In Denver, no one's separated by six degrees. Two, maybe. The connections are so close that back East, pollsters and political consultants marvel -- and mourn over -- Denver's coziness. It's Mayberry, they say.
So when Ari Zavaras's campaign dared to ask some negative questions about specific mayoral candidates -- Zavaras included -- during field research in January, Denverites were as aghast as if Aunt Bea had given the entire town food poisoning with the tainted potato salad she'd brought to the church social. Even before that polling was completed, outraged recipients of the Zavaras calls were spilling the beans to friends at other campaigns and in the media -- making work particularly difficult for researchers still in the field.
Candidates, too, were quick to shake scolding fingers at the Zavaras campaign.
But that was before those fingers started dialing.
When my phone rang this past Saturday, it wasn't Floyd the Barber calling. "Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?" asked a chipper woman whose Southern accent hinted more of suburban D.C. than Mt. Pilot. While telemarketing efforts have been severely limited by the state's no-call legislation, political campaigns are exempt from the law -- and I had high hopes that I was on the receiving end of one of those notoriously nasty political push polls. Instead, though, the call started as innocently as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, a fishing expedition straight out of Mayberry.
Was Denver headed in the right direction, she wanted to know, or was it on "the wrong track"? And of the challenges facing the city, which of the following were major problems, which were minor problems, and which were "in good shape": crime and drugs, affordable housing, growth and congestion, education, the police force, balancing the city budget, drought and race.
Only after that brief civics exercise did the personality parade begin. From a list of names, whom did I feel "very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative or very negative" about? Wellington Webb. Susan Casey. John Hickenlooper. Don Mares. Elizabeth Schlosser. Bill Owens. Ari Zavaras. Jeremy Stefanek. Phil Perington.
When I actually offered an opinion on that last name, the pollster gasped. "You're the first one I've asked who knows who he is!"
Yeah, and it's not the future mayor of Denver.
Then the nitty started getting gritty. Perington, Stefanek and Schlosser didn't rate follow-up questions, but the others did. What, for example, did I think about John Hickenlooper, "a white man with zero government experience" who owned over twenty restaurants, running for mayor? (I think that if he really owned twenty restaurants, he should have cut better deals for the Westword staff when our office was located across from the Wynkoop Brewing Co., his flagship eatery.) Or about Susan Casey, who'd resigned halfway through her term on Denver City Council, necessitating an election that cost the city $252,000? Or Don Mares using his political connections to get free tickets? Or what about Ari Zavaras? As Denver police chief, he'd overseen evidence-gathering for the spy files; as head of the state Department of Corrections, he'd seen his agency charged with sex harassment...and now, in his bid for mayor of Denver, he was supported by (gasp!) Republicans. Even Penfield Tate was laid bare -- his going to bat for a sex-offender neighbor up for parole, his law firm's representation of a problematic police officer, the firm's $11 million in contracts with the city. But Tate was also the only candidate to receive a positive push, in a scripted paean to his credentials as "a former top aide to Federico Peña...a progressive leader who believes we should focus more on neighborhoods."
Only after twenty minutes and a slew of notes scribbled on my cable bill did the friendly pollster finally ask what the head of my household did for a living -- a query that most researchers put at the top of their spiel, the better to achieve at least six degrees of separation from any conflict with their candidate.
Over at the Tate campaign, research director Colin Kennedy had thought the field research was completed long before last weekend. But after checking, he acknowledged that the call to my number -- and one that followed a few hours later to Westword cartoonist Kenny Be -- had come from one of their tardy researchers out of Virginia.
Direct to Mayberry, BFD.
"Denver is a very small, networked community," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli, who doesn't have a horse in this race. "You are calling likely voters, and that means you're calling potentially half the electorate, which is already a diminished number. Just to get 500 people, you're calling a couple thousand -- given hangups or no one at home. So the odds that you're going to get a pain-in-the-neck reporter are high..."
Ditto for a political insider's spouse: Ciruli's wife recently fielded a call that posed essentially the same questions as the Tate poll, although with a twist that made her think the research was for the Mares camp. Paula Sandoval, wife of Zavaras campaign manager Paul Sandoval, received a similar call. "It was an ugly one, totally negative," says Arnie Grossman, the Zavaras communications director who six weeks ago had to field complaints about the first poll of the campaign. "What we did was still very different. We were going for head-to-head matchups for all the candidates, the perceived weaknesses of all the field, but more about our own candidate."
But the Mares campaign denies that its recent research involved negative questions about anyone other than Mares. "We were testing Don's message," says Cody Wertz, Mares's communications director, who knows negative campaigning when he hears it -- he worked for the Colorado Democratic Party in the November elections.
"They're two-thirds negative questions," Ciruli says of the current polls, "but that's not really push-polling."
Not yet. Right now it's just field research that "gives us the lay of the land for the race," says Kennedy. Or tests a candidate's message, as Wertz and Grossman insist. Those political hot-potato push polls, which push would-be voters away from one candidate and toward another, will come later.
If we're lucky. "This race is so damn boring," sighs Ciruli. "I wonder if any poll is going to tell the candidates to try passion."
To forget the pollsters and the political handlers, and take their best shot.
After all, even Barney Fife got one bullet.
"I am the alpha wolf in a pack of poodles," state senator Ken Chlouber reportedly told his staff on Monday before heading back to the pound.
But that's no excuse for treating one of Colorado's most useful agencies like dog shit, grinding it under his cowboy-booted heel.
Once again, Republican Chlouber has suggested that the legislature abolish the Office of Consumer Counsel, a proposal approved by the Senate State Affairs Committee last Wednesday and now moving on to consideration by the full Senate.
The OCC, which represents consumer interests before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on matters related to telephone, electric and gas service, has never been particularly popular with more conservative elements in the state legislature. And this year, when wolves and poodles alike are taking big bites out of consumers' rights every chance they get, the OCC appears more vulnerable than ever -- even if its elimination wouldn't save the state a cent.
It would cost the state's consumers dearly, however. The budget for the OCC comes not from Colorado's general fund, but from the rates paid by consumers for their utilities. Rates that are considerably less today than they would be if the OCC did not exist.
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"In the eighteen years we've been around," says OCC director Ken Reif, "we've returned $43 for every dollar the ratepayers spent."
Keeping the office open costs about 5 cents a month -- and just this past January, the OCC saved consumers thirty times that much when the Public Utilities Commission rejected a telephone-industry-sponsored bid to replace a per-minute charge on in-state long-distance calls with a flat $1.47 monthly fee. That proposal violated the residential rate cap that the OCC had pushed for back in 1995, Reif's office argued -- and the PUC agreed.
Recent rulings out of Washington, D.C., only increase the OCC's importance. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission decided to give states more authority over their local telephone markets -- which means that local telephone companies will be lobbying the PUC harder than ever. In the consumer's corner: the OCC, and often only the OCC, whose bite is much worse than its bark.
"We intend to be very involved," confirms Reif. "If we're still here."