Watching The Schlackman

NOV. 22, 2010

Contrary to popular belief, spending a couple hours in a hearing room listening to 20 political consultants, analysts and bureaucrats talk about something called “The Political Reform Act” isn’t my favorite way to spend afternoon. But, truth be told, there are worse things to do than attend the monthly meetings of the Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman’s Task Force on the Political Reform Act. And that, in no small part, is due to the participation of a single task force member: Richard Schlackman.

It’s a disservice to Schlackman to call him a mere political consultant (he’s a partner at MSHC Partners) and San Francisco resident. “Ask anyone in Washington about Rich Schlackman, and they’ll tell you that Rich is the man singularly responsible for reinventing targeted direct mail across America,” states this profile of him on the American Association of Political Consultants Web site. “Known as the ‘California Style’ Rich created a new school for direct mail that involved an innovative visual mix of graphics and emotions, backed with intensive demographic strategies.”

Schlackman differs from the other two-dozen or so members of the Political Reform Act task force in that he is an unabashed, unafraid defender of the political consultant industry. Whenever someone would suggest a possible change that would in some way force those who make slate mailers, television ads or even robocalls to make some additional disclosure of funding, I’d look over at Schlackman as he slouched in his chair, his white beard wrapped around a wry smile, and I’d know something good was coming.

“What is our goal here?” he asked during the Nov. 17 meeting after one task force subcommittee suggested a series of regulations governing robocalls – automated campaign voicemail messages – including the need for a live person to come on the line if a person answers the phone, disclaimers and even a optional “do not call” list for those who don’t want to receive any political robocalls. “This is a free speech issue. What is the FPPC’s policy? Destroy the robocall industry?”

“I’d like to see a disclaimer before the message,” said FPPC Chairman Dan Schnur.

“That will destroy the industry,” Schlackman said, shaking his head, as the rest of the task force sat in awkward stillness.

Schlackman is a street brawler in a room full of suits. At first I thought him an enemy of reform, but as the months went by I realized he’s actually a passionate advocate of a very different method of political reform than that usually practiced by the FPPC.

This became abundantly clear when a task force member suggested putting “paid for by” disclaimers on all political ads, including lawn signs, e-mails and billboards.

“I have real problems with this,” Schlackman said. “It’s false reform. We just had an election that showed money doesn’t buy results. What you have to do is make it easier for the other side to see who paid for the campaign.”

“So you’re suggesting public funding of opposition researchers?” Schnur asked, only half-joking.

Schlackman smiled and the room burst into laughter, but what he’s asking for isn’t far from that. Schlackman wants it very easy for consultants (and, by extension, the press) to find out who’s funding campaigns and to what extent. He wants the disclosure burden on candidates and officials, not the advertising. Indeed, during the portion of the hearing dealing with a recommendation that the Secretary of State’s office create a massive online database of all state and local campaign finance information, Schlackman didn’t say a word.

To Schlackman, placing dollar amounts on slate mailers to show how much candidates paid to appear on the mailer is bad, Bad, BAD. “I’m totally against putting dollar amounts because then you’ll put this industry out of business,” Schlackman said.

But how about requiring public officials to disclose the names of mutual funds they invest in? “I want disclosure of mutual fund names,” he said. “Not the amount, but the names, because it’s a campaign issue.”

Of course, the irony is that Schlackman was on a subcommittee charged with recommending disclaimer language for slate mailers. It wasn’t surprising, then, that he focused on things like increasing font size instead of mandating certain language.

“We were very nervous about the language,” he said, “because I’m a good schemer.”

The Task Force will finalize its recommendations at its Dec. 14 meeting.

–Anthony Pignataro

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