Politics' Hired Guns
Today, Florida's professional political consultants know more about voters than the voters might like. But for all the tools at their disposal, it's still tough -- and more expensive -- to get a message out.
Jim Kitchens: “You could say I’m somewhat competitive. I enjoy the campaign game.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
The Kitchens Group
Political leaning: Democrat
Clients: More than 40 members of Congress, Nature Conservancy, Lowe’s, Walt Disney World.
Perceptions: “I’m basically a behavioral scientist. I’m an attitude change specialist. How do you move people around? I was always fascinated about how we create these mass perceptions.”
Challenge: “I’ve always said one of our problems is we have no licensing. Anyone can hang their shingle out and say they’re a political consultant.”
Big break: When Kitchens launched his political polling career more than 25 years ago, he had to convince members of Congress that polling was a good idea. The Atlanta native says he got his big break in 1980 while living in Texas. The National Conservative Political Action Committee, an independent group, had targeted five U.S. senators and 14 U.S. House members for defeat, including Rep. Jim Wright, who was House Majority Leader. At a meeting with Wright, Kitchens warned him that the conservative group was “going to say you’re pro-abortion — you kill babies — you gave away the Panama Canal.” Wright didn’t believe him, saying “This is Fort Worth Texas, and we just don’t do things like that here,” Kitchens recalls.
The following day, Wright asked Kitchens to return to his office and handed the young political strategist a flier with a photograph of a trash can full of dead babies and the words “Jim Wright murdered these babies.” “He said, ‘Perhaps you know more than I think you know.’ ” Kitchens ended up running Wright’s strategy team. At Wright’s request he also flew to Washington and explained to other members of the Democratic Caucus how to respond if they were targeted by groups like NCPAC. “When I left, I had 13 members of the House as clients.”
At one point, Kitchens was on the campaign payroll of 42 House lawmakers. But the pollster, who moved his business to Florida in 1985, says he has migrated more toward public issues and corporate work as of late. Congressional redistricting, he says, has resulted in legislative districts that are no longer competitive. “In Florida, we’re sitting here with 27 congressional districts and only two or three are competitive.”