In a run off for a seat on Charleston City Council, Ginger Rosenberg spent $2,146 — most of it went to stamps and FedExKinkos. Her opponent, Dean Riegel, spent $3,600 — all of it to consultants. Guess who won.
Looking back, Rosenberg thinks that a little help would have been nice — especially in those final days. She had hard-working, dedicated volunteers, but the thought of hiring someone seemed too expensive and unnecessary.
"Having a consultant in a municipal race seemed a little over the top," she says.
Election results suggest it's not only a savvy political move — even in local races — it's an important tool for victory. In the four contested races for Charleston City Council, the winners in each spent thousands of dollars on political consultants.
For a seat representing part of the peninsula and neighborhoods just across the Ashley River, Mike Seekings spent $30,000 on well-known GOP consultant Rod Shealy. The community newspaper publisher has advised candidates across the state, including Lt. Gov. André Bauer, Congressman Henry Brown, former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, and former Rep. Wallace Scarborough. He also advised Charleston City Councilman Tim Mallard in his 2007 campaign unseating incumbent Anne Francis Bleecker. Seekings won his race, beating 20-year incumbent Yvonne Evans.
Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic consultant who spends much of his time on Statehouse races, pitched in on Mayor Joe Riley's reelection campaign in 2007, providing help with voter turnout. McIntosh says progressive candidates need to utilize the same tools that proved effective for Seekings, as well as Reigel and Blake Hallman, the new West Ashley councilmen who employed GOP consulting firm UPT Strategies.
"Sooner or later progressives are going to have to come up with their own answer to Rod Shealy," McIntosh says. "You don't bring a dull pocket knife to a gun fight."
Brady Quirk-Garvin helped Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson in her reelection race to represent James Island. He says the assistance is almost a necessity these days. He's off the campaign trail this year, working instead for a nonprofit.
"For better or worse, having that level of support isn't the only factor in determining the winner, but it's an important factor," he says.
The consultant bug hasn't reached every race. In Mt. Pleasant, at least three of the four successful candidates for Town Council won without consultants (campaign filings weren't available for Linda Page). But, in a diverse city like Charleston, it's important to have the help.
It used to be that Charleston neighborhoods were closely knit. Stopping by community meetings in the weeks before an election allowed candidates to get their message out to key voters.
"That's not the way the world works anymore," McIntosh says.
Particularly for municipal elections like Charleston's, which fall in odd years, outside of statewide or national races that drive most voters to the polls.
"A consultant has the ability to identify voters, motivate voters, and get them out," McIntosh says.
Reading Rosenberg's campaign filings is like plotting her campaign days on a map: $400 for her website; nearly $1,100 at Staples for toner and paper; $1,900 on yard signs, bumper stickers, and fliers at FedEx Kinko's; and $1,400 on stamps. In all, she spent $7,270 on her race.
"I thought we could do a lot of it ourselves," Rosenberg says of her volunteers.
Riegel did all of his shopping in one place: UPT. The eventual winner spent more than $12,300 on the campaign, and it all went directly to the firm.
UPT, which declined an interview for this story, also worked on another West Ashley race. Blake Hallman, who eventually won an open seat to represent District 2, spent more than $9,000 for the firm's aid. It's help that he says was invaluable.
Before committing to the race, Hallman asked friends familiar with campaigning for their advice. The overwhelming response was, "Don't do this alone."
"If you're not an experienced politician, you need the help," Hallman says.
He says the firm took care of the minutia, like filing election paperwork.
"That allowed me to go out and do what I was most effective at doing — sharing my vision with voters," Hallman says.
There's also a shift in the campaign behind the scenes — utilizing the winning strategies in other campaigns.
"Ideally, what a consultant is supposed to do is bring a level of professionalism to a campaign," says Quirk-Garvin.
Considering that the candidates who spent the most on consultants won, it's likely we'll be seeing more of that professionalism.
Results from November's municipal election suggest the importance of a consultant on the trail:
Mike Seekings: $30,000, Rod Shealy
Dean Riegel: $12,313.86, UPT Strategies
Blake Hallman: $9,176.86, UPT Strategies
Kathleen Wilson: $3,071.38, Brady Quirk-Garvin
Yvonne Evans: $800, Brady Quirk-Garvin
Art Bean: $490, WGG Consulting/Wendell Gilliard
Craig McLaughlin: No consultant
Ginger Rosenberg: No consultant
Rodney Williams: No consultant
Stephen Ziker: No consultant