DARK HORSE

A VETERAN OF NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNS MAKES A RUN AT CITY HALL.

But his father, Donald, couldn't make it as a farmer, and the family moved to Iowa after John's kindergarten year. They lived in a poor neighborhood in Des Moines. Donald Frew worked in a foundry, became a member of the machinists' union and eventually trained to become an electrician. His wife, Louise, worked a hydraulic press for AMF, stamping out lawn-mower blades.

John was the sixth of seven children and was raised Catholic (his mother's religion). But the family was even bigger than that.

"I cannot remember a time when there wasn't someone living with us," says Frew. "My younger sister had a friend who came home for the weekend one time in fourth grade. Her parents had abandoned her, and she stayed with us until she graduated from high school. There was always somebody who lived with us. If you needed a place, you needed a couch, you needed something to eat, the Frews' is where you went. It was hard for us to understand while we were growing up, because we didn't have anything, but my parents always made it stretch, always made it fit."

He was the first in his family to go to college. At the University of Iowa, Frew was vice president of the student body, working on a master's degree in political science and intending to become a city manager. But then a friend suggested he get involved with a political campaign and introduced him to Senator John Culver, a liberal Democrat running for re-election in 1980. Frew signed on.

"It was the Reagan landslide, and I saw how disciplined the Republican Party was," recalls Frew. "It was a repudiation of not just Jimmy Carter but the beginning of the end of liberalism as it was defined, the politics that had really governed the country since the New Deal. And Culver helped us to understand that. He was just a masterful teacher. He decided not to turn tail. He said, `If I'm going to run, I'm going to do it with all guns blazing.'"

Targeted by conservatives, Culver lost a close race to Charles Grassley in an expensive campaign that featured last-minute, anti-Culver fliers depicting an aborted fetus above the caption "Vote for John Culver. This child never had the chance."

It may have been a death knell of liberalism, but the Culver campaign launched Frew as a political strategist.

Armed with a B.A. in political science and a master's in public affairs, Frew earned a law degree from Creighton University. And over the next few years, he worked on the campaigns of several Democrats. Landslides were rare; mudslides weren't.

Frew was working for Iowa liberal Tom Harkin in 1983 when he conducted the workshop on campaign strategy. Frew showed his audience a notorious TV ad used against Tennessee Democrat Jim Sasser in 1980: Trying to make points out of Sasser's support of foreign aid for communist countries, his opponent churned out a video of a Fidel Castro lookalike lighting a cigar, leering into the camera and saying, `Gracias, Senor Sasser.'" Frew, recalling the session today, says, "It wasn't a workshop on how to do negative campaigning. It was really a challenge to figure out why people respond and to understand what it all means."

He learned more about mud the next year when, still only 28, he became campaign manager when Harkin challenged Republican incumbent Roger Jepsen for the other Iowa U.S. Senate seat. The combative Harkin won in a bruising, multimillion-dollar battle. "That one was a classic," Frew says.

At one point in the contest, reporters asked Frew if anything could halt the negative campaign. "Sure there is," Frew replied. "If Jepsen cuts out the malarkey. He's the one who pulled out his bucket of mud. If he puts it away, there's no reason for us to keep throwing it back. But I don't see that happening."

The Harkin campaign derisively described Jepsen, who wore his Christianity on his sleeve, as "porn again" after it was revealed that he had visited a brothel a few years earlier. Frew himself got into hot water after the campaign issued a press release accusing Jepsen aide James Secrist, a Marine officer, of soliciting political funds from defense contractors.

After Harkin won the election, Secrist sued Frew and others for libel, claiming that the press release was untrue and malicious. Frew remembers it as a "preposterous lawsuit--it's what's wrong with our court system, that anybody can sue you and cause you to go through that." The case was thrown out, but not before an appeals court confirmed what everybody in politics already knew: A campaign press release is opinion, not fact, and therefore is protected speech under the First Amendment.

By that time, Frew had joined the staff of Colorado Representative Tim Wirth. In 1986 he managed Wirth's narrow victory over Republican Ken Kramer for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The race was so dirty and the stakes so high--control of the Senate seemed to hinge on it--that the national press sent reporters to Colorado.

There was a noticeable nyah-nyah factor at work in the campaign. A Kramer ad on Wirth's vote to increase his salary asked, "If Tim Wirth will fool you today, what about tomorrow?" A Wirth spot on Kramer's Social Security vote replied, "Let's see who's fooling who."

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