Today’s body politic has no shortage of rhetorical bile, but no campaign attack ad comes close to matching 1988’s race-baiting Willie Horton commercial for sheer visceral partisanship.
Horton was a black murder convict who raped a woman and stabbed her male companion while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad — which showed a photo of Horton, with the words “raping” and “stabbing” flashing behind him – blamed former Massachusetts Governor and then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for Horton’s release. It is generally thought of as a low-water mark in American politics—stoking racial stereotypes in a Machiavellian push for victory at any cost. But it worked. Dukakis never recovered from the attack and George H.W. Bush went on to win the presidency.
Rather than facing censure, the political consulting outfit behind the Horton ad, the Dolphin Group, has thrived ever since. Based in Los Angeles with an office in Sacramento, Dolphin was founded in 1974 by political consultant Bill Roberts, who helped Ronald Reagan win his campaign for California Governor in 1966. No fan of modesty, Roberts for years took credit on Dolphin’s website for “transforming popular movie star Ronald Reagan into one of the most well known political figures in U.S. history.”
“I think I ought to have the right to lie to you if I think it will help me win,” Roberts told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. He died six years later, just months before the Willie Horton ad was released.
Now, more than two decades later, the Dolphin Group, sans Roberts, but with his political philosophy fully intact, is working on behalf of the Yes on Proposition 32 campaign in California. According to the most recent filing statements published on the California Secretary of State’s website, Dolphin has received nearly $25,000 in consulting fees and expense reimbursements from the Yes on 32 effort. Dolphin Senior Vice President Elizabeth Hansell is personally involved in the Yes on 32 effort, taking part in at least one pro-Prop. 32 community forum in Kern County, and is referred to in campaign literature as Stop the Special Interest Money’s “Coalitions Director.”
Prop. 32’s cynical appropriation of Occupy Wall Street-style anti-corporate rhetoric, and the language of campaign finance reform, fits what has become Dolphin’s signature in recent years – the “Trojan Horse” political campaign. The firm has upped the cynicism of its Willie Horton ad by specializing in taking the most draconian big business-backed measures and draping them in the language of good government reform. (Requests for comments for this article have not been answered by the Dolphin Group.)
One of the firm’s most disingenuous political efforts in the state was the campaign strategy it developed on behalf of California’s 1994 ballot initiative, Proposition 188. Funded by the tobacco industry, Prop. 188 would have eliminated more than 300 local anti-smoking ordinances across California, gutted new legislation to ban indoor smoking in workplaces, and replaced strict state protections against selling tobacco to minors with a toothless, loophole-filled ordinance.
So how do you sell something like that to a voting public highly supportive of anti-smoking legislation?
Bring in the Dolphin Group.
Since there was virtually no chance of Prop. 188 winning on its merits, Dolphin simply flipped the switch, billing the measure as an anti-tobacco reform effort and a worthy heir to the wave of anti-smoking legislation (Assembly Bill 13 and the STAKE Act, to name two) that the California state legislature had been passing. Dolphin set up an Astroturf anti-smoking group called Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions to front the subterfuge. CASSR ran radio spots featuring the voice of a woman claiming to be a school vice principal, telling voters that Prop. 188 is the “best way to keep cigarettes away from kids.”
Initially, the ruse worked. According to an October, 1994 poll taken by the Los Angeles Times, Prop. 188 was ahead among likely voters only weeks before election day. California public health officials were appalled.
“I’m hard-pressed to see how 188 is a stronger approach to this very difficult problem,” then-California Health Director S. Kimberly Belshe told the Los Angeles Times. Former California Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman described Dolphin’s attack plan as “misleading at best and fraudulent at worst.”
Eventually, however, a coalition of anti-smoking advocates filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which subsequently forced CASSR to add the tagline “A Committee of California Hotels, Restaurants, Philip Morris Inc. and other tobacco companies” next to its name on all advertising. Once the connection between CASSR and Big Tobacco was spelled out, voters wised up and Prop. 188 wound up losing by a nearly 70 to 30 percent margin.
Dolphin’s Trojan Horse strategy, however, endured.
In 1999, Dolphin was back at it again, speaking for yet another Astroturf group, Coalition for a Sustainable Delta (CSD) as a front for Beverly Hills agribusiness magnate Stewart Resnick’s interests in a looming water controversy in the Sacramento River Delta.
In the late 1990s, California Department of Fish and Game officials noticed the stocks of native salmon and endangered smelt were declining precipitously in the Delta, thanks to a receding fresh water supply. Water pumping restrictions to California’s farms were put into motion.
The Delta is a major source of water for Resnick’s farming interests, however, and he wasn’t about to have his virtually unlimited cheap water source potentially restricted. In response to proposed pumping caps, Dolphin-backed CSD successfully sued to halt the caps, claiming the plunge in native fish stocks was really caused by non-native “stressors,” such as the striped bass. The bass CSD claimed, ate the eggs of salmon and endangered Delta smelt. Eight years later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service debunked this fish tale and imposed water pumping restrictions to protect the smelt.
One would think that actively fighting California environmental officials would have kept Dolphin associates busy, but in 2000 they helped start another fake grassroots organization called Santa Monicans for a Living Wage — which spent its time undermining attempts to impose living wage regulations. The coalition fronted a local ballot initiative, Measure KK, which would have stopped efforts to impose a minimum wage of $10.69 an hour on Santa Monica’s wildly lucrative coastal luxury hotels, restaurants and boutiques. The proposal would have covered approximately 3,000 employees.
Measure KK would have also prevented the Santa Monica City Council from ever instituting a living wage on a private business in the city. It failed by a 78 to 22 percent margin.
Two years later, the local hotel industry put Measure JJ on the Santa Monica ballot, as a public referendum on the city’s living wage law – with the goal of repealing it. Dolphin represented yet another Astroturf group, Fighting Against Irresponsible Regulation (FAIR). Without offering any evidence, the group claimed to have an army of bellboys, waiters and housekeepers working its phone banks against the initiative.
Measure JJ went down in defeat.
In 2006, the hotel industry hired the Dolphin Group to run a “scorched earth” campaign against Santa Monica city councilman Kevin McKeown’s run for reelection, ostensibly for his support of the living wage initiative in the early aughts. Right off the bat, Dolphin created yet another faux grassroots organization called “Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities” to attack McKeown. They took out TV ads—unheard of in Santa Monica–accusing McKeown, among other things, of importing mass populations of homeless people to the city’s beaches.
“It was far and away the most negative campaign in the history of Santa Monica,” remembers McKeown.
McKeown won the election, thanks to a Steve Lopez column in the Los Angeles Times, debunking Dolphin’s disingenuous campaign tactics.
“They will distort the electoral process on behalf of their clients without any care for voter trust,” McKeown says, “or for maintaining voter faith in the democratic process. As long as they win.”
Like the pro-tobacco and anti-environmental and anti-living wage crusades before it, Prop. 32 bears the unmistakable DNA of a Dolphin campaign. If you can’t win on straight merit, appropriate the other side’s arguments and use them to mask your own.
Proposition 32 is no different than the California “paycheck protection” efforts that preceded it in 1998 and 2005—and failed. The only difference this time around is Dolphin’s Occupy-inspired, anti-corporate packaging.