fact, "everyone in the slate business could make millions as a lobbyist. We know everybody. I know every councilman in every small town in California."
The subterranean industry of sending fake endorsements to voters' homes isn't much work. Kaptain says one of the toughest parts is being "willing to take guff, because people are calling you all the time and pressuring you" to sell a spot to their friends or the candidates they're repping.
Perhaps the most successful slate-mail producer in L.A. is Democratic political consultant Larry Levine, whose glossy "Election Digest" ends up in hundreds of thousands of homes each election cycle.
Levine says that, while he's doing it for profit, he seriously considers the question of which Democrats he allows to purchase a place in his glossy mailer.
"There are slates out there that will [sell spots to] the highest bidder," he sniffs. "They give the rest of us a bad name."
Levine says he cares about each Democratic candidate's ideology, electability and, perhaps most important, which political consultant the candidate has hired. That's because L.A. political campaigns are a clubby world; many consultants have special relationships with slate-mailer publishers to help ensure that a competing candidate can't buy space.
Kaptain says that often, Democratic Party bigwigs lean on him to "endorse" someone. (Translation: Save an advertising spot for their pet candidate.)
This year, party leaders in Sacramento have been calling Kaptain, trying to convince this obscure ad man to "endorse" Curren Price for City Council District 9 downtown.
District 9 is an ugly race, stemming from an ugly gerrymander in which City Councilwoman Jan Perry's downtown voting district was slashed up and given radically different borders. Price, a fixture in Inglewood city politics who tried to become its mayor, moved into Perry's district last fall to run for the powerful and lucrative Los Angeles City Council seat, which pays $178,789 per year.
But Latino leaders are pushing hard in District 9 for Ana Cubas, a charter-school advocate and former top aide to Councilmember Jose Huizar. Kaptain, for his part, has told the Sacramento leaders that he's already committed to (sold an ad space to) Assemblyman Mike Davis.
"You don't want to say publicly, 'This is why I made the choice,' " says the forthcoming Kaptain. "So you say, 'He got to me first.' " He adds, "Don't get me wrong, if I got a million dollars [from] someone, I'm gone. But most people [we sell spots to], we've been involved with for a long time."
Dan Walters, veteran political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, says most publishers of slate mailers are more mercenary than Levine or Kaptain. "Everybody knows, but nobody will say publicly, that much of it is a shakedown," Walters says. Slate-card publishers "go to a campaign and say, 'Pay us X dollars, or we'll endorse your opponent for free!' "
Selling spots on slate mailers is thought to be unique to Californian, the product of a purposely designed weak-party system from Progressive-era reformers who wanted to bar the parties from setting up handpicked candidates to run in purely local races such as mayor.
Because the parties were banned from paying for election mailers, local candidates and their strategists banded together to create joint campaign mail and split the mailing costs. For years, Levine says, "It was just doing 'joint mail' to save money."
But in the 1970s, Democratic consultants Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino, who ran Berman & D'Agostino — or BAD — began turning it into a far crasser industry, albeit almost by accident.
"They used to send out three mailers" promoting all the candidates who had hired them as consultants, says Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran consultant, and those mailers were carefully designed to look "like [they were from] three different sources."
The Berman and D'Agostino sleight-of-hand was so effective that other Democrats started begging for spots on the mailers — so BAD started charging money for ad space while giving its own candidate-clients free space.
Soon Hoffenblum, Levine and others started imitating them, and the next wave of consultants flat-out sold the spots for profit.
"When consultants saw how much money we were making, every consultant said, 'I want a slate card!' " Hoffenblum says.
Los Angeles voters never really caught on to the deception.
Mike Shimpock, a political consultant with SG&A Campaigns, openly admits that it's "involuntary marketing" to voters. "You have to market to people that aren't willing — and the way that's done is repetition," sending out piles of mailers with the same politician hopefuls listed again and again.
Jackie Lacey, L.A. County's first female and first black district attorney, spent most of her campaign cash during the 2012 primary — more than $700,000 — buying space on 24 different slate mailers.
Many of her "endorsers" had inventive names: "California Latino Voters' Guide," "Democrats for a Better California," "Republican Voter Checklist" and "Independent Voters League." These weren't legit organizations. Just bite-size ads.
Her primary victory over rival Alan Jackson was "living proof that slate mailers work," insists Fred Huebscher, a slate-mailer publisher. "She had much less money [than Jackson] but was on almost every piece of slate mail."
Kaptain, who is openly ambivalent about his industry, says, "You get a little nervous. ... You wish [voters] followed this stuff closely."
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