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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."
"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."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But the biggest place I thought your article was off target was on the overall theme. The article correctly stated that slate cards got their start in reaction to reform era laws that stopped political parties from endorsing in most races (including non partisan races) and party leaders wanted to get a message out. But even today, most would agree that the parties endorsement process is so corrupt and controlled by a few special interests (read your own stories about the process) that no one takes them seriously as being reflective of the views of the parties voters. For that reason, slate cards are often the only way that grassroots activists have a way of reaching voters. As I mentioned in my interview, I have a committee of activists who decide on the best candidate in each race and I sometimes disagree with the choices and I think that although we miss the mark from time to time, both cards are more closely reflective of the views of party members and grassroots activists than the current party endorsement system with their "paper" clubs and disqualifications of delegates for bogus reasons to get the results the bosses want. It's not a perfect system, but about as good as it gets in politics. JMO!
I should add on the comment about being pressured, that I was asked if I thought slate cards had any value and I replied that there was no way to know for sure since people vote in privacy, but that former President Clinton thought enough of my card to call and ask me to carry Hillary instead of Barack Obama who I carried and I thought that said something. I also gave several examples of calls about local and state races and said that showed both the value elected officials gave to the card and that they knew that I wasn't just about money or they wouldn't have bothered. I did mention the Mike Davis race as one of many examples, but I thought the Clinton example was the most telling. JMO!
As someone who was quoted in the article, I really thought a lot of things were missed. First on John Thomas's comment about "fake" consultants, John is relatively new to the business (although very successful) however because he is new, when I went through a list I had of every slate vendor in the state, I couldn't find one who had not run more campaigns than John. In fact as I told the writer, virtually everyone who publishes a slate could make a lot more money just running campaigns because of the high amount you can charge for media commissions. As was quoted somewhat accurately in the article, most could also make a ton of money spending all of their time lobbying, but these are people who by and large have run statewide campaigns in the past and could continue to do so if they wanted to.