Kennedy seems comfortable here at Compose Digital Design in Baton Rouge, a hub of sorts for some of the most talented communications specialists in the state. He's a longtime client, but it's difficult to tell. His awards are displayed in the lobby alongside accolades for the partners, and he enjoys free reign over the entire facility. There's a certain "Oh-that's-just-George" quality about the whole thing.
He plops his bulky frame down into a swivel chair and replaces his shades with a bold pair of thick-rims. At 51, he bears a slight resemblance to the late comedian John Belushi, complete with animated body language, curious eyes and wild hair. In recent years, however, this colorful character has become the political toast of Republican and Democratic circles, having pushed a number of candidates past the victory line with his unique take on campaign commercials.
"If you really want to learn about the 30-second format, go buy a book with editorial cartoons and study them," Kennedy says, cueing up a video on a computer. "But the best way to judge a spot is to cut off the sound." He presses a button and turns toward the monitor. Secretary of State-elect Jay Dardenne walks in slow motion through an empty Senate chamber, careful not to look into the camera's lens. It's in black and white and lists several endorsements for the Baton Rouge attorney.
Even without the narration, the stately spot is still effective. It has netted Kennedy a few national awards and has been in heavy rotation several times, but it's not the kind of lowdown, hard-hitting images the slickster is know for. Kennedy is the latest king of mud, the prince of political punch, the man who put the sting back in Louisiana's campaign advertising. The titles are comical to Kennedy, as they should be, and he refuses to embrace them.
Kennedy prefers to say he's in the "persuasion business" and calls his 30-second attack ads "high concept," referring to a cinematic style that is complex, very involved and thoroughly polished. He says all claims are well researched and cited, and nothing is ever fabricated. It's a multi-layered process that can be costly for campaigns. For instance, a recent two-day shoot for one of Kennedy's negative spots had an $80,000 budget. In contrast, a positive ad can be produced for as little as $1,500. "And that's nothing more than the truth well told," he says.
Various campaign workers file in and out of the edit bay, backing up Kennedy's jokes with hearty laughter or shaking their head in agreement with his guerilla-like approach. His revelations come out in short bursts: "Storyboards are for sissies." "I tend to think in metaphors." "Sometimes I pluck ideas out of the air." But his philosophy is best seen, not heard, so Kennedy cues up another Dardenne campaign ad.
This time it's the spot that knocked Mike Francis, a Crowley native who now lives in Lafayette, out of the secretary of state's race. The ad depicts Francis as a balding, portly old man wearing blue tights and a red cape. The narrator dredges up an old lawsuit involving his former wife and questions why Francis lost his chairmanship of the state Republican Party.
Sitting in a room filled with action heroes and other superhero kitsch, Kennedy says he doesn't remember where the idea for the spot came from. But he does know what kind of impact it had on the race. "I don't think I've ever really elected anyone, but people hire me because I can make their numbers go up with this," Kennedy says, as his eyes draw to the back of the room. It's Dardenne, his star client, arriving early for a meeting that morning.
As a longtime ethics cheerleader, Dardenne's decision to lash out at Francis was somewhat out of character, but there's no regret in his voice. "I thought they were effective," he says. "As a practical matter, I was also getting beat up on by them for the past six months on the Internet and everywhere else." Surprisingly, the negative spot ran for only three days during the recent election cycle, compared to 27 days of positive spots. Nonetheless, there's little doubt which images will remain in the mind of voters.
That's why Kennedy is one of the new superstars, following in the footsteps of previous media darlings like pollsters and opposition researchers. Kennedy admits with a grin he is the "flavor of the month" but adds it's only because elections are becoming so close. Muddy messages are needed to help weed out wedge issues and, again, they're effective. "People tend to remember the negative, and the press eats it up, too," he says.
In the near future, however, Kennedy says more candidates will move away from sponsoring negative attacks, leaving it to outside groups to do the heavy lifting. "You can expect to start seeing more independent expenditures from third parties in the near future," he says, "especially during the governor's election." As to who will be handling the bulk of this new revenue stream, it won't be all Kennedy.
"The phone has been ringing a lot, but I can't take them all on," he says. "I can only handle three or four clients a year. My brother will probably tell you that's because I'm lazy." His brother, referred to during the interview as simply John, is better known around Louisiana as the state's longtime treasurer. It seems politics run in the family, but the similarities stop there.
Lee Scioneaux, a partner at Compose Digital Design who has known George Kennedy for 15 years, says the Zachary native dances to his own beat ' literally. When work is slow, he says Kennedy likes to break out an electronic keyboard, along with his best Elvis impersonation, and serenade unsuspecting clients and staff. "You just never know what to expect," Scioneaux says. "He's just his own guy. When candidates sit down with him, there's probably a bit of shell shock at first, but you quickly learn there's nothing lackadaisical or whimsical about him. There is a method to the madness."
Kennedy also put the hit out on state Sen. James David Cain, a Republican from Dry Creek, during the insurance commissioner's race. The devastating commercial depicted a convict being handcuffed in prison and mentioned that three other insurance commissioners have spent time in the pokey. Pundits credit the ad for knocking Cain out of the race, and Charlie Davis, Cain's campaign manager, admits it didn't help. Yet, from one operative to another, he can't help but compliment. "I think Kennedy's ads did what they were supposed to do," Davis says. "The one depicting Sen. Cain was distorted, but it was also very effective."
Joshua P. Stockley, president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University, says that is the precise reason why people like Kennedy will remain in high demand. There's a very simple reason why candidates and others are willing to shell out millions for the dirt. "It works," Stockley says. "I mean, if negative campaign advertising didn't work, it wouldn't be used."
While the politician sponsoring the negative spot benefits immediately from the swipe, the person being attacked may suffer the residual effects of an effective ad for some time. Case in point: the 2004 Kennedy ad that depicted former Baton Rouge Mayor Bobby Simpson as a chimpanzee counting money. But don't tell that to Kennedy, because this "persuasion" expert likely won't care. The loser can cry in his cornflakes all he wants, Kennedy says, but this "persuasion" expert won't be losing sleep for going on the attack.
After all, it's the American way. Right?
"Look, that's just the way things are," Kennedy says. "This is the life they have chosen. Everyone knows coming in that this is a full contact sport. It's politics."
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Michael Sam focuses on making the team; Christians flee Mosul; Kerry at work in Middle East and more national and international news for Wednesdays, July 23, 2014.
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.
Unlike those swindled by Bernie Madoff, the victims of Texas businessman Robert Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme won’t be getting any relief from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.’s emergency fund after a recent appellate court ruling.
The legal challenge is part of a continuing struggle over Common Core, which has become controversial since the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the standards in 2010.
The lone Democrat to announce he's running for governor, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, criticized Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics as "running the state like a big Ponzi scheme."
State police have arrested a 42-year-old Kaplan man in the July 7 hit and run fatality crash that killed a bicyclist on Louisiana Highway 92 near Milton.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy has picked up support for his U.S. Senate campaign from a former GOP competitor.
Lisa Hargis Smith lived a mysterious life as seen with her death earlier this month and its impact on the community of those who knew her, whether as a star student in Lafayette High’s class of ‘69, or later as a woman struggling with homelessness and mental illness.
Attorney Valerie Gotch Garrett will announce on Tuesday that she plans to run for the Division E seat of the 15th Judicial District Court.
Back in 2012, three Baton Rouge attorneys came to the aid of several disgruntled police officers with a high-profile lawsuit against the Lafayette Police chief and a number of higher-ups in city-parish government, but in a federal courtroom Thursday, their claims of conspiracy coupled with a lack of evidence backfired and the case was dismissed.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration intends to rework how it pays the private managed care networks that provide health services to two-thirds of Louisiana's Medicaid patients.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration is raising health insurance rates and cutting benefits for state employees and retirees, to keep their insurance program solvent.
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials spent much of Thursday reviewing their reaction to this week’s bomb threat, which led to the closure and evacuation of UL Lafayette and Girard Park, and a massive search Wednesday for two alleged explosive devices.
"We're not in a better place from the policy perspective than we were two weeks ago," says Education Superintendent John White, commenting on Thursday's face-to-face meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal to discuss their dispute over Common Core.
Gov. Bobby Jindal appears to remain unmoved by offers of a compromise on procuring testing materials tied to the Common Core based on a terse statement his office released following a meeting Thursday with Superintendent John White.
Wednesday's Senate vote on contraception legislation is the latest example of Democrats' win-by-losing strategy, which forces Republicans to vote on sensitive matters that might rile women this fall.
A benefit will be held tonight at Romacelli Bistro in Youngsville to raise money for the family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas.
After weeks of public disagreement, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Education Superintendent John White are sitting down to talk about standardized testing for the upcoming school year.
Two members of the Lafayette Parish law enforcement community who also serve on the Lafayette Parish Communications District will not be allowed to apply for the paid position of director of the agency.
After determining that the two reported bomb-like devices at Girard Park and UL Lafayette this morning were non-explosive, authorities have lifted the barricades, and an investigation into who was responsible is now under way.