Owens, Omens and Dairy Cows: The Topsy Turvy Story of the Special Election in New York-23

By Putnam, Mark | Politics Magazine, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Owens, Omens and Dairy Cows: The Topsy Turvy Story of the Special Election in New York-23


Putnam, Mark, Politics Magazine


It was the last thing we wanted to hear.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was September 11, 2009. We had just begun shooting television commercials for Democrat Bill Owens in the upstate New York 23rd Congressional District special election and we were behind schedule. We were trying to fit more into a day than was likely possible and far off in the distance we could hear the thump-thump-thump of a helicopter approaching the otherwise deserted airport tarmac where we were shooting. It meant everything had to stop.

Helicopters, airplanes, lawn mowers and barking dogs are the bane of any exterior video shoot. You shut down the camera, curse the Gods and wait for the sound to go away. Twenty-dollar bills can silence lawn mowers and convince dog owners to bring Fido inside, but aircraft are something you just have to stop and wait for. And we were in a hurry.

Democrat Bill Owens had just jumped into the special election campaign with two other candidates--Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee, and Tea Party champion Doug Hoffman who was running on the Conservative Party line.

Our early polling showed Scozzafava with a nine-point lead: 31 percent for Scozzafava, 22 percent for Owens and 15 percent for Hoffman. The seat bad been in Republican hands for nearly 150 years, but after President Obama appointed Rep. John McHugh as Secretary of the Army, the seat was open. The special election was only seven weeks away. With Scozzafava, well known as a state legislator, and Bill Owens, a complete unknown Plattsburgh attorney with no electoral experience, we had little time to close the gap. And this helicopter wasn't helping.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On paper, the race was winnable. Owens had kept the same consulting team together that had just won Scott Murphy's NY-20 special election only four months earlier. Jef Pollock and Nick Gourevitch of Global Strategy Group were the pollsters and were joined by direct mail mavens Ed Peavey and Adnaan Muslim of Mission Control. My partner Steve Murphy and I (Murphy Putnam Media) handled the television and radio advertising. Jon Vogel and Joe Shafer of the DCCC, and campaign manager Brad Katz served as the nerve center of a campaign with national implications in the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River.

We all knew Scozzafava had great personal and political vulnerabilities, especially from her years in the New York State Assembly representing a Watertown district. And Hoffman was an unpredictable wild card who was always a part of our team's political calculations. We wanted him to be a viable third party candidate in order to split the Republican and conservative vote with Scozzafava, but he could become dangerous if his outsider campaign caught fire and, in a three-way dynamic, we could suffer given Scozzafava s popularity in her Watertown base, where she had the support of a large number of Democrats.

The first priority, however, was as conventional as it was critical: We needed to introduce Bill Owens to the voters. He was a former Air Force captain with a family history of military service who had served at the now shuttered Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and had since helped attract 2,000 jobs to the region as a corporate attorney by, in part, redeveloping the base. Hence, Bill was out on the tarmac telling his story, and the helicopter was a temporary annoyance.

But annoyances can become omens. In this case, it was a good omen. When the helicopter came into view, it was obvious it would fly straight through the background of our shot. We would have one chance to film the commercial with a military-style helicopter flying directly behind Bill, bringing life to the deserted tarmac. Owens, who had never made a commercial in his life, would have to be perfect with his lines--we couldn't ask the helicopter to fly around for a second take.

So I called "action" and hoped for the best. …

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