Big-city campaigning comes to Norwich
Deberey Hinchey's successful mayoral campaign may have brought two major changes to local politics: she raised more money than any previous Norwich mayoral candidate and she spent nearly all of it on consultants.
Hinchey raised and spent more than $66,000 from February 2013 through early November - $21,000 more than the her $45,000 annual salary as mayor and twice as much as any previous Norwich mayoral candidate since the 2001 charter change created the position.
The bigger difference in her primary and election campaigns, however, was how the Hinchey camp spent the money raised at fundraisers locally and in Hartford and through donations from all corners of Connecticut and beyond.
While candidates in Norwich races usually spend a few thousand dollars on lawn signs and mailers, nearly all of Hinchey's money went to pay the Manchester-based professional campaign consulting firm The Vinci Group and its partners, Mike Farina and Democratic state Rep. Geoff Luxenberg.
The consultants did more than gather voter lists and map out the city for Hinchey's daily neighborhood visits. They analyzed the data to target likely voters and determine where they lived and how best to reach them.
As Hinchey was the city's first female mayoral candidate, the consultants targeted women along with undecided voters.
Field director Conor Douglass came to Hinchey's home each day with stacks of addresses and neighborhoods for her to visit - called "turfs." During the primary campaign, they zeroed in on Democrats. Then, after Hinchey defeated fellow Democrat Charles Jaskiewicz Sept. 10, the reached out to the unaffiliated and undecided.
Hinchey walked for miles throughout the summer, dripping with sweat in the July and August heat, and ending her trips after sunset. She visited tucked-away Rose City neighborhoods that she said she never knew existed. She took notes, got back to people on questions or problems, and she saved the notes to use as a guide for her four years in office.
"People said to me, 'This is the first time someone came to my neighborhood,'" she said.
Douglass would call voters in the neighborhoods to let them know Hinchey was coming and to ask about their concerns. So when Hinchey arrived, she could address specifics and even criticisms of her past votes on the City Council.
"They were masterful at developing the lists," Hinchey said.
Her campaign staff would make follow-up calls or visits if she missed people or if voters said they were undecided. Supporters were reminded that the primary, and then the election, was coming up.
The consultants also nixed local campaign staples. No lawn signs. Don't bother standing on street corners waving to passing cars, and skip many of the local festivals and events that draw crowds.
And don't waste your time on social media.
"They said, if you're spending your time doing this," Hinchey said moving her thumbs to pretend to type on a smartphone, "then you're not out meeting voters."
But after the primary, Hinchey fought back on the Vinci Group's advice against lawn signs.
"People expect signs," she said. "Some of my best friends screamed for signs. I begged for signs. I finally wore them down. But I'm not going to bother with them again."
At the start of the campaign, Patricia Osten, mother of state Sen. Cathy Osten, was the one who recommended Hinchey hire Farina, the same consultant that Osten, also a Democrat, had used to help win her Senate seat in 2012.
Hinchey's strategy brought criticism from her opponents. After his defeat, Jaskiewicz complained that outside influences had dictated the Norwich primary results. He had raised $15,665 for his primary run. Hinchey had raised $30,700 by the Oct. 10 campaign finance reporting that encompassed the primary period.
In the general election, Republican incumbent Mayor Peter Nystrom boasted that all of his support came from Norwich, while Hinchey was relying on outside contributors and advisors. Nystrom raised $12,935, including $2,600 he loaned to the campaign.
Asked recently whether he thinks paid consultants will be the wave of the future for Norwich mayoral races, Nystrom said: "I'd like to think that the mayor's office in Norwich is not for sale. It is right now by her methods. The job pays $45,000 and the money they spent, it doesn't warrant it."
Luxenberg came under fire during the height of the primary campaign, accused of heavy-handed tactics. The city's Democratic and Republican registrars of voters filed a joint complaint with the state Elections Enforcement Commission alleging that Luxenberg had harassed two voters and the registrars over absentee ballots. The commission dismissed the complaint last month in a ruling that the allegations did not rise to the level of threats, and the voters involved did not corroborate the allegations.
Statewide, the Vinci Group and Luxenberg have come under scrutiny as well. According to a story in the Manchester Journal Inquirer in November, Luxenberg had been advised by one state legislative leader to refrain from marketing his political consulting business to fellow state legislators. The Office of State Ethics also placed restrictions on how Luxenberg could operate the Vinci Group in state elections potentially involving fellow legislators.
Who to target
Hinchey was not immune to sticker shock at first.
"They presented me with a budget and said, 'If you raise $60,000…,' and I said, '$60,000!' I think I raised $3,000 last time (for City Council), and I was the top fundraiser."
A review of past mayoral elections in the city reveals that Democrat Benjamin Lathrop topped all fundraising with $38,190 in 2005. Republican Arthur Lathrop raised $9,230 in the first mayoral election in 2001, and Nystrom raised about $8,000 in his victorious campaign in 2009.
But Hinchey defends her decision to hire The Vinci Group and said she would use the consultant if she runs for re-election in 2017.
"It was an important race, and I absolutely do believe in hiring consultants," Hinchey said. "You need to really investigate where the voters are and who they are. Because of their experience in running other campaigns, they knew which voters we should target."
Of the $66,220 Hinchey raised, $63,918 was paid to the consultants, starting in February 2013 with The Vinci Group's $1,000 per month consulting fee. The consultants also billed for numerous services and campaign purchases, ranging from stamps and envelopes to printed mailings and paid neighborhood canvassers, according to campaign finance reports and canceled checks kept by Hinchey's campaign treasurer, Dennison Gibbs.
Hinchey won the primary by 222 votes and in November defeated Nystrom by 272 votes.
Nystrom rejected the notion that the consultants made the difference for Hinchey. He said the presence of a third-party candidate - Libertarian William Russell, who received 388 votes on Election Day - swayed the result. Nystrom said he likely would have received the majority of the votes that went to Russell, except for those who would not have voted had there not been a Libertarian candidate.
Consultant not enough
While Hinchey's use of paid consultants is new for the region's municipal elections, the practice has been going on for more than a decade in the state's larger cities.
Farina, of The Vinci Group, said he has been consulting on municipal and state campaigns for the past 10 years. Last fall, he worked on mayoral campaigns in New Haven, West Haven, New Britain and Meriden. On some races, he provided only mailings; on others, only fundraisers.
Farina and Luxenberg ran Middletown Mayor Daniel Drew's re-election campaign last fall. Drew raised $95,000 but spent only $53,000 in a race that featured no major party opponent, according to a Jan. 21 story in The Hartford Courant. Drew easily defeated a Realistic Balance Party candidate on Nov. 5.
Farina declined to discuss specific strategies for Hinchey's or any other campaign, but did speak in general about political consulting.
"I think it's very common for municipal candidates to hire strategists today," he said. "What it allows candidates to do - especially for such a wonderful candidate as Mayor Hinchey - is it allows the candidate to really focus on the voters and connecting with people, instead of the data and the field lists in the back room. Let other people worry about logistics."
Ben Davol, a veteran political consultant, advisor and observer of both municipal and state races in Connecticut, said the key benefit of a paid consultant is the data analysis. With the Internet and computer software, detailed data can be extracted from voter lists, voting history, election trends and demographics. Finding the time and expertise to take advantage of the data is critical.
But Davol said the candidate still has to be willing to work and still must have a strong base of political support to win. He pointed out that wealthy, twice-unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon spent nearly $100 million on her own campaigns to no avail.
"I think overall, you can't say, 'I'll just hire these consultants' and think you'll win," he said. "Politics is a retail business, building those relationships and making those contacts."
Whether the office is worth the price is another question, Davol said. At some point, the cost for paid consultants has to come into play, especially in an election for mayor of a small city or town.
"Should you really spend that much to be mayor of XYZ city?" Davol said. "There is a tipping point on spending lots of money."