December 20, 2008

Book Report

How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative
By Allen Raymond
Simon & Schuster, 2008

The 1988 Orange County, California Republicans received high marks for dirty tricks when they placed uniformed guards at polling places. This idea successfully intimidated immigrant voters and diminished the turnout in spite of a huge Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. Blue uniformed and blue-eyed guards were dispatched to polling places with instructions to remind Hispanic-appearing voters that they were being watched. Unpopular GOP assemblyman Curt Pringle won re-election by a hairline margin. A lawsuit was settled by Assemblymen Pringle and John R. Lewis, as well as the Orange County Republican Committee, for the amount of $400K. The GOP admitted no wrongdoing, of course.

This particular intimidation practice has a long history. Author Allen Raymond, in his book How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, tells us that original credit should go to New Jersey Republicans and the RNC. In 1981 they dispatched uniformed and armed guards with black armbands to polling places in largely minority districts. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Keene won the election by a similarly fine margin. This lawsuit cost them a cool million, but won the Governor’s Mansion for the GOP. Raymond’s tome is rife with similar dirty tricks designed by campaigns to sway voters and win elections by deception – ethics be damned.

The author is a graduate of Georgetown’s Baruch Graduate School of Politics. He relates the central philosophy of the school to be "The candidate who asks, 'Is it fair to get me elected this way?' is a candidate who's never won". Politics at Georgetown is taught as a “blood sport.”

Before reading this book I pictured those who would manipulate elections as some sort of starry-eyed idealists bent on saving the world. This was not the case for the author. Politics was nothing more than a job. He freely admits his greed, stating that he went with the GOP because “That’s where the money was.” It didn’t take long for me to understand I really wouldn’t want this guy over for dinner. His tale is filled with adventures where he derives sadistic pleasure by cutting the legs from under an opponent.

Raymond’s political involvement started with the Steve Forbes presidential campaign of 2000, and ended with his 2005 conviction for conspiracy to commit telephone harassment. Under contract by the GOP, his telemarketers bombarded Manchester, New Hampshire Democratic phone banks with thousands of hang-up calls, jamming the lines just as they were gearing up for an election day get-out-the-vote effort. In that 2002 contest, Republican John Sununu ousted Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen by a razor thin margin.

Raymond tells of starting the web-enabled telemarketing service following the failed Forbes campaign, selling his services to a variety of unsavory characters and utilizing the most underhanded tactics. He describes attempts to anger undecided voters with spoof calls during the Super Bowl supporting the opposition; demographically targeted push polls (which are now illegal); and a variety of other dirty tricks. When contacted by GOP officials offering the Manchester contract, Raymond barely hesitated. The money was too good.

Raymond was convicted and sentenced to five months imprisonment, of which he served three. The person who hired Raymond’s firm and directed the effort, New Jersey GOP executive director Charles McGee received a seven month sentence for his part. Also convicted was James Tobin, Northeast Field Director for the NRSC (National Republican Senatorial Committee). Tobin refused to cooperate with investigators and has since had his conviction overturned on appeal. Raymond feels he was “thrown under the bus” by the GOP. Neither Raymond nor McGee received any support from the GOP. Their effort was labeled “rogue”, while records indicate the RNC footed all legal bills for Tobin (in excess of $1 million), and later Tobin’s wife was employed by the NRSC as a consultant.

Of interest are telephone records for Tobin, indicating several hundred coincidentally timed calls to the White House office of Political Affairs, at the time headed by Kenneth Mehlman. Mehlman later headed the 2004 Bush/Cheney re-election campaign, and still later became Chairman of the RNC. Kind of a neat little package for a conspiracy buff.

Greed and selfishness drip from the pages of the book, all of which tends to color a reader’s perception of the author. In Raymond’s narrative he describes a not-at-all surprising prison conversion to the ministry of truth, but his bitterness is enough to give the GOP cause to deny the claims. The GOP’s denial of support was obviously the prime motivator in Raymond’s sudden change of heart. While the tales may be valid, the messenger’s rap sheet steals his thunder.

The villains in this story run deep and broad, with almost every candidate, and the author, guilty of some deeply unethical behavior. Statements such as, “When I was working, the main thing was to win, not to be moral”, leave the reader questioning the character of all who would run for office or work in a campaign. One is left to remember Raymond conspiring with GOP strategists and gleefully counting coup on the opposition.

Raymond deserves no respect, but is certainly correct about one thing. In closing he identifies with whom the ethical and moral responsibilities must lie – the voter.

An informed electorate may not always spot the shill or the new game, but neither will they be as easily led as the ignorant. Once burned, twice skeptical. We should seek truth – no matter what the popular media blazes across the front page. At the very least, this book should serve to reveal some of the dirty tricks so we might be vigilant.

As the right changes their definition of liberalism, so do the liberals alter the definition of conservatism. Both seem to be running toward the poles, leaving political moderates a large playing field. Hard core partisans on either side will gain no benefit from this book, but skeptics might.