By most accounts, longtime Republican consultant and top public relations executive Ken Rietz has been among the most instrumental forces driving former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) budding campaign for the White House.
But while Rietz’s biography is longer than the combined résumés of most aides to other top GOP contenders, his name hardly registers in the vernacular of modern political circles.
There is no doubt Rietz, commonly described as a California GOP consultant though he has made his home in Northern Virginia horse country for the past six years, represents a bygone era in politics. He managed his first Congressional race in 1966 and his earliest campaign triumphs predate the recollections of most of the 2008 campaign workforce.
Rietz came of age in the revolutionary period when candidates first turned to consultants and TV advertising to brand and sell themselves to voters, and he learned the trade under the tutelage of some of the early pioneers in the business.
Friends and associates describe him as a trustworthy and caring — if somewhat eccentric — character, and a keen political strategist, who never aspired to become part of the Washington, D.C.-based consultant aristocracy.
They also marvel that Rietz’s success is all the more extraordinary considering the personal obstacles he has overcome.
Rietz is legally blind. He has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease which causes gradual loss of eyesight. His sight has deteriorated to the point now where he must be accompanied by his wife or friends at almost all times, though less than a decade ago he would travel to and from Europe alone.
But Rietz also is deft at using e-mail and the telephone to communicate from home and earlier this year, as a grass-roots effort to draft Thompson to run spread, it was Rietz who spearheaded handling the hundreds of messages pouring in from supporters.
“He and Jeri, Fred’s wife, are really the two people who picked this thing up early and steered it to where it’s been steered,” said one Thompson insider, adding that Rietz had made “hundreds of phone calls … so that people can feel like they haven’t been ignored in this thing.”
And amid early promises that Thompson plans to run a different kind of campaign, focused largely on media, there is little doubt among those who know Rietz that he will play a large part in directing it from here on.
While Rietz’s California connections can be traced to the Nixon and Reagan eras, his Tennessee ties and friendship with Thompson date to 1970 — the year he managed then-Rep. Bill Brock’s (R-Tenn.) campaign to unseat then-Sen. Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.).
It was a nasty battle and Brock won the race, making Rietz, who was 27 years old, an instant star.
“He is a phenomenal political thinker,” Brock recalled in an interview this week. “If he’s working for Fred, that tells me a lot about why Fred’s going to run well, before Fred is even running. Ken is a huge talent.”
Brock’s 1970 campaign combined a well-organized grass-roots effort with one of the first modern political ad campaigns aimed at painting Gore as out-of-touch and too liberal.
Rietz hired GOP ad man Harry Treleaven, who had earned a name for himself as part of the team charged with remaking Richard Nixon’s image in the 1968 presidential campaign.
Treleaven once worked for the J. Walter Thompson ad agency in New York and was a close associate of then-White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, who had worked for the same firm years earlier.
The Nixon White House took a strong interest in defeating Gore that year, evidenced most notably by a memo from Haldeman urging the Brock campaign to go through the society pages of The Washington Post to find the menus of the dinners Gore attended. “The Frenchier the better,” was the memo quote most often repeated.
The effort to portray Gore as more Washington, D.C., than Tennessee paid off.
“Ken put together a winning strategy focused on grass-roots organization and a few cutting issues that really defined Sen. Gore as who he was in Washington versus who he was in Tennessee,” said Tom Bell, who worked on the 1970 campaign under Rietz and later became a top aide to Brock. “It was a campaign that most felt couldn’t be won. Sen. Gore was sort of a legendary Southern political figure.”
Bell later recruited Rietz to come work for global PR giant Burson-Marsteller and two decades later persuaded him to leave the West Coast and return to Washington.
Bell, now chairman and CEO of Cousins Properties Inc. in Atlanta, is one of the many old friends and contacts who Rietz has turned to in helping to shape and finance the Thompson operation. Bell will host a fundraiser for Thompson at his home next month.
“We all sort of grew up together,” Bell said, referring to Rietz and Thompson. “I wasn’t surprised when Ken called me up and said ‘I think Fred’s actually going to do it this time.’”
Watergate and Beyond
After the 1970 victory, Rietz partnered with Treleaven and Jimmy Allison, a Midland, Texas-based consultant who was George H.W. Bush’s original political guru, to form the consulting firm Allison, Treleaven and Rietz.
Rietz recalled in an interview this week that few people were professional political consultants then.
“Back in 1970, the campaign business was very small,” Rietz said, noting there were only two big firms established at the time.
Allison managed Bush’s 1966 Congressional campaign in Texas and is credited helping design what eventually became the GOP’s “Southern strategy.” Treleaven did the ads for that campaign.
After Bush won, Allison became a top staffer in his Congressional office and on the Hill he first met Rietz, who had just arrived with freshman Rep. Bill Steiger (R-Wis.), whose campaign he had managed.
By 1972, Rietz was head of the Youth Division of Nixon’s re-election campaign.
Young Voters for the President was headquartered in posh offices one block from the White House and he oversaw a staff of 12 seeking to mobilize the 25 million young people aged 18 to 21 who were eligible to vote for the first time in 1972.
“This is no back-of-the-bus thing,” Rietz told Time magazine in January 1972, touting his generous budget and wide latitude.
Nixon won re-election by a landslide and Rietz moved to the RNC, then chaired by Bush, where he was to be groomed for bigger things. But when the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rietz acknowledged he had paid a college student $150 a week to infiltrate a peace vigil at the White House and set up the demonstrators for drug arrest charges. He also tried to plant a driver with then-Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), a presidential candidate, to get inside information. The Washington Post reported that he had been the head of a network of young spies and dirty tricksters who came to be called the “Kiddie Corps.”
He resigned as RNC deputy chairman and left for California.
By 1975, he was working for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, serving as the chief organizer in California and handling special events. After Reagan lost the GOP nomination that year, Rietz managed Brock’s unsuccessful re-election campaign against Democrat Jim Sasser.
Rietz also dabbled in the music business in the mid-1970s, partnering with Mike Curb, former president of MGM, to form Curb Productions. He went on to manage Curb’s campaign for California lieutenant governor in 1978 and around the same time founded his own political consulting firm, Ken Rietz and Company, based in Los Angeles.
After a stint as program director for the 1980 Republican National Convention, in 1982 Rietz managed the underdog campaign of Chic Hecht, who was seeking to defeat 24-year incumbent Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.).
“I want a California-type campaign, not a Nevada campaign,” Rietz said Hecht told him when he was hired, referring to his signature heavy media emphasis, not yard signs and door-to-door combat.
Hecht won and Rietz expanded his consulting business by opening a Las Vegas office.
In 1988, Rietz managed Hecht’s re-election campaign, which he lost to Democrat Richard Bryan. Soon after that, Rietz joined Burson-Marsteller’s Los Angeles office and eventually merged his clients from his firm.
For the next two decades Rietz worked his way from managing the firm’s West Coast operation back to Washington, D.C., then became CEO of Burson-Marsteller Europe, before returning to New York in 2000 to become chief operating officer of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide. He moved back to the Washington area in 2001, and he and his wife, Ursula, now live in Delaplane, Va.
Last year, Rietz retired from Burson-Marsteller.
Life After Politics
Rietz, 66, grew up in Oshkosh, Wis. After leaving The George Washington University in 1964 he managed his first Congressional campaign in 1966, electing Steiger in his home district.
Forty years later, modern media has transformed the way political campaigns are run but Rietz believes many of the basics still apply.
“Candidates today need to be more real than ever before,” he said. “They are under such scrutiny … that candidates just have to be real and that’s one of the reasons that [Thompson is] catching on so well.”
The support for Thompson has swelled from the ground up, in a way that Rietz said he has never seen before. He also predicted that consultants and media handlers will be less important than ever before in the 2008 presidential campaign.
“We have to I think constantly compare the current campaign to those days when people were actually out meeting people,” he said. “We have to use the new media and the old media to make that connection.”
Rietz is volunteering his time serving as a senior adviser to Thompson, but even if he is content to take a low-profile role his imprint on the effort already has become apparent.
It began with the selection of Tom Collamore as presumptive campaign manager. Collamore is a former executive at Altria, the company that now owns tobacco giant Philip Morris USA. Philip Morris is a longtime client of Burson-Marsteller’s and Collamore and Rietz have a long relationship.
Rietz also has signed respected California Republican strategist Ken Khachigian and Mary Matalin, an adviser to both Presidents Bush, as volunteer senior advisers to the campaign. Curb, who remains a close political confidant, is hosting a fundraiser for Thompson next week at his Nashville home.
Bell said there is no one better to capture and capitalize on the grass-roots support for Thompson — and the GOP electorate’s general yearning for someone else — than Rietz.
“He really sort of understands and has a good ear for what people are thinking, what people want and are motivated by,” Bell said.
Bell also said he thinks Rietz, who has shown little desire for the media spotlight that a presidential bid would bring, has no interest in being anything more than a volunteer adviser to the campaign.
“There are the people in this town who are showhorses and people who are workhorses, and then there are the people who make a big difference but just fly under the radar, he’s definitely one of them,” said Mark Corallo, who is serving as spokesman for Thompson’s exploratory effort.
But while his name might not be commonplace in Washington political circles, Rietz’s philanthropic efforts have not gone unnoticed.
He has been active in the effort to organize a National Music Center and Museum Foundation in downtown Washington as well as with the Federal City Council. He also plays an leading role in raising money for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
“He’s had a very, very successful career in spite of a hand that would likely slow most people down,” said California-based GOP consultant Marty Wilson. “He’s been very successful in business and, in the early days, very successful in politics. And like a lot of people proved that there’s a life after politics.”