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Mayoral campaign turns dark

City Sage



It's been fun to watch the fuming and sputtering over Richard Skorman's mild-mannered campaign commercial in which Steve Bach is said to be in league with the fiendish developers who have created sprawl, built unsustainable commercial strips, and left empty, unfinished buildings all over town ... or whatever it is they've done.

Accurate or not, it'll be judged as all such creations are: Does it work?

Despite the daily newspaper's hypocritical tut-tutting over the Skorman piece, negative campaigning is around for one reason. It's effective.

In 1994, a then-obscure Georgia congressman, Newt Gingrich, created the strategy that enabled Republicans to wrest control of the U.S. House from long-entrenched Democrats. The "Contract With America" may have been the centerpiece, but down in the trenches, Republican candidates were instructed to stay on message. Their opponents were to be characterized as corrupt players in a corrupt system, peddling "bizarre," "risky," "high-tax," anti-American ideas. Gingrich's plan created a toxic cloud of negativity that would taint Democrats, making all complicit in the faults of a few.

Skorman's commercial is poll-based. The campaign figured out that "small businessman" polled better than "developer," and decided to stick Steve Bach with the developer label.

In boom times, developers are seen as obnoxious, swaggering rich guys, running roughshod over neighborhood concerns, bulldozing hillsides, ripping down historic buildings, evading taxes, and making sleazy deals with unwary public officials (e.g., the U.S. Olympic Committee agreement).

But in bad times, they're even more broke than the rest of us. Remember Steve Schuck as his empire crumbled in the late 1980s, moving out of his signature building and schlepping his office furniture across the street by himself? Remember Ray O'Sullivan a few years ago, as his grandiose plans for a high-rise hotel/condo at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street collapsed, leaving town quietly for a diminished future elsewhere?

In such times, we remember the dynamism, the jobs, the excitement, the growth and the optimism. We better understand that the reckless entrepreneurial culture of development contributes mightily to our prosperity, and that big dogs like Schuck and O'Sullivan take big risks — and live with the consequences.

Like it or not, developers are our only native entrepreneurs. In a city dominated by the cautious conservatism of the military/government contractor complex, they're the only ones with the cojones to take real risks.

Polling might not reveal those sentiments. Voters may both disapprove of developers and wish that they'd start developing right now!

Skorman might have done better by questioning Bach's business credentials than by attempting to link him to the down-and-out development community.

"Listen, Steve," he might have said, "you're not really a small-business owner — you're a guy who rents an office, has a part-time secretary and sniffs around for real estate commissions. That's fine, but I have to meet a 55-person payroll every week. I know about government regulation, and I know how to keep a business alive in good times and bad. And what are you? You're not a daring, entrepreneurial developer — you're kind of like the developer's butler. You couldn't carry Steve Schuck's jock!

"And," he might add, "what about the million bucks you got in that 1981 divorce settlement? If you'd socked it away in a Dow fund, you'd be sitting on $15 million or so. Are you willing to show us audited financials? I am!"

Nasty? Sure — and for Skorman, the nastier the campaign, the better. His devoted followers will vote in the runoff no matter what, while Bach supporters may be less committed. Skorman needs a low turnout, so let the mud fly.

Bach has refused to play the game, maintaining a dignified, even-tempered public presence. But if he decided to let loose, he could have some fun, too.

"Richard, your businesses are just meeting halls for lawyers, liberals and Democrats, who spend their time sipping chardonnay, drinking organic tea, and buying boring toys for their coddled kids and overpriced light bulbs for their North End Victorians. If your customers spent their time creating jobs and building subdivisions, we'd be a lot better off!"

We'll see. Meanwhile, developer Fred Veitch has his own amused take on Skorman's anti-developer pitch.

"Richard says that Bach will give the keys to the city to the developers," Veitch notes. "What good would that do us? All the buildings are empty."

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