Opinions

A little-known Anchorage campaign consultant went four for four in Tuesday's city Assembly election

John-Henry Heckendorn looked bleary and rumpled at Jackie's Place Restaurant in Spenard Wednesday morning, like any 25-year-old recovering from a late night. But his night had been unusually good, with four Anchorage Assembly wins for the four candidates whose campaigns he and his partners managed.

The four-for-four record of the Ship Creek Group consultancy owed much to having strong candidates and an electorate that seemed satisfied with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Voters were comfortable giving the mayor a commanding majority on the Assembly.

But Heckendorn and his crew also found a new way to run campaigns cost-effectively and with more powerful, deeper messages. In two races, in South Anchorage and West Anchorage, his clients, John Weddleton and Eric Croft, flipped seats from conservatives who did not run again. He also worked in easier races for Forrest Dunbar in East Anchorage and Dick Traini in Midtown.

Traini and Weddleton are not Democrats and Heckendorn insisted his firm is not just for the left. But Berkowitz needs to send him a thank-you letter. Heckendorn gift-wrapped the Assembly.

"I wish I could clone him, so I could win about 50 races in November," said Joelle Hall, who manages political activity as director of operations for the Alaska AFL-CIO.

At breakfast at Jackie's, Heckendorn didn't particularly want to talk about it. Being well-known isn't necessarily good for business as a campaign consultant. He threw all the credit to the candidates.

But on Tuesday night, his clients were outing him as a key to their success. I asked all four, because I had already seen the innovative way Heckendorn ran Croft's campaign (I live in that district).

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As Croft said, campaigns traditionally have bought services a la carte, with different professionals producing media, buying media, providing strategy and handling the money, and an energetic young person to manage it all. Lucky candidates would find a manager who was hard-working and could quickly learn the necessary skills.

Every campaign re-invented the structure every time.

That's how Heckendorn got into Alaska politics. In 2012, he was a politics and economics student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Andy Josephson, a Whitman alumnus, called the politics department looking for a kid to run his first campaign for the state House.

Heckendorn gained respect for being organized, bright and likeable. Josephson's campaign was successful and Heckendorn decided to stay in Alaska and in politics. He worked on Democratic campaigns in 2014. He also fished commercially in Bristol Bay. Working for campaigns means he can spend a lot of the year outdoors.

Last year Heckendorn started the Ship Creek Group with Joshua Corbett, who handles the creative production, and Paula Delaiarro, who handles data and accounts for campaign money, including filing reports. Courtney Owen handles projects.

For a price not much beyond that of hiring a kid raw out of college, they can take over every aspect of their clients' campaigns. It's a one-stop shop with experienced people working in their specialties.

Perhaps more importantly, Heckendorn has found new ways to reach voters after the old playbook proved unworkable. Television advertising used to consume half or more of a typical campaign's spending and was considered a baseline sign of legitimacy as a candidate. Not anymore.

During the 2014 election cycle, when federal candidates flooded Alaska stations with ads, down-ballot candidates had no impact on TV. Winners had to find new ways to reach voters.

In a local election, television advertising is an especially bad buy. Campaigns pay for TV ads to reach everyone, but fewer than 20 percent of viewers are in an individual district. In a local election with less than a fourth of voters bothering to cast ballots, a TV ad matters to fewer than 5 percent of viewers who see it.

Instead, Heckendorn concentrated heavily on targeted direct mail and digital advertising, getting high-quality content to exactly the right people who would want that message.

How to do the super-precise targeting of digital political advertising and social media is a trade secret. Neither Heckendorn nor his main competition in this election, Matt Larkin, president of the Republican-oriented Dittman Research, would talk about methods on the record.

By matching data files from the Division of Elections and many other sources with online marketing tools, consultants can bring a message right down to an individual. A paid candidate message can show up in your Facebook news feed designed exactly for you.

Those techniques have come to Alaska, but they have been around for a few years and were pioneered elsewhere. What surprised me was how Heckendorn's team used direct mail paired with online video.

Croft's mail came day after day to my house. It looked great and it often had an engaging message — real, readable content rather than the usual bulleted points and meaningless political phrases you normally see.

One mailer told a story, in detail, of Croft's work as an attorney representing a woman who was denied widow benefits after her female partner was murdered. He won the case at the Alaska Supreme Court.

A three-minute companion video doesn't mention Croft's name for the first two minutes and he is never shown. But among roughly 6,500 people who watched it online, I doubt there were many who weren't moved or influenced to support him.

The strategy of reaching as many people as possible and spraying them with random positive words about a candidate is no longer good enough. Now, local candidates need to connect with each voter and convert him or her into a real supporter.

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That's good news. Heckendorn and his partners have found a way to make campaigns more meaningful and to win.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.

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