Photo Finish

 

Back in February and March, when the city was freezing and gloomy, local politics seemed pointless compared to devastating international events. Stan Glazer’s mayoral campaign provided some entertainment, but beyond that only the most hard-core political junkies were really paying attention.

As the campaign wound down, though, plenty of people noticed Becky Nace looking ditzy on a campaign flier for Wesley Fields that arrived in their mail one day. Some Photoshop whiz working for the Fields campaign had gone to the trouble of poofing her blond hair, pinching her cheekbones, giving her smile a come-hither lilt and turning a small shadow under one eye into what looked like smeared mascara.

Other locals knew Jim Glover wasn’t the googly eyed moron whose photo appeared on a mailer sent by his opponent, Colleen Hernandez. In this case, a photo doctor had tugged on one side of Glover’s face; he looked like he was about to start drooling.

The altered photos came out of the offices of Pat Gray, a political consultant known for winning elections — and running below-the-belt ad campaigns.

Both mailings distorted the candidates’ records as well as their faces, but the pictures spoke a lot louder than the words. For folks who missed Gray’s masterpieces, the two Nace photos appear side-by-side here for the first time. Glover wasn’t able to find an original of the old photo Gray’s henchman used, but the newer photo of the councilman shown here makes the difference between the real Jim Glover and Gray’s version obvious.

Nace thinks it was only by luck that voters noticed Gray’s trick. “By chance, voters received my brochure and [Fields’] the same day, so it was easy for people to discern that they had altered the same photo,” she says.

In a tiny story on March 22, Hernandez told the Star that she hadn’t authorized the photos. “I can’t tell if it is [altered],” she said at the time. Now, though, she tells me that she was embarrassed by the incident. She’d signed off on the mailer’s text, she says, but never saw Glover’s doctored picture.

“I was angry about that. I told [Gray] I was angry,” Hernandez says. “He didn’t defend it. He didn’t say he did it, but I think he did.”

It’s one thing to insult voters’ intelligence. Hernandez’s account makes it sound as if Gray thinks his clients are pretty damn dumb, too. If Gray (or his staffers) really didn’t show Hernandez the photos on her flier, then it seems as if he’s willing to screw even the people who are paying him.

Whoever’s screwing whom, it ain’t cheap. Last week’s final campaign disclosures show that Hernandez paid Gray and his various companies — he’s the president and CEO of North Star Marketing; its subsidiary corporations provide printing services, TV and radio production and polling research — at least $67,000 since her campaign started gearing up last July.

Looking back, Hernandez says she thinks she made a decent showing in the campaign considering that Glover had high name recognition, “virtually no negatives” and a Costco and Home Depot standing in his honor at Linwood and Main. And except for the picture, she says, she was happy with the strategic advice Gray gave her. But she knows the picture had an impact. “I thought it reflected on the character and integrity of the campaign, and I was real mad. I don’t do stuff like that.”

Hernandez lost her race by 10 percentage points. Fields, who didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this column, got creamed by Nace. Former firefighter Joe Galetti, who also tossed some change Gray’s way — and who looked remarkably young and fit in campaign photos from his fire department days — lost to Deb Hermann.

Campaign records show that, collectively, Hernandez, Fields and Galetti have paid Gray at least $99,000 as of last week. That doesn’t compare to, say, the astounding $437,932 conservative Charlotte O’Hara spent with Gray only to lose her bid for Johnson County commissioner last fall. But it’s still a lot to pay just to have loser stamped on your forehead.

Gray’s not around to speak in his own defense. (His secretary says he’s out of the country.) Last summer, though, when I was quizzing him about the campaign he was running for Terry Norman (who wanted to be a Missouri state rep — and who lost), Gray told me, “We don’t tell a candidate what to say. They basically tell us why they’re running, what they want to accomplish, and we help them put it in a political marketing context. We just help them communicate their message. If you’re selling bubble gum, it would be the retail advertising selling the product.”

Bubble gum seems like an appropriate analogy considering how Glover characterizes Gray’s recent efforts. “It was the kind of stuff that, if people did it in a high school student-body election, they’d be sent to the principal’s office.”

But this isn’t high school. People who go into public service — most of them, anyway — aspire to something more than the adult equivalent of setting off a cherry bomb in the boy’s toilet or drawing a mustache on someone’s yearbook photo.

Candidates might want to stop throwing away their money with North Star. But they won’t. After all, Gray won the big one. He managed Kay Barnes’ campaign, and as of last week she’d written his companies checks totaling at least $283,000 — all that just to make sure a Westport jester like Stan Glazer didn’t get elected.

The more public face of Barnes’ campaign was that of Steve Glorioso, another consultant who sometimes works with Gray and sometimes works against him. Glorioso points out that the mayor’s campaign against Glazer was clean. But then, Glazer came with his dirt built in.

On Election Night, Gray was the one introducing Barnes at her victory party at the Westin.

The mayor will undoubtedly continue to use Gray’s services. He has a long history of working on mundane issue campaigns — in 2001, for example, he helped pass a tax increase for new police stations. Last year, it took him two elections and more than $450,000 in civic boosters’ money just to convince Kansas City voters to approve general obligation bonds for new streets and sidewalks.

But those are just the campaigns the public sees. As Gray’s Web site brags, “Some clients use his reputation to fortify their position in campaigns. In message-sensitive situations, others utilize his skills behind the scenes.”

Given Gray’s recent exploits, we can only imagine what sort of stunts he might pull “behind the scenes” in Barnes’ second term.

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