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."
The fight to clean up Lafayette Parish could get some added ammunition with two ordinances up for votes Tuesday by the City-Parish Council targeting litter-bugs.
By striking a deal to lessen the blow of health insurance changes on state workers, school employees and retirees, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration lowered the volume of criticism but gave itself and local school boards a new budget headache.
With the airport tax coming up for a parishwide vote in about a week, the Broussard City Council and its mayor have come out in support of the proposal.
Protesters rallied peacefully in several Louisiana cities in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michal Brown.
US cities bidding on Olympics; Guard prevents more Ferguson riots; storm threatens travel and more national and international news for Wednesday, November 26, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
The U.S. rep billed LSU for work allegedly performed on the same days Congress voted on major legislation and held important committee hearings on energy and the ACA.
Abysmally low participation by the public has prompted the council to scuttle the 2014 survey with plans to simplify it and try again next year.
The village now says the ordinance will likely be overturned and authorities will more vigorously enforce existing leash laws.
Bill Cassidy cast an early ballot Tuesday, seeking to draw renewed attention to a race that has fallen off newspaper front pages and away from people's minds as they plan holiday meals and shopping schedules.
Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
After a convincing defeat at the polls on Nov. 4, Earl “Nickey” Picard has decided to let bygones be bygones with his former right-hand man Brian Pope, announcing his support for his former employee’s runoff bid to become Lafayette’s next city marshal.
Saturday the athletic department did everything possible to ensure the 2014 Ragin’ Cajun seniors remembered fondly their last home game. Rain and lightning never arrived but turbulence did in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Even stranger than the Republican Party’s decision to hold a “unity rally” earlier this month for Congressman Bill Cassidy in a Baton Rouge bar, Huey’s Bar, was the fact that the establishment was named after Louisiana’s most famous Democrat.
Bar Code is not a gay bar.
After failing to pass a medical marijuana bill last year, state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, is telling supporters he will return in 2015 with legislation that focuses on different applications like oils and pills.
Voters, obviously, are not yet tuned into the 2015 ballot, despite the intriguing races it will host.
By now, the story of how longtime LSU coach Dale Brown discovered Shaquille O'Neal has been told many times: Brown happened upon a massive 13-year-old at an army base in Germany, stayed in touch with him and eventually became like a second father.
Fate simply wasn't ready to give the New Orleans Saints a break from longtime nemesis Steve Smith.
Lafayette Police have had a busy day.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will use $130 million in patchwork financing from a tax amnesty program, insurance settlement, uninsured motorist penalties and other excess funds to close most of the state's midyear budget deficit.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she disagrees with President Barack Obama's actions on immigration, hoping the latest controversy doesn't worsen her campaign difficulties.
Gay-rights advocates challenging Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban announced Thursday that they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case before it is heard by a federal appeals court.
Thinking himself the “son of God,” the man charged with the 2013 killing of an officer of the Chitimacha Tribal Police will not stand trial following a ruling Thursday on his mental competency.
Either Saints coach Sean Payton doesn't want to tip Baltimore off as to who'll start in New Orleans' secondary on Monday night, or he really doesn't know yet.