Digging up political dirt? That's their job

September 2, 2014

Brace yourself, citizens: September is the unofficial start of campaign season.

You’re about to be spun by dueling poll numbers, attack ads and conflicting messages in multiple guises.

This week, WBEZ is taking you behind the scenes to meet the practitioners of politics’ dark arts - the folks whose job it is to craft the messages and media that bombard voters during election years.

The Dark Arts of Politics

There’s a whole underground industry of political professionals whose job it is to dig up dirt on the other candidate. Here’s how they do it.

Often, this work begins with opposition research - or “oppo,” as it’s known to politicos.

Oppo researchers are a low-profile group of men and women whose job it is to dig up dirt on the other guy - and on their own clients.

This year’s contentious Illinois’ governor’s race has spawned a rare living, breathing example of opposition research at work: Quinnocchio, a hybrid caricature dreamed up by Republican Bruce Rauner’s campaign.

Quinnocchio is an unnamed Rauner staffer: part Governor Quinn, with his balding gray wig; part cartoon Pinocchio, with royal blue lederhosen and a long, fake nose.

His job is to hound Gov. Quinn at public events to accuse him of lying about various policies.

(Rauner’s campaign declined to name the staffer, and when confronted at a recent press conference, he only gave his name as Quinnocchio and declined to answer further questions.)

Quinnocchio is opposition research embodied.

It’s the job of opposition researchers to unearth the facts that back up these kinds of attacks - all those embarrassing quotes or regrettable votes your political opponent won’t let you forget. The researchers are often ex-political operatives, lawyers or former journalists.

Sexy and seamy? Not so much

And if this all sounds like seamy, dumpster-diving, meet-me-in-the-parking-garage kinda work - think again.

“What I do is not very sexy,” said Brett Di Resta a Democratic opposition researcher based in Washington, D.C. “If you want the limelight, I would say that this career is not the one to choose.”

Di Resta considers himself less a “ninja character assassin” and more of a librarian. Instead of hunting down secret mistresses, he spends his days at a computer, poring over public records: court documents, property tax filings, campaign finance disclosures and thousands upon thousands of news articles.

“When you see an attack ad...and they say someone voted to raise taxes 21 times, someone has to figure out what those 21 times are, and that someone is me,” Di Resta explains.

Di Resta says about half his job is actually researching the candidates he’s working for - looking for vulnerabilities to head off future attacks. All of this information is then organized, prioritized, fact-checked, sourced and condensed into an internal campaign document that usually never meets the public eye - a document oppo researchers simply call “the book.”

Recently, Republican opposition researcher John Pearman flipped through a hefty red binder, some 170 pages thick. This was the book - actually, one of several - that he and his partner, GOP strategist Dan Curry, put together while working for Republican Jim Ryan’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

The target: Democrat Rod Blagojevich, the former governor now in prison for corruption.

“I’ve done opposition research for 25 years. Maybe there’s one other individual that we’ve done research on that was as rich as this one, but this was - everywhere you looked, there was something,” Pearman said.

Pearman said people called him all the time with Blagojevich dirt - even people who worked for Blagojevich. The fish were jumping into the boat.

One common thread that emerged from Curry’s and Pearman’s tips and research: Blagojevich’s alleged ties to organized crime figures - a connection the men thought would be devastating to Democrats if only they could prove it.

So in the fall of 2002, with his candidate low on money and behind in the polls, Pearman holed himself up in a warehouse near Midway Airport along with boxes upon boxes of court documents from federal mob cases, looking for some scrap of confirmation to convince news outlets to run the story.

Pearman said he spent six days reading through legal documents, watched over by a guard.

“And not one mention of Blagojevich by name,” he said.

Desperate, Pearman actually tracked down one of the mob figures and went to confront the guy at his kid’s football practice, to ask him in person about whether he’d worked with Blagojevich.

It did not go well.

“‘Get the expletive away from me. I better not see you again,’” Pearman said, recalling the encounter. “Obviously we never got a second source on it and nobody ever did the story.”

Seeking the silver bullet

Pearman acknowledges he was going after a silver bullet in an industry where small, repeated attacks against a candidate are usually more effective. Opposition researchers say those silver bullets are rare, though many pointed to one example that worked all too well.

This attack ad from the 2002 Montana U-S Senate race features the Republican challenger - a guy named Mike Taylor - sporting a leisure suit, shirt unbuttoned, massaging lotion into another man’s cheekbones.

An oppo researcher exhumed the video from these late night TV ads Taylor ran for his cosmetics company in the 1980s. Democrats then found a soundtrack that could have come out from Behind the Green Door and they ran with it. The ad closes with the phrase: “Mike Taylor: Not the way we do business in Montana.”

The voiceover in the ad attacks Taylor’s company for running into trouble with its student loan process. But focusing on the video, critics nationwide pounced at the ad for suggesting Taylor - a married man - was gay. Whatever the message, it seemed to work: Taylor decried the ad but dropped out of the race less than a week later.

“You don’t win races by just telling people what a wonderful person you are,” said Dennis Gragert, a veteran Democratic opposition researcher based in Chicago.

Gragert and several other opposition researchers say they abide by the rules and ethics of what’s fair game. Most important, they say attacks against a candidate must be verifiably true, and they can’t be too personal or you could face a backlash, like with the hairdresser ad. Every oppo researcher contacted for this story said they had turned down work that required  them to dig up information about an opponent they thought was too personal.

All in all, the opposition researchers who spoke with WBEZ say they sleep just fine at night, because all those negative ads actually work, even if voters say they hate them.

Still, even Gragert does betray a moment of empathy.

“Sometimes I think about, if that was me on the other end, would I like that?” he said. “All right, that’s not for me to like, it is - it is reality. It’s not something where you say, well that shouldn’t be the case. That is the case.”

As it should be, Gragert said, in any peaceful republic where political contests are settled not with revolutions, but with words.

Alex Keefe is political reporter at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.