Strategic withdrawal

A tax-subsidized marketing firm backs out of politics -- sort of

It's almost a law of nature that if you put 100 strict Baptists or Pentecostals in a room together week after week, eventually someone won't like someone else's interpretation of a Bible verse, or they'll take a dislike to the preacher, and off half the congregation will go in a huff to form a new church.

Same for fundamentalist political types, like the ones who assembled last year at a political consulting firm 65 miles east of Dallas in Canton.

The company, Winning Strategies ("Holy handouts," January 21), gained the attention of Texas lawmakers this spring when the House passed a bill closing a loophole in state law that allowed Winning Strategies to get taxpayer support. The bill would have prohibited local economic development corporations from subsidizing companies involved in politics. Last year, the Canton Economic Development Corp., a creation of the city government, entered into a contract with Winning Strategies that allowed the company to have rent-free space in a large, renovated building for three years. The town bought the building for $315,000 and agreed to reimburse the company for as much as $60,000 in improvements.

Winning Strategies President Bob Reese says he's refocusing his marketing company away from politics.
Mark Graham
Winning Strategies President Bob Reese says he's refocusing his marketing company away from politics.

Hardly a kosher arrangement, philosophically speaking, for folks who go on about getting government off their backs. And it was even more unseemly that the principal force behind the company is archconservative San Antonio millionaire James Leininger, the state GOP's sugar daddy.

During the firm's first year in business, Winning Strategies President Bob Reese assembled a staff of conservative activists, including Wyatt Roberts, former president of the American Family Association's Texas chapter; Dallasite Bill Simpson, who organized the videotaping of strip-club patrons several years ago; and Jeff Fisher, a GOP committee member.

In its first election last November, Winning Strategies-backed candidates won only a handful of state legislative races, but the company had considerably more success turning the tide in some East Texas local races, including county seats in Van Zandt County, which includes Canton. And once the Legislature convened in January, Reese opened an Austin office and hired Royal Masset, former political director for the state Republicans.

Reese was traveling around the state actively recruiting candidates this summer for races in 2000 when word started trickling out of Canton that some of the company's key conservatives were jumping ship.

According to one source, Roberts left at least in part because he didn't like the fact that Reese had attended a conference at Disney World. (Disney is the subject of a right-wing boycott because of its gay-friendly policies and the contents of some of its subidiaries' movies.)

"That's nonsense," says Reese. "I've never been to the Magic Kingdom." Roberts, who with a partner has formed his own consulting firm in Tyler, says he and Reese are still "on good terms," but he would not comment on why he left the company.

Then, in August, Reese announced that he's getting out of the political consulting business entirely and refocusing the company on "market research, polling, call center business with order fulfillment and warehousing." That, he explained last week, means mostly phone sales combined with shipping products direct from Canton. While the coaching of political candidates is a thing of the past, it does not mean Winning Strategies is out of the political field entirely. "We still will be doing some work for clients in the public-policy area, but it has always been from the very beginning a relatively small percentage of our business," Reese insists. "It wasn't our win-loss record. It was a matter of profitability."

Winning Strategies' Austin office closed this week, Reese says, and about 15 to 20 employees, including Masset and Fisher, have been laid off in the reshuffling.

Political operatives who insisted on anonymity have plenty of theories about why Reese and Leininger have pulled back. One speculates they were damaged by publicity this spring that they were running a political outfit underwritten by taxpayer dollars. Many of the largest newspapers in the state -- in Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio -- picked up the story and noted the hypocrisy. The full-time politico speculated that Reese may be primping to take another run at state Sen. David Cain, the incumbent Democrat in the 2nd District who beat Reese in a bruising race in 1996. "He's unpredictable," the operative says.

But just last April, Reese held a party for more than 100 people in Canton and announced he isn't running. Following a speech in which he referred to homosexuality as "a perverted, unwholesome lifestyle" and described liberalism as "an enemy just as deadly" as the Nazi regime, he said in a qualified way that he had no plans for a rematch with Cain. Another politico said the word in GOP circles is that Reese is gearing up to run in 2002, after what could be a GOP-controlled redistricting. "That is reasonable speculation," Reese says. "I've said on occasion that nobody has any idea what the district will be like after 2002."

Reese's announcement of his political non-plans occurred just as the House was holding a hearing on the arrangement between Winning Strategies and the city of Canton, which is using part of a half-cent sales tax to fund the company. Most significantly, state Sen. Bill Ratliff, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the author of Texas' economic development law, testified that he never intended for public money to be used to subsidize partisan political organizations such as Winning Strategies.

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