In Campaign 2014, what would Bruce do?

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By Sherry Robinson


One of the wonders of the political world was the late Gov. Bruce King. When he worked a room, no hand went unshaken and he remembered everybody’s name.

Now that his son Gary, the Democratic candidate for governor, is the target of a fire hose of ugly ads, I can’t help but wonder what Bruce would do.

In his autobiography, “Cowboy in the Roundhouse: A Political Life” (as told to Charles Poling), King described his campaigns and his campaign philosophy. Reading it now makes you pine for those gentler, kinder times.

In 1970, Bruce didn’t use any paid political consultants and had no one in the campaign from outside the state. His opponent in the primary, Hobbs businessman Jack Daniels, “ran a more high-tech campaign,” monitored the opinion polls closely and spent more money, King wrote, “whereas we just did it on hard work and having friends all over the state. We built our grassroots support, literally going person to person in every little town.”

Campaigning with him were Alice and sons Bill and Gary. People liked Bruce; they loved Alice.

The general election against Pete Domenici was “a close, hot race.” The two big issues were campus unrest at the University of New Mexico and a New Mexico perennial: “improving the economic conditions of New Mexico and increasing the tax base.” 

King also campaigned on equalizing the funding for schools “so the rural districts weren’t at such a disadvantage.” 

The Domenici campaign tried to make an issue of King’s voting record and his actions as House Speaker. “He also made fun of my rural background” and folksy leadership style. The opposition assumed that Pete could whup Bruce in a debate. He couldn’t. “I had good issues and, having been Speaker of the House, I had some abilities that you don’t learn out gathering cattle on horseback,” he wrote.

Person-to-person campaigning prevailed, and King won, but he could see the game changing. By the mid-1970s, campaigns were more marketing than shaking hands. Candidates were packaged and sold like shampoo. Television was a new tool, but it increased costs.

In 1978, both his primary opponent, Bob Ferguson, and general election opponent, Joe Skeen, supported right to work, that year’s hot topic. “I knew how divisive right-to-work could be, so I tried to steer the campaign discussion onto my experience, knowledge, and accomplishments.” He made sure voters knew he was a businessman with a strong background in finance.

That worked in the primary, but in the general election, candidates were using media blitzes on TV. Sound bites became one-issue drumbeats, repeated in news coverage.

“Reporters tend to throw a saddle onto some subject that draws attention, then ride it for the distance,” Bruce wrote.

Right-to-work was starting to dominate the campaign. King halted its momentum by suggesting a voter referendum. He again resisted using consultants and slick media spots and ran his usual people-to-people campaign. 

“The roots of a campaign start with people — and I like people,” he said. “I have always gotten great satisfaction out of going out and talking to the citizens of New Mexico, working my way through a room, introducing myself and shaking hands, and letting folks know they would have a friend in the Capitol if they elected me.”

How does this translate to 2014? The media drumbeat now is the comparison of war chests and the pounding Gary King is taking in TV ads. Political animals want King to lunge from the ropes like Rocky and slug his opponent, but that would be out of character for the Kings. Bruce faced moneyed challengers and just kept shaking hands.