Meet the GOP guru who crafts winning messages for greens

In California politics, there's a secret weapon wielded by both Republicans and Democrats. He's a consultant who's been dubbed "Dr. Death."

Joe Rodota, 54, worked on the campaigns of Golden State Govs. Pete Wilson (R) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). He strategized on how to block an initiative that would have halted the state's climate law. And he wrote part of the ballot arguments on why Californians should approve a proposition mandating nonpartisan primary elections.

He's a Republican with a history of teaming with Democrats on environmental matters. But he's also fought efforts to impose new taxes on the oil industry and to expand the state's clean electricity mandate.

Rodota is considered a specialist in opposition research, the person who digs up information aimed at discrediting the other side or making it look bad to voters.

"Joe is probably one of the best in the oppo field," said Mike Madrid, a Republican who is a partner at GrassrootsLab, a California-based political consulting and research firm. "A lot of these campaigns aren't really about the policy. If you can successfully define the opposition and make their motives suspect, that oftentimes is enough to win a campaign. If you can make them radioactive, anything they touch is radioactive."

Rodota runs his own shop, Forward Observer, jointly out of Sacramento and Washington, D.C. It had been solely California-based but two years ago expanded to include a location on L Street Northwest, which works on federal policy and national issues. He declined to give specifics or reveal whom he's working for in the nation's capital.

His staff of eight researchers and message crafters most recently was hired by a group battling to protect California's newly passed ban on single-use plastic bags, which takes effect next summer. Opponents are working to collect enough signatures by Dec. 29 to qualify a 2016 ballot measure seeking to overturn the prohibition.

Rodota says he's not just a gun for hire, that he doesn't work for causes he doesn't believe in. A statewide ban is better for businesses than the patchwork of local rules, he said. There are 87 cities and counties with prohibitions, he said. In addition, he said, "the quality of life of California is one of its main competitive advantages."

He doesn't think it's unusual to be a Republican working for green causes. He recently helped compile research and ran a campaign to persuade California's Legislature to pass a measure mandating the first-ever oversight of groundwater.

"California Republicans are often a little more progressive on environmental issues than other Republicans," Rodota said, adding, "Republicans connect with voters better if they have a strong environmental record, especially in California."

Rodota said one of his strategies is to define the message with strong evidence. On plastic bags, one of the biggest opponents of the ban, South Carolina-based bag maker Novolex, argues that the prohibition will kill jobs. Previously known as Hilex Poly, the company has put up $1.7 million so far to get the measure on the 2016 ballot. A New Jersey bag maker and two from Texas have spent another $1.1 million combined.

Rodota found that Hilex Poly didn't directly employ people in California. He also uncovered that the company has started hiring workers to make reusable bags, Madrid said.

"The evidence is pretty compelling that there's not going to be job loss when Hilex Poly has already made the decision to go into the reusable market," Madrid said.

Jon Berrier, spokesman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the group fighting the ban, said he knows Rodota and respects him as "a very solid operative and researcher and campaign consultant." But the arguments Rodota might have crafted on the bag ban aren't going to keep the prospective repeal measure off the 2016 ballot, he said.

"Right now, we're in the signature-gathering part of the effort," he said. "The campaign to educate voters begins in earnest in 2016. The messages that they are using right now have no bearing on what the outcome of this will be."


He added that it was never a secret that some of the members of the alliance were located out of state. And he disagreed that the ban wouldn't create job loss.

Thinking differently from Democrats

Rodota brings a perspective to environmental battles that green groups sometimes lack, said Steve Maviglio, president of Forza Communications and a Democratic consultant who also is fighting to preserve the bag ban. He has worked with Rodota on other measures, as well.

"It's extremely important to have someone who doesn't think the way progressive Democrats do," Maviglio said. "He looks at it through the filter of economics and jobs in a way environmentalists don't."

At the same time, Maviglio said, Rodota digs up information that wallops opponents.

"His nickname is Dr. Death because he has a tendency of finding opposition research that will kill your opponent," Maviglio said.

Rodota rejects the Dr. Death nickname, saying it refers to the old days when he worked on more partisan campaigns.

"It's probably tongue in cheek now," Rodota said. "I'm a content person who thinks carefully about substance of arguments. It's not being a heat-seeking missile."

Rodota, who majored in history at Stanford University, sees his job as one of a storyteller. He said when he enters a campaign, he spends a lot of time trying to put himself in the minds of his opponents.

"What's the other side's narrative for them to get to the goal they've set out for themselves? What are they planning to say?" Rodota said. "Point by point, I'll go through and see if it's true or not."

Rodota said he's a voracious reader of biographies, which have him "thinking a lot about narratives, story structure, history, persuasiveness."

Looking around his L Street office, he spied a copy of "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President," a book about President Garfield's assassination. He's recently read "Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries," told through the lives of several residents, and "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown," former governor and father of current Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Meanwhile, he's writing plays, including one about the execution of a prisoner during Republican Gov. Wilson's term.

"My job requires really thinking about people, and movement, and goals, and trying to make sense of it all," Rodota said. "It's about curating, simplifying, finding what is the gem, what is the perfect way to illustrate something, to show rather than tell."

Crafting campaign strategy

Rodota didn't intend to have a career in politics. His father was a parks director, and he grew up in a family that saw government work as a "tangible way to try to deliver things."

"It wasn't particularly planned," he said of his career. "I just found my niche and enjoyed it."

Rodota has a long history in the Golden State, which he considers home. At age 32, he worked for Wilson as Cabinet secretary, the person in charge of the entire Cabinet. He took that job after a stint as a consultant on Wilson's 1990 campaign. During that period, Rodota dug up information that he said helped the Republican nominee defeat the candidate Dianne Feinstein (D), a former San Francisco mayor who is now a U.S. senator.

It was not a good year for Republicans, Rodota said. One of the turning points came over term limits, he said. Feinstein was against them, and Wilson had came out in favor. Rodota in a local library in San Francisco found a San Francisco Chronicle article in which Feinstein, earlier in her career, had endorsed term limits, arguing that they would create more opportunity for women and minorities, he recalled.

Four years later, Rodota worked on Wilson's re-election campaign against Democrat Kathleen Brown, Jerry Brown's sister, who was then state treasurer. Wilson early in the race was down 22 points in polls. He eventually won by 16 points. Rodota said he found information that helped tilt public opinion.

At the Jimmy Carter presidential library, Rodota said, he ferreted out an internal memo that the Carter administration had written in 1970s, declining a request from Wilson when he was mayor of San Diego to help California with its illegal immigration issue. The reason the Carter administration cited, Rodota said, was the White House not wanting to help Wilson because of speculation that he might later run against Jerry Brown for U.S. Senate.

In the governor's re-election race, Rodota said, they released the letter just before a debate. Wilson commented that the Clinton White House was failing to act on immigration in order to help another Brown.

Rodota worked for President Reagan, then in the private sector as a consultant. In 2003, he joined the Schwarzenegger campaign during California's unusual recall election.

Schwarzenegger had hired Rodota about two years earlier to look at the then-movie star's statements on various issues that were in the public domain -- research for a potential future political career. Rodota wrote a guidebook, "Schwarzenegger A to Z, an Alphabetized Assessment." In 2003, he ran what became known as "Schwarzenegger University," a policy shop that helped direct the candidate on issue positions.

Rodota later was involved in protecting a key initiative passed during Schwarzenegger's term, the California climate law known as A.B. 32. In 2010, opponents of the measure put an initiative on the ballot -- Proposition 23 -- that would have stopped enactment of the climate law until the state unemployment rate dropped to 5.5 percent or lower for a one-year period.

Targeting oil companies

Rodota's name isn't immediately attached to the defeat of Prop 23. But his fingerprints are there, said others who worked to block the measure.

Two of the biggest financial backers of Prop 23 were oil companies Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp. Rodota dug out that those two companies, based out of state, had racked up in-state pollution violations and health and safety violations, recalled Maviglio, who worked against the ballot measure.

"Even before it was qualified" for the ballot, Maviglio said, Prop 23 "was defined as two Texas oil companies with a reckless record in the environment. That record was key in defining who they were and what they were about, and what their motives were. That research sort of set up the framework for the entire campaign."

Rodota said there also were other groups and consultants pushing the fact that the oil companies had environmental violations.

During that campaign, one of the arguments used by supporters of Prop 23 was that the climate law would kill jobs. Rodota found a ad that showed that Valero and Tesoro actually were seeking to hire only two workers in the state, Maviglio said.

"Sometimes you can illustrate those things with a big, fancy economic study, but sometimes you can illustrate it with a screen shot from," Rodota said. "Everybody can process that."

Tesoro and Valero both declined to comment on Rodota or the Prop 23 moves.

Rodota during the anti-Prop 23 campaign helped green advocates simplify their messages, said one person who asked not to be identified to speak about conversations at private meetings.

"He was very politically strategic throughout about how things would play with the governor and Legislature," the person said. He was good at getting supporters of California's rules on climate and the environment not to "overthink it," the source added.

"We overintellectualize things, make them seem more complicated," the person said. "Joe was a reminder frequently that we need to think about how we were appealing to the average person versus an environmental group or clean energy executive."

"He's a very astute observer of who his opponents are, how to frame an opponent to win," the source said. "He's someone who can get into the mind of his opponent and kind of come out of that with a narrative that works."

Rodota's company earned about $72,000 for the research and consulting work on the anti-Prop 23 front, according to the California Secretary of State records. That money came from a political action committee with contributors that included the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Union of Concerned Scientists; billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who at the time was co-managing partner of hedge fund group Farallon Capital Management; and venture capitalist John Doerr.

Oil interests ultimately were outfunded 3-to-1 in the campaign.

Opposing green groups

Rodota isn't always in the same camp as environmental groups and Democrats. In 2006, he worked against Prop 87, a defeated measure that would have imposed a severance tax on oil companies for each barrel pulled from the ground. In 2008, he opposed Prop 7, a failed measure that would have expanded the state's mandate that utilities generate electricity from some green sources. The initiative would have required that they get half of power from renewables by 2025.

Forward Observer was paid nearly $280,000 for the Prop 7 work. Money came from a PAC that largely had been funded by utilities Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and Sempra Energy, parent of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

In 2010 Rodota wrote most of the ballot argument for Prop 14, the measure mandating open primaries. His company earned about $75,000. The biggest funder of the yes on Prop 14 campaign was Schwarzenegger's campaign committee.

The idea, he said, was "having November elections count for more than primary elections," instead of having it all decided in June. If a liberal candidate won the primary in a Democratic-leaning district, he was pretty much guaranteed to win the seat in the fall. The same was true for a conservative candidate in a GOP stronghold.

"It came down to a clear statement," Rodota said, that "Sacramento is broken. If you want it to work, you have to send higher-quality people who are more accountable to you."

Washington state had a long history of open primaries, he said, and "this gets high marks among independent ratings bureaus."

Maviglio, who's working with Rodota on the bag ban issue, opposed him back then.

"We had no money, and he had the governor and all the good reform groups," Maviglio said. "We only had $100,000 [in campaign money], and we got 46 percent."

Every editorial board in the state was for it, Maviglio said, and a measure requiring independent-run redistricting was on the same ballot.

"There was a lot of force behind it," Maviglio said.

Twitter: @annecmulkern | Email:

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