It has been a crazy week in Illinois politics, perhaps one of the craziest. The main questions that have been flying around in Democratic circles have been: Who knew what about Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen, and when did they know it?
The second question is actually easy to answer. I’ll start with myself.
In November 2009 I examined potential opposition research on Cohen for prospecting purposes. Our standard practice in these matters is to run a Lexis-Nexis search for news clips and personal records. This is not to find the potential “dirt” but rather to gauge how large the record is, and therefore how much it will cost.
The news search revealed the three Mark Brown articles in which Cohen admitted (more like declared) that he was arrested for domestic battery, in addition to having a turbulent divorce and accepting gold and diamond dentures for a pawn loan. The remaining news footprint was minimal. The personal records search revealed that he had 21 registered judgments and liens in Cook County, IL, including several tax liens, foreclosures and an eviction. Accordingly, I noted at the time that a potential project would focus on his tax liens, divorce and domestic history.
Third Coast Research was not retained for the primary for such a project.
Now let’s consider the other parties.
Cohen and his campaign. Cohen’s campaign paid RWS Investigations, a private investigator in Chicago, a total of $1,231 on March 19, 2009. Additionally, Grainger Terry received $184.02 for “research” on September 25, 2009 and then $19,000 for “research” on December 28, 2009. The private investigator payments speak for themselves. The other payments are ambiguous. The larger amount is close to what a baseline poll would cost, and polls are usually reported as “research” on campaign disclosures. However, polls do not typically have separate expenses for relatively small amounts. It is possible that the expenditures also reflect opposition research, and that the smaller amount reflects an expense for court records. Since the vendor was subcontracted through Grainger Terry, it is difficult to tell for sure based on the public record.
The press. From a research perspective, it is highly probable the Chicago press knew about the domestic violence arrest, meaning the actual court record and not the Mark Brown columns, before the primary election. The story that initially came out late Wednesday night was assembled from three separate jurisdictions: the Cook County Domestic Violence Court (the arrest), the Cook County Clerk of Court in Skokie (the divorce), and the Lake County Clerk of Court (the prostitution arrest). These records are difficult to retrieve, assemble and report in one business day presuming no prior knowledge of where they are or what they say.
Other lieutenant governor campaigns. Research is reported in different ways on disclosures; indeed, sometimes it is not reported at all. However, according to the Illinois State Board of Election for all lieutenant governor campaigns from both parties, only Cohen reported expenditures for “research” from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009. It should be noted that such a disclosure search does not reflect research conducted by campaign staff.
What lessons can be learned from this?
Opposition research is essential for effective campaigns. Cohen is a clear example of a flawed candidate winning in a vacuum of good research. It is not enough to insinuate, or claim that an attack might exist. Effective attacks require factual data.
Do not count on the press to help your campaign. Whether the press’ behavior was appropriate in this matter is for themselves to resolve. Campaigns cannot rely on journalists to help them out by doing footwork they should do themselves, even if journalists have already done it.
Do not count on a flawed candidate’s team to be loyal partisans. It is no secret why anyone at Grainger Terry did not come forward with information about Cohen: They received $628,882 from him (not including spending from 2010). There will always be someone to take a candidate’s money, particularly a self-funding candidate. It is not a wise gamble that someone’s conscience will outweigh his paycheck.