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At Pollies, political operatives come together to honor their own

By T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 11:22 PM

Hollywood has the Oscars and Washington has the "Pollies."

Hundreds of political consultants from across the country - and, to a large extent, around the Beltway - gathered this weekend for the American Association of Political Consultants' awards ceremony for the best political campaigning in 2010.

Prizes included "best campaign manager" to "best door hanger" and "best use of Facebook." Naturally, they also included the "best" attack ads - just don't tell the political operatives that their commercials are negative.

"To me, I wouldn't call it negative," said Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant known for pushing boundaries. "We don't do any negative ads. I actually hate negative ads."

His work for California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R) included using an actor to play her primary opponent, Tom Campbell, dressed as a sheep with glowing red eyes while a voiceover attacked his record on taxes. Fiorina beat Campbell, but lost her challenge to incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in November.

"Is Demon Sheep a negative ad? I call it unique," Davis said. "Is blowing up Barbara Boxer's head to the size of a blimp a negative ad? I call it attention getting."

One ad, which took gold for "best use of humor," was actually an ad deploring political ads. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) repeatedly hops into the shower with all his clothes on in the spot, washing off the ads run against him in the campaign. "I guess I'm not a very good politician because I can't stand negative ads," Hickenlooper says, using his tie as a washcloth. "Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower."

The ceremony was notable for the sheer number of awards, more than 250 with most of those broken down into categories of gold, silver, bronze and honorable mentions. Sometimes two gold awards are given out for one prize.

"Anybody who has been here long enough has won awards," said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant.

New this year: the Tea-Pollies.

Why so many awards?

"We're vain," said Brad Chism, president of Zata 3 Consulting, which won awards for its mail pieces, automated telephone calls and telephone town halls. Two years ago, Chism won the most awards with 33. They arrived in the mail.

"I sent them to our clients," Chism said, "and then bought duplicates for the mantle."

For all of them? "Enough for the mantle."

The attendees were overwhelmingly male, and they mostly wore black suits, with an occasional gray thrown in. The dinner was the culmination of the annual conference of the American Association of Political Consultants, which chose a James Bond theme for the gathering. The 007 theme song combined with clips of political ads was shown at the dinner.

Rich Schlackman, partner at MSHC Partners, won an award for service to the association after two decades on the board. "I never thought a bunch of political consultants were going to make me cry," he said in his acceptance speech. If he was crying, it was difficult to tell.

"I love all the people in this room," he said afterward, "and I'll fight to the death with them."

The association and the dinner are overtly bipartisan, and leadership is shared between Republicans and Democrats. For all the nastiness of the political campaigns its members run, the gathering is notable for its colleagiality.

"It is an unusual organization in that we spend most of our lives trying to defeat each other," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who serves as the association's president. Ayers described working with Ed Goeas, another Republican pollster and the association's treasurer, on the dinner. The two were on opposite sides of the Tennessee gubernatorial primary at the same time they were working on finances for the gathering.

"It was a really odd situation," Ayres said, clearing his throat before adding: "And by the way, I won that particular matchup, just to throw in a little historical tidbit."

The dinner has drawn an increasing membership even in hard economic times, a testament to the ever-growing amount of money spent on politics. Last year's campaign just for House and Senate races was estimated to cost nearly $4 billion. It took Ayres about 15 minutes to read the list of firms winning awards, even with his rapid-fire delivery.

Ron Schneider, a Texas-based consultant, hesitated at first to pay the $185 to nominate his automated telephone call, but he knew he had dynamite - a call recorded by poet Maya Angelou, who was backing Vincent C. Gray (D) for D.C. mayor.

Asked if he wrote his award-winning robocall for Angelou, Schneider said, "No, she's a poet - of course she wrote it!"

The call opens with a rhyme: "Hello. I am Maya Angelou." She then implores listeners to "rise up" and vote, listing different classes of people who are eligible: "Now here's a knock out/even ex-offenders can vote."

Gray's opponent, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), had snubbed Angelou by canceling a meeting with her, making her an easy recruit for the Gray campaign.

"Yeah, she's telling you to vote," Schneider said, "but it's poetry."

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