By Adam Pagnucco.
Suppose you want to persuade an elected official to vote in a certain way. Which of the following tactics would you choose?
- Prepare the best case on the merits of the issue that you can.
- Mobilize a large part of the public to agree with you.
- Insult the elected official’s integrity and criticize his or her salary.
If you picked Tactic 3, congratulations! You could get hired by one of Maryland’s top PR firms to run the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time!
What is this campaign, you ask? It involves a Battle of Developers in Downtown Bethesda. (Ring the bell, folks!) On one side is Clark Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest real estate and construction firms that is headquartered at Bethesda Metro Center. On the other side is Brookfield Properties, another giant real estate firm based in New York and Toronto, which bought 3 Bethesda Metro Center for $150 million in 2011. Brookfield would like to place a new high-rise on the concrete Bethesda Metro plaza and the Planning Board agreed to it in its proposal for the area’s new master plan. Clark, whose existing building would be right next door to Brookfield’s new building, opposes it.
The Montgomery County Council has final say over all master plans, and so Clark paid for a grass-roots lobbying campaign. A website proclaiming a need to “Protect Bethesda Open Space” was registered in May and emails from constituents started arriving in council inboxes. While the emails varied a bit in content, the following two sentences appeared word-for-word in a great many of them.
“The County Council has sided with the developers one too many times here in our recent history.”
“After recent raises to our taxes and to your salaries, we ask that the same priority be given to the people who live and work in downtown Bethesda.”
Your author has worked for and with elected officials for a long time. There are many differences among them. But one thing absolutely every single one of them HATES is to be called a tool. The only thing worse is to get hundreds of their constituents to call them tools. You may as well burn down their houses, vandalize their cars, loot their bank accounts and then ask them to give you a vote. See how that works for you!
And on top of that, is it really wise for a campaign financed by a real estate company to encourage residents to criticize Council Members for siding with developers? What will those residents say the next time Clark wants to build something?
But Clark is only the client. They hired someone to run the campaign for them. One clue appears in this notice listing a certain Bassam Tarbush as a contact for the website. Tarbush is also named in the campaign’s response emails. According to his Linkedin profile, Tarbush is employed by KOFA Public Affairs, one of Maryland’s most prominent public relations firms. That is astounding for two reasons.
- KOFA’s principals, who are regarded as professional and competent in Maryland’s political circles, have lots of experience working for elected officials. They include senior aides to former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. If anyone understands how outraged elected officials can get when their integrity is impugned, these people do.
- The firm’s roots are deeply planted in the Democratic Party. Its principals have devoted substantial parts of their careers to helping Democrats like O’Malley and Cardin succeed. And yet, here is a group of Democratic operatives running a campaign that depicts Democratic elected officials as tools of developers.
Clark Enterprises is a well-respected real estate firm that has other priorities here in addition to what happens at Bethesda Metro Center. Burning its bridges with the County Council through such a ham-handed lobbying campaign goes against its long-term interests. For its own sake, Clark should go back to the drawing board, figure out a different message, hire someone else to implement it and end The Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time.