Ten questions for Gary Maloney: inside opposition research
Gary Maloney is president of the Jackson-Alvarez Group, a research and communications firm in Alexandria, Va. He has spent the last 25 years in politics working for seven presidential campaigns and hundreds of races for senate, governor and U.S. House. Former clients include George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani, Haley Barbour, George Allen, James Gilmore, Connie Mack, Mike Huckabee and Mel Martinez. The Los Angeles native earned a B.A. from the University of Southern California and a D. Phil. from Oriel College, Oxford. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.
1. What made you get into opposition research?
“Nothing; it was a choice. I trained to be a journalist, but realized how unhappy and liberal most of them were. For years, I used reporter skills doing press for congressmen and campaigns. In 1983, Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater hired me as their researcher on Reagan-Bush ’84. I ended up supervising nine staffers and 30 full-time volunteers, formed a research firm in 1986, never looked back.”
2. What is the most rewarding part?
“Finding the truth, and using it to elect honest men and women, and to defeat liberals, evildoers and crooks. In campaigns, truth equals fact plus context.”
3. Where do you draw the line? What’s too much? What do you consider off-limits?
“The line constantly shifts. I believe in using what works, and truly personal stuff rarely works in campaigns because it is so difficult to prove and blow back is severe…. You can never depend on public revulsion or on forgiveness.”
4. What advice would you give to a candidate who may have a skeleton in the closet?
“First, tell at least one trusted adviser to assess its gravity independently, and to game out scenarios. Second, plan to either release it yourself, or admit it upon public revelation. It is usually far better to surface a skeleton yourself than to wait for its use at the worst time.”
5. What part of a candidate’s background usually turns up the most dirt?
“For an officeholder, the voting record on issues and/or stewardship as executive. For a non-politician, business dealings and courthouse records.”
6. What skills make a good opposition researcher? Is there any kind of academic/professional background that lends itself well to opposition research?
“Being a nerd helps; if you hunger to work with people, look elsewhere. Best traits: honesty, patience, thoroughness, a thirst for knowledge and truth. The ability to go through reams of data. I especially like trained journalists.”
7. How has the internet changed opposition research? The benefits are obvious, but what challenges does it raise?
“… Suddenly everybody’s a researcher. It emphasizes why we have cardinal rules in this business. Here are three. Hard documentation is essential. The truth will almost always get out. Never lie. A lie or undocumented report told 50 times on DailyKos in various forms is still just that.”
8. Why is it such a shadowy business?
“It isn’t; we’re just private versions of investigative reporters…. People want the truth, want their secrets kept, want our assessments and findings to be private. A researcher who blabs is useless. A low profile is just smart for business. We do no advertising or talk shows. All of our work comes from repeat clients and referrals. There are many good researchers in both parties. Even if you haven’t heard of Richard Billmire or Tracy Sefl, that doesn’t make them ‘shadowy.'”
9. What has been your most exciting find?
“Two events in 1992. In North Dakota, we unearthed in one day massive evidence that sealed Ed Schaefer’s win for governor. In New York, Sen. Al D’Amato was down 25 points with seven weeks to go–and fighting the Clinton tide–but our bullet-proof research-driven ads turned the tide, capped by evidence the Democrat failed to pay his own taxes but wanted to raise yours.”
10. The role of opposition researchers is often confused/blurred with that of a private investigator. What do you think the difference is?
“P.I.’s activities or involvement, if revealed, would cause devastating blow back to a campaign. P.I.s use extreme measures to find things people hide. Contrast: Researchers file FOIA requests, actually read Nexis searches, listen to hours of speeches, parse statistics. Researchers ponder and piece together what’s out there, in plain view….”
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