Josh Kurtz: A Steep Hill to Climb

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By: Josh Kurtz

When last we wrote about the Towson-based political consulting firm CampaignON, in a July 15, 2013 Center Maryland column, company executives Herb Sweren and Barry Silverman were touting their new one-stop shopping campaign management software, which they were pitching to Democrats and Republicans throughout Maryland.

Now, these two veterans of state politics and the business world have inked their first 2016 presidential contender as a client.

They are not working for Joe Biden, John Bolton, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bob Ehrlich, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Peter King, Martin O’Malley, Sarah Palin, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Rick Santorum, Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, Elizabeth Warren, or Jim Webb.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of CampaignON’s client. He is, by his own account, and by the reckoning of his consultants, the longest of long shots.

But he’s the kind of candidate who, if we lived in a truly functioning democracy, where money and celebrity and media attention weren’t so often determinative, might actually merit consideration.

“The guy’s the real deal,” Sweren says.

His name is Chris Hill and he’s seeking the Republican nomination. He’s a former Desert Storm fighter pilot who now is an airline captain for United Parcel Service. And he has already been criss-crossing the country for years – both for his job and on his own quixotic political mission. He briefly sought the GOP nomination in 2012 and decided to try again.

How he found CampaignON is a story in itself.

As he plotted his campaign strategy, Hill decided that this time, he needed a Washington-area consultant to help him.

“Most established politicians have a built-in network who know how to run campaigns – and frankly, it’s paid for by U.S. taxpayers,” Hill said.

So he started looking up consultants within range of D.C. on the Internet and cold-called the firm.  

Silverman joked that his first reaction was, “Call me back when you’ve got $50 million.” Then he thought about trying to talk Hill out of a get-together. “We’re geared to the local and state level. But he insisted.”

A four-hour meeting followed, and both sides came away impressed.

“Our team was blown away by him,” Sweren said.

Said Hill: “The thing that attracted me to their company [was] they specifically outlined what they were able to offer a candidate – structure, databases, all-around campaign management.”

Now, “the mission” for the firm, as Sweren calls it, “is to get voters to learn about him. We’re building brand awareness for Chris…We have a lot of avenues to get him out and get him exposure.”

So who is this guy and what makes him think he deserves to be president of the United States?

Hill laughs that he’s well prepared to answer those questions. He’s already had to convince his wife Michele that running is the right thing to do.

“Imagine your wife hearing that [you plan to run] for the first time. Her reaction was, ‘Good luck with that.’”

And asked why he is running for the highest office in the land right out of the gate and not taking an interim step like serving in Congress or the state legislature or some local office in Louisville, Ky., where he now lives, Hill has a ready answer.

“We’re just offering America a different choice – voters are tired of holding their nose,” he says. “I consider the fact that I served my country just the same as a congressman, governor and senator, by being in the military. People understand that and respond to that.”

In fact, Hill argues, men and women in the military serve all Americans, unlike politicians who represent small slices of the country. Veterans, Hill and his consultants agree, represent the political base for the campaign. He’s courting veterans’ groups, seeking their contributions and volunteer time. “I’m going to ask them very directly whether they’re willing to support what isn’t a typical campaign,” he says.

Hill was born in Indiana, and also spent time growing up in New Jersey and New Hampshire, which gave him a front-row view of presidential politics. He was a 17-year-old volunteer on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

So what else is Hill selling besides his biography?

Some of his platform is standard Republican orthodoxy. He supports a balanced budget amendment. He’s pro-life and supports gun owner rights.

Part of Hill’s platform is a little more eclectic. He believes American households earning less than $250,000 should pay no federal taxes – and that high-income earners should pay a flat tax. He supports term limits for elected officials.

And then there are positions that might be anathema to many Republicans. Hill is a 20-year member of the Teamers union and supports a living wage and full pension benefits for public employees. He’s pro-gay marriage and says the “war on drugs” has created an unjust, racially unbalanced criminal justice system.

Hill recalled that during the 2012 campaign he was able to share the stage on a couple of occasions with better-known longshot candidates like former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer. Once, Hill said, Roemer asked him what his “shtick” was. After listening to Hill’s positions, Roemer said, “That’s your shtick, Chris – you tell people what you think.”

How many stages Hill will be able to share with other Republican contenders this time around is anyone’s guess. Given the size of the field, though, he may not have many opportunities.

But Hill’s work schedule – one full week of overnight flying, then one week off – gives him more flexibility than top-tier candidates with day jobs. He’s planning, for example, to be at the Iowa agricultural summit in early March, where Jeb Bush is making his public debut in the all-important first caucus state.

There’s a long way between impressing the people you are able to meet and reaching enough to be taken seriously – or to have the remotest chance of winning. Sixty-two hundred Facebook “likes” does not a nominee make. That, Hill hopes, is where his consulting team comes in.

“We’ve developed a great working relationship,” he says. “We’re going to have to fight our way up.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.