The Quiet Americans

Written by Chris Bragg on . Posted in Campaigns/Elections.





Michael Caputo at a 1994 protest at the Kremlin

How do you follow up managing a campaign for a candidate who made anti-gay remarks, was caught forwarding pornographic emails and nearly traded blows with a newspaper columnist?

Apparently you hightail it for Ukraine, a place where things can also get pretty hairy.

“Last time around, my Ukrainian campaign manager was murdered,” said Michael Caputo, Carl Paladino’s former campaign manager, via an email from that country. “Tough place, but Ukraine is a cakewalk compared to the New York governor’s race—and off Fred Dicker’s beat, thankfully.”

Caputo, a sharp-witted consultant who has worked everywhere from Nicaragua to Russia, has returned to Ukraine to work as a strategist during that country’s parliamentary elections. He is one of a number of New York consultants who have gravitated to the sometimes risky business of working for foreign clients, a trade that can prove especially appealing during off-year election cycles in New York.

On Caputo’s previous campaign in Ukraine alone, he was joined by flamboyant Republican strategist Roger Stone and Western New York Democratic operative Steve Pigeon—a veritable dream team of New York dirty tricksters.

Possessing some of the most renowned and ruthless consultants in the country, New York has increasingly become a place where operatives are chosen to provide campaign expertise in fledgling democracies. And with so many democratic movements unfurling around the globe, those opportunities are only likely to expand, though most consultants believe that scoring clients in burgeoning Middle East democracies is years away, given the anti-American sentiment in the region.

Some New York consultants, bored with American politics, do it for the thrill; others do it for the payday. Some say the motivation is to build the reputation of American democracy. But nearly everyone agrees that the work is not for the faint of heart.

“Most of my pals in the arena don’t have the spare time, patience or absent  self-preservation impulse required to do this,” Caputo said.

The job offers many challenges. American consultants must blend in to unknown lands, providing their technical skills while seeking out trustworthy local campaign professionals to fill in the cultural nuances.

Bernard Whitman, a pollster and strategist who has worked for Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg, said that by the end of the Clinton administration, he had grown tired of the American two-party system, in which policy differences are extremely mild compared with those in developing countries.

He began to work as a pollster and advisor in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and, most frequently, in complex national elections in Central and Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, for instance, there are a handful of major parties but also dozens of smaller ones whose intentions and financial backers are largely unknown. Whitman said business interests in these countries often form fake political parties to siphon off support from larger ones.

“You are, in effect, playing three-dimensional chess,” Whitman said. “If you make a push in one area, you can never be certain of the result.”

American operatives rarely reveal their foreign-client lists, even after a campaign. Often New York consultants are not even hired by a foreign campaign itself but rather by a “shadow campaign” backed by powerful business interests that support a candidate but do not trust in-country political talent to do the job.

One local consultant, who has worked on campaigns in Bulgaria but declined to be named for fear of upsetting their client, said American consultants were often brought in to do the dirty work—for example, drumming up a party’s ethnic base—while the parties themselves maintained a more legitimate front.

Many foreign consultants are associated with Roger Stone. That includes  Pigeon, who is best known for helping orchestrate the 2009 State Senate coup and then scoring a job as legal counsel to then Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada. Pigeon, who has worked on campaigns from West Africa to Jamaica, said that having a reputation as an aggressive operative in New York certainly does not hurt efforts to land clients abroad.

“When you’re working in places like Harlem or Brooklyn or Buffalo, you learn trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat,” Pigeon said.

Another Stone protégé, Elnatan Rudolph, who worked last year for both the Senate Democrats and Paladino, had previously worked abroad in Russia, Israel and the Dominican Republic. Rudolph said campaigns on foreign soil allowed operatives to use unsavory tactics that would not pass muster New York.

“In New York, campaigns could not get away with using [the kind of] dirty tricks that are done abroad,” Rudolph said, “because reporters and editorial boards would use that against the campaign, and they would backfire.”

Some of New York’s more left-leaning firms are getting into the action. Red Horse Strategies, the field-operations shop that works closely with the Working Families Party, is currently devising a plan for the Socialist Party in the Castile-La Mancha region of Spain. The firm was connected with the party by a former Spanish intern. Marc Lapidus, a partner in the company, is currently in the country tailoring a field plan to fit its cultural quirks.

Veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf is believed to have one of the longest foreign-client rosters, though he declined to reveal it except to say that it includes heads of state from Europe, South American, North America and Africa, where he worked with Pigeon.

Sheinkopf said he has good reason to keep his clients’ names confidential, since being an American consultant in a foreign land can be dangerous. He once had to switch hotels every night during the last week of a campaign in the Caribbean for fear of reprisals.

Sheinkopf learned the foreign-consulting business from his mentor, the trailblazer of the field, Joseph Napolitan, who was an advisor to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In 1969, Napolitan famously helped polish the image of Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos as he ran for reelection.

Sheinkopf also has some pearls of wisdom for those thinking of getting into the foreign-consulting game. Like many others who represent clients overseas, Sheinkopf said one of the keys is always to secure payment before boarding the plane back to New York.

“The important rules are to keep your head down as you work, leave quietly, name your price beforehand,” he said, “and get paid in advance.”

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  • Pigeon Goes Where the Bread Is. | New York Journal

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    [...] election cycles now. As one anonymous New York-area consultant (with a side job on Bulgaria) told City and State, American consultants were often flown in to execute the sleazy bits—like stoking a party’s [...]

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