In any professional political campaign, ones that raise money, hire campaign staff and build a grass roots operation, there is a meeting that usually happens at the beginning of the campaign, before the candidate has even announced his or her candidacy, which is critical to the success of the campaign. The candidate, the campaign manager and sometimes one or two advisers will sit down in a room, close the door, and then someone in the room, usually the campaign manager, will ask the candidate a difficult but necessary question. “Is there anything we don’t know about you that could have an impact on the campaign?” Or if they are really direct they might just say “tell me about every skeleton you have in your closet. And don’t leave anything out. I want to know if you cheated on your second grade penmanship exam!”
It’s an important moment for the campaign, because at the beginning of a campaign the staff’s tendency is to look forward, to work on defining the campaign’s and the candidate’s vision for the future. It’s what they’re hired to do, and what they are good at doing. Besides, they have no control over what’s already happened; the candidate’s past cannot be changed. The staff can’t change the candidate’s personal and professional history and life experience, at best they can only shape and portray the candidate’s history in ways that emphasizes the candidate’s merits and minimizes his or her faults. As Jackson residents can readily attest to, we voters are always prepared to elect candidates who come with more of the latter and less of the former. But that’s for another column.
Which brings us to this mayoral election, and the recent news reports regarding candidate Jonathan Lee and the default judgments against his company, Mississippi Products. While I have no special knowledge of the situation, having only read and watched the news articles and television reports that have come out in the last few days. But based upon what I’ve seen and heard, I’d like to make a few observations on how the Lee campaign has handled the crisis (though it is entirely possible his campaign does not consider it a crisis).
It is inconceivable to me that Mr. Lee did not think this matter important enough to communicate it to his campaign staff at the kind of meeting I described at the beginning of this post. If he knew about it and didn’t see fit to tell his staff, then he has only himself to blame, because he and the campaign lost any chance to address this matter on their own terms, and at a time of their choosing. I think it more likely that Mr. Lee was not fully aware of the gravity of the legal situation, and left it for others in the company to resolve. The unlikeliest possibility, in my opinion, is that the campaign knew about this and assumed that it would not become public knowledge, and thus did not prepare the candidate to respond on this matter. Because that would be something close to campaign malpractice.
What’s more important both to the voters and to the Lee campaign is how they manage their response to this situation, and the record so far does not reflect well on either the candidate or the campaign, and suggests that they were not at all prepared for this scrutiny. The only prepared statement they have made uses a conventional campaign technique: dismiss the questioning or the charge as unnecessary to answer, and then to attack the candidate’s opponents or their supporters for bringing it up. Their statement, and I found it odd that it was not on any kind of official Lee campaign letterhead, begins “This week all major media outlets were contacted by an anonymous source regarding a legal issue related to my family business, Mississippi Products, Inc. With my campaign for mayor picking up a tremendous amount of steam, and just two weeks left before the Democratic Primary, this is no doubt another attempt to impede our momentum. This is an ongoing business issue, not a personal one, and it is totally unrelated to my campaign for mayor”.
I’m puzzled as to why the Lee campaign thinks it should matter to the average voter who brought this material to the media. It’s not as if they are spurious accusations that are unverifiable. They are legal judgments that are a matter of public record. Why should it matter whether Sam Begley, Sally Begley, Ed Begley or Ed Begley Jr. tipped off the media? You can’t unring a bell. And does his campaign really think that the voters care about whether their momentum is being impeded or not?
My guess would be that the average voter cares a lot more about crime, infrastructure issues and the state of the public school system. And if the average voter is paying attention to this, they may be calculating how Mr. Lee’s management of his own business is a predictor of how he would perform as mayor.
One of Mr. Lee’s opponents, candidate Regina Quinn, had a similar decision to make about her own campaign regarding her bankruptcies (she had 2), and chose to bring it up herself at the beginning of her campaign. Her campaign decided to make it a part of her campaign narrative, that she was someone who had “fallen down, but got up”, and she said in an interview that she thought people might say “Hey, maybe this is someone who is familiar with how to turn not just her own personal life and economic life around, but maybe Jackson needs a turnaround specialist. Maybe that turnaround specialist is Regina."
While that may be an overly optimistic view of the electorate, it does show that she and the campaign made the decision to “own” her story and to talk about her successes and failures, warts and all. It’s difficult to predict what effect Quinn’s bankruptcies and Lee’s business-related default judgments will have on the election. Obviously, it will have no effect on those who have already decided not to vote for them, and it is doubtful that, based upon recent events, those who have supported Lee until now will change their minds. The voters it may affect will be those who are still undecided, which could still be a sizable number. It is entirely possible that some voters may be troubled by Lee’s managing of his business, especially because he and his campaign have made his business experience and ownership a focus of his campaign, perhaps even the focus of the campaign. And his statements and explanation since the news became public are difficult to make sense of, and both defensive and secretive in nature.
It would be perfectly valid for a voter to ask how Mr. Lee would respond in a similar situation were he to be elected mayor, and to question whether he would respond in the same manner as their representative.
I’m sure that when the Lee campaign filled out their campaign calendar they did not plan on spending this critical and precious time right before the primary managing this crisis, and that they are frustrated with the coverage of it, but my sense is that it is not going to go away. My advice to them would be to have their candidate address it directly, probably in a press conference, and to answer every question, no matter how difficult or probing. And then to move on and in the last week before election day get back to the things the campaign and Mr. Lee really want to talk about; Crime, Opportunities for Employment, Repairing Infrastructure and Education.
It will be interesting to see if he addresses this "crisis" at the debate tonight, or if his opponents bring it up.