Anatomy of a killer commercial

September 23, 1995|By Andrew Ratner

CAMPAIGN WORKERS had titled the ad ''the idiot,'' although the commercial itself was a masterstroke.

It showed Mary Pat Clarke holding court in Baltimore City Council chambers in May 1993 and railing on about making drug dealers pay a sales tax. ''What I'm saying [to the dealers] is we're going to collect this tax or you better go somewhere else. . . . Move off this corner or pay the 15 percent,'' she declared.

In the weeks before this 30-second spot ran on Baltimore television, Mrs. Clarke, president of the City Council, was pulling off the improbable. A white candidate in a majority black city, she had closed a sizable gap in earlier polls to come almost even with the incumbent, Kurt L. Schmoke. Most important, she was gaining on him. And momentum is one flattering cosmetic. Many of the earlier allegations leveled against Mrs. Clarke, that she was a flake or a loose cannon, were being cleansed away by her hard charge at the mayor.

Then came the commercial.

You won't find a more effective political spot. For a mere $3,000, the Kurt Schmoke Committee's ad agency, Shorr and Associates of Philadelphia, packaged a TV clip of that aforementioned council meeting that was obtainable to all from City Hall archives. At the end of the commercial came this kicker, borne of a comment Mr. Schmoke's political guru, Larry Gibson, had made to colleagues during Mrs. Clarke's summer surge: ''Mary Pat Clarke for mayor? You've got to be kidding.''

You can't credit a single factor for securing a third term for Kurt Schmoke. He won in a romp, and his turn-out-the-vote effort was tremendous. But if you could point to one thing, that ad turned the tide. Even Mr. Schmoke alluded to it on primary day: ''A little kid said to me, 'Is it true that she wanted to tax drug dealers?' That showed me that our ads worked.''

Brad Coker, whose Columbia polling firm tracked the race, said Mrs. Clarke's negatives ballooned 10 points after that ad aired.

''People were talking''

Several political observers said that Mrs. Clarke was slow to respond. Her campaign manager, Cheryl Benton, said that she did call a press conference to more fully explain Mrs. Clarke's idea, but the press seemed unimpressed. The Clarke campaign eventually responded with its own ad, which it titled ''Kurt's mud.'' But even Ms. Benton acknowledged the corrosiveness of the Schmoke ad. ''We had to spend a lot of energy countering it,'' she said. ''People were talking about it.''

The genesis of the ad is reminiscent of Lee Atwater's hit team in the 1988 presidential campaign that took aim at Michael Dukakis and unearthed Willie Horton.

This time, Schmoke staffers were sitting around, trying to derail the Clarke locomotive by thinking up off-beat things she'd done. At some point, Richard Krummerich, a long-time Schmoke staffer, recalled Mrs. Clarke's idea of a sales tax for drug dealers. Mr. Krummerich attends all council meetings. It's a good thing for his boss he does, because The Sun never reported on Mrs. Clarke's obscure proposal. It was a tree that had fallen in the woods and never got heard.

Not only did Mrs. Clarke's idea sound goofy, but the clip cast in a cold light what someone called ''the culture of City Hall.'' An aide stood near Mrs. Clarke, looking bored. The diminutive council president in a huge, high-back chair looked like a girl stealing a moment on Santa's throne. Mr. Coker likened it to a commercial that undid David Duke in Louisiana that showed him in Ku Klux Klan regalia. While his ugly past was well known, there's nothing so dramatic as seeing it on tape.

Said Craig Kirby, the Schmoke campaign's press aide, of the anti-Mary Pat Clarke ad: ''That was the knife that went through the heart. I knew when she saw that, she put her head down and said 'crap.' ''

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

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