Paul Helmke has been chatting it up with the Indianapolis Star about his time with the Brady Campaign, and I find think we can find big clues about his departure in his answers.
Accountability on Meeting Goals
In answering a question about his biggest accomplishment, Helmke responded:
I think we elevated the attention that the issue has been getting. My view was it was tough getting through to elected officials on Capitol Hill, so I wanted to get in the media as much as I could.
The first thing I hear in that statement is “I think.” What does he mean that he “thinks” he accomplished his goal of getting his position into the media? As the former president, that is something Helmke should know. He should have a recent board report – or at least a general idea of the numbers from it on whether he actually accomplished the goal of increasing the number of media hits, the diversity of media hits, the number of target audience hits, and the advertising value of those total hits for his tenure. Either he is saying “think” in order to distract from the fact that he did not reach his goal, or he is saying “think” because he legitimately doesn’t know which means he wasn’t holding himself accountable to meeting said goals. Neither of those circumstances is good for continued employment.
Connecting with Lawmakers
Going back to his answer on his greatest accomplishment, Helmke says that it was hard to get through to lawmakers. One reason may tie into just who Helmke was compared to who those lawmakers who push gun control are:
When I got hired, one of the reasons they said they wanted me is because they were tired of being seen as a Democratic, liberal, East Coast organization.
So here I was: a Republican, Midwestern, former mayor. Part of what I’ve tried to do at the job over the last five years is to say that gun control shouldn’t be a wedge issue, that it shouldn’t be a Republican versus Democrat issue.
He was someone who could not pledge party loyalty and he was someone who could not identify with the highly urban and mostly East & West Coast districts. If he was truly trying to keep it from being a wedge issue, that won’t work to unify many of the leaders of the gun control caucus on the Hill. Look at what one of their favorites Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee can do – trying to make race a wedge issue on the debt ceiling debates. His side loves a wedge issue. Other than Mike Castle, they didn’t exactly have Republicans lining up to sponsor their bills. By the end of his first three years, Helmke should have recognized that his strategy of bringing Republicans to the table wasn’t really working. Clearly, he wasn’t willing to change his approach in a way that made any serious advances with lawmakers of any stripe.
Connecting with True Believers
In addition to media, Helmke said grassroots were his next big concern.
My plan from the start had been to be start organizing at the grass-roots level more. We do have chapters around the country, and they do make a difference. But most of them are in places where we’re doing well already — in California and New York and New Jersey.
What I wish I had done more of early was organize grassroots chapters in places where we haven’t done so well, through the Midwest and the Plains states.
So once again we’re looking at an early goal not realized. And, just so we’re clear, it’s good to know that Paul thinks Joan’s efforts weren’t worth much up in Minnesota.
But, in all seriousness, this answer tells me that he doesn’t know how to connect with the people who would be his grassroots on gun control. The people of New Jersey, California, and New York would say they have a ways to go before things are good in those states. It’s not about being moderate to them, it’s about making gun ownership the biggest hassle while technically not overturning the Second Amendment (at least until they can help Barack see one of the Heller Five off the bench.) To those folks, they aren’t just waiting for other states to catch up, they want people in those other states to have just as much passion as they do to make gun ownership as big a hassle as possible.
People don’t get excited for a “moderate” message – even if that’s what they actually believe. Those who are closer to the margins are the ones who are passionate. They are the ones who are more informed about what needs to be done and political opportunities to advance the cause. Talking to the middle doesn’t actually work very well. If the Brady board continued to order Paul to do that, then his lack of success is as much on them as it is on him.
Not the Idea Guy
One of the final reasons I don’t think Helmke worked out for them struck me in that last featured response – he’s a former mayor. Yet, it’s Mike Bloomberg who is the personality behind Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Granted, I’ll give it to Paul that the coalition was formed the same year he took over for Brady, but I think it highlights that he didn’t exactly bring his “local” way of thinking to the issue in a way that developed grassroots for them or otherwise put political pressure on federal lawmakers.
There weren’t any new or memorable initiatives by the Brady Campaign during his term as President. There is something to be said for coming back to the table and being persistent on the specific legislative issues you’re most passionate about, but you have to come up with fresh ideas to see what balls you can move down the court in any given year. If it’s the same mode of attack year and year out without progress, it’s time to move on to someone with new ideas.