Public relations veterans say Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and his campaign team made political miscalculations when the lawman called a press conference to publicly reveal that he is gay and refute allegations that he threatened an ex-lover with deportation.
They also agree that he should not have defended his decision to send lewd photos and sexually explicit text messages to a man he thought was a potential sex partner, and instead should have apologized for poor judgment.
And if Babeu wants to have a chance at salvaging his congressional campaign in Arizona’s newly drawn and strongly conservative 4th Congressional District, he needs to now go on the offensive, one consultant said.
David Leibowitz, a Phoenix-based public relations and political consultant, said Babeu and his team should have already dealt with the issue of his sexual orientation publicly and candidly, so that part of the story wouldn’t have been such a shock.
Thinking that his sexuality wouldn’t become part of a congressional campaign was unrealistic, Leibowitz said, and dealing with it would have defused what has become a main centerpiece to the story: Babeu’s coming out.
“The New York Times wouldn’t be covering it. CNN wouldn’t be covering it. They’d all be asking, ‘who is the Phoenix New Times?’” Leibowitz said, referring to the alternative news weekly that detailed the allegations Friday night. “Being frank with people is something that voters appreciate. When you’re honest with people, especially in a sensitive situation, and when you do it graciously, people cut you some slack.”
If the sexuality issue had already been addressed, a much simpler denial of the deportation allegations could have been delivered, without having to complicate it with long-winded explanations about his sexual preference.
Given that those sorts of options weren’t available by late last week, well-known Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin of HighGround Consulting said Babeu’s campaign should have not immediately called a press conference to address the claims.
“OK, once the story breaks, the clock starts ticking,” Coughlin said. “But I’d want to make sure I understand the exact allegations, then probably put out a written statement. Then you take your time when you do come out and make a public statement, so that what you say on Day One is the same as what you’ll say on Day 100.”
Chip Scutari of Scutari & Cieslak Public Relations said he would want to sit down with Babeu immediately after the initial story broke, to talk honestly about what did and what did not take place
“One of the basic tenets of political campaigns is that they’re all about trust… the voters in CD4 are going to be asking, ‘what else is Sheriff Babeu hiding? I think that’s very damaging,” Scutari said. “I would sit down with him and say, ‘Sheriff Babeu, you tell me every little nitty gritty (detail) about what happened.”
Without that sort of honesty, Scutari said, any crisis communication effort would be doomed.
“Look at Bundgaard,” Scutari said, referring to former Sen. Scott Bundgaard, who resigned amid an ethics investigation into a roadside fight with his ex-girlfriend. “There were things he didn’t tell his advisors or the media, and now his political career is over.”
Specifically, Scutari questioned Babeu’s decision to have other Pinal County officials and sheriff’s office commanders to vouch for him.
“When you take the bullet, you take it on your own. None of these people posted half naked pictures of the sheriff on these websites,” Scutari said.
And Coughlin said it was a mistake to defend the texts he sent and the photos he shared, and that he should have apologized and admitted the error in that.
Coughlin said that no matter if someone is straight or gay, photos like those that have surfaced will only hurt a politician, and that recent scandals should serve to demonstrate that.
“The only lesson we’re re-learning is that men have a proclivity for sending around pictures of themselves,” Coughlin said.
Public relations consultant Jason Rose reiterated Coughlin’s point about controlling the message, but also said that it has to be tied to clearly identified goals.
“It appears the answer to that question is winning his run for Congress,” Rose said.
In Rose’s estimation, however, the strategy for winning the Republican primary in such a conservative district and after such an explosive story will have to include going after gay-friendly Republican voters and a negative approach to his opponents.
“He can continue to raise money from the anti-illegal immigration constituency, but now he’ll also have to go after the gay community. He could raise a substantial amount of money from both,” Rose said. “But whereas he could have run on his popularity alone – practically announcing his way to the nomination – he’s going to have to, in my opinion, show major deficiencies in the other candidates. In order to win, it’s going to have to be a negative campaign.”
With such a detrimental story hanging over his head, and without a clear and forceful campaign strategy focusing on his opponents, Babeu’s previously winning message on immigration enforcement and his general popularity will not carry him to the CD4 nomination, Rose said.
“He turns into the Charlie Brown teacher, where he speaks without saying anything.”