She won’t hear of it.
“I’m like, ‘But you have to, because you’re a very, very good spokesperson,’ ” she says. “When you find people like that, you encourage them.”
Banister and her colleagues are very, very good at encouraging, advising, cajoling and marketing their clients. With partner Craig Shirley, she heads Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a 10-person shop based in a historic house in Old Town Alexandria. The firm is one of the few in the business that take on only conservative causes. Moderate GOP-compromise types are not welcome.
Since 1984, Shirley & Banister has represented many of the people and groups forming the cornerstone of the modern conservative movement — from well-established outfits such as the National Rifle Association and the Club for Growth to insurgent groups including the Tea Party Patriots. The firm has flacked for commentator Ann Coulter, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign and the filmmakers responsible for “2016: Obama’s America,” which took off in conservative circles for its scrutiny of the president.
Political strategists of both parties have denounced extremism on the right and laid the blame on more than a few Shirley & Banister clients for the Republican Party’s difficulty connecting with moderates. But Shirley and Banister say they are determined to keep the anti-establishment message churning, especially after two consecutive GOP presidential losses and eight years of George W. Bush’s budget busting and “compassionate conservatism.”
“Everything we do is designed to move numbers, shape opinion, advance legislation, put people on book bestseller lists, stop legislation, whatever,” says Shirley, sitting next to Banister in the firm’s conference room. “It’s all designed to advance some type of philosophical goal.”
The room’s TV is tuned to MSNBC, the left-leaning cable channel with round-the-clock political news. The Shirley & Banister Web site features a quote from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow excoriating the “very, very able, very, very connected conservative P.R. firm . . . Shirley & Banister, which howls like a wounded animal anytime we mention their existence on television.”
The channel is a favorite in the office, and not just because being blasted by the ideological opposition adds to the firm’s right-wing bona fides. This is a business, after all. Whereas Fox News is stocked with in-house conservative commentators, MSNBC’s liberal hosts often need a conservative foil. Shirley & Banister is more than happy to oblige.
Old friends and business partners
On a recent afternoon, Banister, who says she is in her 40s (she declines to be specific), and Shirley, 56, return to the office from lunch with Howard Fineman, the editorial director of the left-leaning Huffington Post Media Group and a regular commentator on MSNBC. The three are old friends, and they walk into the office sharing whispers and laughs.
“We were just talking about this with Howard over lunch,” Shirley says. “This is as serious a fight within the Republican Party as I’ve seen before. Depending on how you view the world, there are either two political parties in America or there are three.”
Shirley sees the establishment as the “Inner Party” that George Orwell wrote about in “1984.” “Reagan Democrats, conservatives, the Tea Party, populists, et cetera,” he says, are in the “Outer Party.”
The Ronald Reagan historian and author’s roots in the conservative movement reach back to walking door to door for Barry Goldwater’s campaign with his parents, who were active in the Conservative Party of New York. He graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts and became director of communications for the National Conservative Political Action Committee before founding the public relations firm, which typically works for 25 clients at any time and reports close to $2 million in annual billings.
Shirley and his wife, Zorine, have been married for nearly 32 years. They met during the 1980 campaign season, when Reagan won the presidency by a landslide. Zorine later ran campaign schools for the National Conservative Foundation and was director of the Conservative Political Action Conference for four years. (People are always asking about her ethnic heritage, Shirley volunteers in a subsequent e-mail. “Her father is from Pakistan but his ancestry is Iranian. He is Parsi Zoroastrian. Zorine’s mother was part Mexican, Basque and Scottish.”)
Banister grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Colorado, where everyone she knew was conservative. The only talk-radio station that reached her small town skewed liberal, and she would yell at the radio. After attending Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, she made her way to California, where she campaigned for Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Banister, who is not married, joined Shirley’s firm 16 years ago and now runs the day-to-day operations.
The banter between the two longtime partners is practically spousal.
“I’m retired,” Shirley says.
“Don’t say that,” Banister chides.
“She runs the firm,” he insists.
“He’s always on e-mail. He’s throwing out ideas,” she inserts.
“You know what I am? I am a visiting fireman. I jump in.”
“She’s going to put this in the story.”
‘We aren’t of the Beltway’
The firm has been a Washington institution among conservatives for some 29 years, yet Banister argues that “even though we are inside the Beltway, we aren’t of the Beltway.”
That’s a tough sell.
The office is filled with maroon leather chairs, forest-green carpeting and the requisite D.C. ego wall. There are photos with Reagan, former vice president Dick Cheney and “Hardball’s” Chris Matthews, another MSNBC and Washington personality. Two of Shirley’s four children are working in the office. One answers the phone; his second-oldest is in an upstairs office doing research for Shirley’s coming book on Gingrich’s politics, called “Citizen Newt.”
The shelves are lined with the works of Andrew Breitbart, William F. Buckley, John Bolton, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry — all one-time clients. Shirley & Banister and friendly Alexandria-based rival CRC Public Relations are the firms that very conservative figures use to pitch their messages to the media.
When conservative author Dinesh D’Souza had the idea for a film about what life would be like in 2016 if President Obama were reelected, the co-director and co-writer John Sullivan sat down with Banister to discuss how to promote “2016: Obama’s America.” He had met Shirley at CPAC, which serves as a kind of Woodstock for the political right, and realized they needed the firm to help the documentary go national.
When “2016” was previewed last July on a single screen in Houston, Banister and her team had interviews set up with the city’s talk-radio hosts. The house was packed.
After the Houston opening, the Hollywood Reporter ran an exclusive on “2016’s” surprisingly strong box-office haul ($31,750) there. Soon, Banister had the filmmakers talking to media in Washington, generating a half-dozen headlines about the film, which had the tag line “Love him or hate him, you don’t know him” and argued that Obama harbored anti-colonialist views passed down from the Kenyan father he hardly knew.
“Each market was a make or break for us,” Sullivan said in an e-mail. “As the film gained momentum, they turned their attention towards national media helping us get coverage across the spectrum.”
By August, “2016” was expanded to more than 100 theaters and eventually rolled out to more than 1,000. Banister and her team pitched the film as an unexpected box-office breakout to media outlets across the country. More press, more interest.
“I had my own cousin telling me, ‘You know that film ‘2016’? We’ve got to go see this film,’ ” Banister says proudly.
Mainstream and Hollywood-trade reviews panned it as psycho-political propaganda. (“A cavalcade of conspiracy theories,” wrote a Daily Variety critic.) Conservative-leaning outlets hailed it as a revelation. (“A cautionary tale,” declared the Washington Times.)
“There is ideological bias, and it does affect some news coverage. We understand that. We can deal with that,” Shirley says. “What we can’t put up with is disinformation. Our job is to educate and help our clients educate about what they believe.”
There have been more than 2,000 mentions of the anti-Obama documentary in the news media. It became the second-highest grossing political documentary in recent history — earning $33.5 million on a production budget of $2.5 million, behind Michael Moore’s record-breaking “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Yet some of the most effective work by Shirley & Banister has been for clients angered by the Republican establishment. The firm worked with groups opposing Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, deeming her too moderate and not qualified. Miers’s name was withdrawn amid backlash.
And when the upstart tea party emerged in 2010 as a political force, it was a natural fit.
“We needed to hire a firm to help us get onto TV shows and not just do TV shows, but to do press releases,” says Tea Party Patriots founder Jenny Beth Martin, who lives in Georgia and knew no one in national politics 21
2 years ago.
“She’s a consummate networker,” Martin says of Banister. “I trust her to keep things in confidence and give me advice when I need it.”
In April, even before the Internal Revenue Service scandal broke alleging the agency had targeted conservatives by searching for groups with the words “tea party” and “patriots” in their name, Shirley & Banister got the Tea Party Patriots mentioned 30 times in news accounts and helped craft a press release that read, “Tea Party Patriots to Stage ‘Intervention’ at Senator’s State Offices,” referring to a protest against the efforts of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to forge a compromise on immigration reform.
Shirley describes the firm’s relationship with the GOP as “like operating in different parts of the jungle. We’re in parallel universes. There is some overlap, but to the extent that we do have a relationship, it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys,” he says through laughter.
He latches on to a different analogy: “Cold War. We’re West, and they’re East.”
He immediately takes it back. “Maybe that’s making it too warm.”