For History: 9/11 and the 2001 Warner-Earley Governor’s race

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    by Paul Goldman

    After reading Jeff Schapiro’s column in the Richmond Times Dispatch this morning, it struck me that 9/11’s effect on the Warner-Earley Governor’s race in 2001 might have been greater than I had perceived. So while this type of reminiscing writing is not really of great interest to me – as I have to constantly tell people who seem to think I have a moral duty to write the inside piece about the Wilder stuff – let me step out of my comfort zone to add to Jeff’s good column for stuff he wouldn’t know as a reporter, but suggests the public would like to hear.

    The Warner campaign, as is the norm for a governor’s race, had the usual morning conference call on 9/11/01. The usual suspects were Steve Jarding, a talented campaign manager; Anita Rimler, surely one of the state’s all-time top fund-raisers; Geoff Garin, a super pollster; Frank Greer, one of the top Democratic TV ad guys; Nick Perrins, probably the guy Warner trusts the most in tough situations and rightly so; and then myself, whose role, as Warner wanted, was to play what law students say is the “good John Marshall Harlan”, the great dissenter (John Marshall Harlan  as opposed to the later Justice Harlan, was the guy who cast the dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson).

    I had been assigned to put together the Warner platform thing – the Warner Action Plan, the longest such thing ever, I doubt anyone even on the campaign but myself had ever read it cover to cover. My role was also to play the strategist and to do the Moot Court Thing, make sure we looked at things from all angles, which frankly Steve and Jeff and Frank and Anita and Nick et. al did anyway. Truth was, as Warner knew, having Frank and Jeff and I on the same call guaranteed a certain back and forth. But we got along in our own way.  

     

    There were a few others on the call as I remember, but my aging brain pod can’t recall their names this morning, so I apologize, no slight intended.

    My recollection is the call started at 8:30 am. I had been jogging at the Godwin High School track out in Henrico County, the normal thing for me at the time. I ran, literally, into a friend of mine, and she was asking me when the campaign intended to “go after” Earley. I remember because the telephone call that morning had this very question on the agenda. Indeed, 9/11 was the day we were going to decide whether to hit back at Mr. Earley — no more Mr. Nice guy. Those were the days before you could run with a portable cell phone. I remember her running off without even the “call me sometime” thing. I remember thinking this was not the way for a guy to start the day.

    It dawned on me the call had started. So I remember trying a few of the pay phones at the track before finding one that worked. In my mind’s eye, I can see myself, sun baking down, still sweating from the run, wanting to sit down, but having to stand to use the pay phone.

    As I recall, Frank and I, despite our arguments that dated back to the Wilder campaign of 1989, had now long been in agreement on the same basic chess board play: let the other guy attack first, hope to get an editorial or two saying the attack went over the top, and then use those editorials in a TV ad in which the first 15 seconds called the opponent the “negative campaigner” and then use the last 15 seconds to blast the opponent back with an even harsher negative attack!

    The result, while counter-intuitive, came out this way: the opponent came to be seen as the guy running the negative campaign, not you, even though you were attacking just as hard! This is how it worked for Wilder, and I knew Frank was right. Before he got hired for the Wilder thing, I had checked out what was known by some as the Greer Pivot. It seemed to work when he did it.

    So I was ready for a full-on Greer Pivot, attack, whatever.

    Warner, like every other candidate except probably Jim Gilmore, had a hesitance to “going negative” as they say, especially since he had a sizable lead in Garin’s polls. I recall Mark being the one really resisting, Jarding, like most campaign managers, had been wanting to hit back hard the longest.

    As I recall, Earley had sent out some really dumb direct mail flyer, attacking Warner, Kaine, and McEachin — the entire 2001 Democratic ticket — at the end of August. It had been a statewide mailing, could have been paid for by the Republican Party, but the press knew it was an Earley thing. It misstated Warner’s position on several issues.

    We, of course, were concerned 100% with our guy, no offense meant to Tim or Donald, but it is a Dawinistic existence at that level of politics.

    Long story short: Frank got the editorials he needed, in the Virginian Pilot, Roanoke Times and Washington Post, if I recall correctly.

    My recollection is that Frank had either prepared his Greer Pivot ads, or wanted to do so. It is even possible he just wanted to do some straight negatives; my instincts tell me the Greer Pivot, but I can’t really recall. Ten years later, I don’t know why we wouldn’t have gone with the Greer speciality, since we wanted to start hitting back. But I can’t be 100% sure except that on this phone call, we were getting ready to move to  attack posture.

    But also, as with any campaign, we needed to decide on the day’s story line from the Warner for Governor perspective. You have to give the press something.

    We were talking about what should be the day’s story line. I can hear Frank’s voice; he had something, and as I recall, we agreed on it after a short discussion. I believe it hit Earley, but the details are a blur, as someone said that one of the towers of the World Trade Center was on fire, it’s all over the television.

    We stopped in mid-discussion and then learned a plane had apparently had flown into one of the Towers. I used to work on the 88th floor of one of the Towers, so I remember flashing back to that, and asking whether anyone knew which Tower it was, where the plane had hit.

    Many decades ago, a small plane hit the Empire State Building and my brain made this instant connection. Small planes, helicopters, were not unusual around the Wall Street area at the time, although it seemed odd to me such a crash could cause the flames being reported near the top of the Tower. I had viewed lower Manhattan from the Jersey side hundreds of times, and the small plane/big fire thing didn’t compute instantly. Planes had been taking off and landing at JFK, La Guardia for years, never any threat to Lower Manhattan that I could recall.

    I remember Frank saying something like: We might as well not issue anything today, we know the story line in every paper for the next 24 hours.

    The North Tower fire was first reported around 8:48, so this fits with my recollection that we had been talking 20 minutes or so before we learned about it.

    Mark and I knew guys who worked in lower Manhattan, so we said something about that, and I remember Jarding (I think – but it could have been someone else) wondering out loud whether this was an accident or something not so accidental.

    We debated it back and forth and then soon learned the Tower was not just on fire, it was mind-boggling smoke and flames, it seemed the whole thing might burn down. That didn’t seem possible to me, the whole Tower? No way.

    I remember flashing back to my 88th floor days, trying to put myself back there. I never

    participated in any fire drill. But there was a fire escape route. The super-fast elevators that took you to the top floors would be out of action of course.

    But I figured people had a way to escape. In those days, I was running 15 miles a day, so I had no doubt that well-trained fire guys could get up the steps; it would be brutal, but they could do it. Going down 88 flights would be tough on some workers up there. But I figured it was a modern building, things would work out — hopefully.

    I remember discussing a little about my knowledge of the Towers.

    The conversation trailed off; we stayed on the phone but as we digested the situation, it didn’t seem possible some small plane had done this. Clearly, it wasn’t an accident. You then had to try to figure who, why, whatever.

    But we didn’t know anything except this: politics was off the table for now.

    Then, we were told the same thing had now occurred in the South Tower.

    I recall silence thereafter, the implications dawning. I knew in 1993, a radical Islamic group had planted a bomb in one of the Towers hoping to bring it down. They were caught, their plot didn’t work, the event had not crossed my mind after hearing about the first Tower. But after the second Tower went up in flames, I focused on it.

    It seemed too much of a coincidence. So I was assuming some connection either politically or philosophically. I focused on the blind Sheikh who had been the spiritual head of the 1993 plot. I had read about Osama bin Laden and his crew. But I recalled the Sheikh had either been deported or was in custody. I figured he somehow plotted to get his revenge. Bin Laden never entered my thinking.

    The campaign pulled all our ads and went into suspension mode.

    In the days following, we did just what Schapiro said basically, debating how to best conduct a campaign post 9/11. We all had various ideas.

    From a strategy point of view, we had a comfortable lead in the polls. The 9/11 attacks froze everything in place. In theory, the pressure was on Earley not us.

    We wondered whether Mark Earley’s experience as Attorney General might give him some new political advantage when the campaign re-engaged, as it would eventually. We feared his using Bush in a TV ad, doing the “rally around the flag” thing as happened with Jimmy Carter when his campaign, then losing to Kennedy, soared and won easily. That was a primary, but still an example perhaps.

    As I recall, we were the first campaign to got back on the air with a one-minute advertisement praising President Bush, the first responders, remembering those lost, their families and urging unity in our fight to bring the terrorists to justice.

    Mentioning Bush by name proved controversial in some quarters, but it was the right thing to do. We were nervous to be the first ones back on the air.

    But there was going to be an election for Governor, and we had been on our way to win rather easily. We also had a big money advantage so we could afford to be first.

    New York City was electing a Mayor, New Jersey a Governor, on the same day as Virginia, and their campaigns were re-starting.  From a political point of view, the basic structure of the electorate didn’t change much between 9/11 and election day in terms of the Governor’s race.

    Earley never laid a glove on Warner; indeed, the only real change I remember was Earley’s image growing significantly more negative from September until election day.

    The campaign was more muted than it might otherwise have been. But the truth is this: Warner’s polls gave a comforting lead from when Earley got nominated, and Warner had the stronger image all along no matter what Earley tried, or frankly what he could have tried without 9/11 ever happening. It was always Mark’s election to lose. His campaign team and the candidate- my role was minor – did a good job; they didn’t need my suggestions, but it was fun playing Justice Harlan.

    Earley made the usual GOP charge that Warner would raise taxes; our platform refuted it as did one of our October TV ads. Once it was clear Earley couldn’t get any real advantage on the “tax-and-spend” fiscal side of things, that made it game over, as had been true with Wilder and later Kaine, indeed Robb and Baliles too. They all scored big on education, but that’s because they didn’t lose on fiscal responsibility.

    History says: looking back, 9/11 had a huge political impact in November on the New York City Mayor’s race, but not on the Virginia Governor’s race.