Boston Globe: Boston’s public affairs firms: low profiles, big influence

February 4, 2015

By Jon Chesto

In a city where politics is a blood sport, shaping a candidate’s public persona can be big business. Candidates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year on the guys — and they’re almost always guys — who worked behind the scenes as strategists, juggling media calls and developing advertisements and campaign themes.

The ground has shifted yet again for Boston’s public affairs firms, with a wave of newcomers on Beacon Hill and in Washington. The time between election cycles is when strategists build their roster of private-sector clients. Political races can pay off months after an election: A surprising, come-from-behind win creates positive exposure and gets people talking. If the victor is a high-profile position such as governor or attorney general, corporate clients come knocking, hoping to buy a direct line to the new bosses or at least an understanding of how they think.

In elections, it’s almost impossible to claim a perfect batting average. Consultants typically get more credit than they merit for a win and more blame than they deserve for a loss. But political power is often shaped by perception — and the perception of a public affairs firm’s power is often solidified by how its candidates perform. Within that world, Boston’s strategists are figuring out how to capitalize on their successes or move on from their defeats.

Northwind Strategies: Doug Rubin racked up prominent victories with Deval Patrick’s out-of-nowhere win in 2006 and again four years later against Republican Charlie Baker. Rubin helped US Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Representative Joseph Kennedy III land their current gigs; the race to court Rubin’s affection in Boston’s 2013 mayoral race seemed almost as fierce as the actual primary. But 2014 didn’t go so well: Establishment candidate Warren Tolman lost to Maura Healey in the Democratic primary for attorney general, and Baker edged out then-AG Martha Coakley in the governor’s race. Rubin said he decided after November’s elections that he is done with politics — although skeptics say they’ve heard that before and insist he’ll be back. This year, he said, he’s 100 percent focused on his corporate and nonprofit business. One of his clients just won an important vote: The Boston 2024 Partnership was picked as the US nominee for the 2024 Summer Games. The final pick won’t be made until mid-2017, which means plenty more work for Northwind.

Melwood Global: No one thought Maura Healey had much of a chance when she ran against clear favorite Warren Tolman for attorney general. Healey’s surprise trouncing of Tolman in the primary shook up the Democratic machine and made people pay attention. It was a big win for Melwood Global, one that overshadowed its losses with Tom Conroy’s bid for state treasurer and Steve Kerrigan’s bid for lieutenant governor, as well as the firm’s failed casino-repeal effort. Melwood was founded by two former political reporters, John Boit and Jon Tapper. But it had been focused on private-sector and nonprofit PR work until Dave Guarino — a friend from their days at the State House — joined as a partner in 2011 and broadened their political expertise. With Healey’s success, the Melwood crew firmly established itself as a key player in Boston’s political scene.

Liberty Square Group: An unknown Democrat unseating a longtime congressman and a member of his own party? That’s not the way things are supposed to happen in deep-blue Massachusetts. But Scott Ferson and his Liberty Square Group helped launch Seth Moulton headlong into a primary challenge against US Representative John Tierney. Now in Congress, Moulton has had to make nice with Tierney’s friends, and Ferson may likewise find himself mending burned bridges. (Ferson said those upset with Tierney’s loss were ultimately relieved Moulton kept the seat from Republicans.) Moulton’s meteoric rise shined a bright spotlight on Liberty Square. Emboldened by the Moulton victory, Ferson is looking to expand his “Blue Lab” concept — in which about a dozen college kids help run what’s essentially a plug-and-play campaign organization—making it easier and less expensive for political hopefuls to run for office.

Goldman Associates: Political veteran Michael Goldman’s most important recent victory took place in 2013, when Martin J. Walsh emerged victorious from a crowded field for mayor of Boston. He remains involved as a Walsh adviser. But Goldman hasn’t been coasting on his close ties with the mayor. He worked to help two successful statewide candidates last year: Attorney General Maura Healey and Auditor Suzanne Bump. Nearly all of his revenue now comes from private-sector clients, such as insurance brokerage William Gallagher Associates and the New England Aquarium. But his recent successes in the electoral arena show that this fixture of Boston’s political landscape hasn’t yet walked away.

Keyser Public Strategies:Will Keyser’s profile in Boston rose with Charlie Baker’s victory in the governor’s race. But Keyser’s involvement in a Republican race was a bit of a gamble for a strategist who had worked as an aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former representative Marty Meehan, both Democrats. Keyser recognized that aligning with a GOP candidate this time was risky, that it could close some doors in this predominantly Democratic town. But he was familiar with Baker from his days at Hill Holliday when Baker ran Harvard Pilgrim, a Hill Holliday client. Going forward, Keyser (right) said he doesn’t plan to do much more with electoral politics, at least not anytime soon. But he expects to add to his staff this year, in part to keep up with the additional phone calls following Baker’s victory.

CK Strategies: Guiding Deb Goldberg’s successful campaign for state treasurer last year catapulted Chris Keohan into the big leagues of Boston political consulting after previous wins in races for the state Legislature and Boston’s City Council. Keohan attributes his success with Goldberg to their plan to offer voters a policy-driven agenda focused on such issues as wage equality and financial literacy. Of course, deploying Goldberg’s personal fortune — her family once owned the Stop & Shop chain — certainly helped. Keohan is looking for a new location for his expanding firm, which had been a one-person shop until now. Kate Norton, Martin J. Walsh’s former press secretary, became the first person to join his staff last month.

Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications: Having won every ballot questioncampaign it took on in its home state, Rasky Baerlein’s luck ran out withits effort to protect a state law allowing automatic increases in the gasoline tax. With the support of Boston’s business community, the effort to block the referendum known as Question 1 should have been an easy one for Joe Baerlein and Larry Rasky (above). Baerlein said he didn’t count on millions of dollars of super PAC money flooding the airwaves with attacks on Martha Coakley for her support of an automatic gas-tax increase. Those attacks, he said, influenced voters against any gas tax hikes. Baerlein said he considers 13-1 to be a great record if you’re in the NFL or the American League East. And he’s right, of course. But it still has to sting a bit to lose your shot at a perfect game. The firm now is focusing on its main business of corporate PR and lobbying, with an eye toward more ballot work in 2016.

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