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Moral Victory: The Turzai campaign

On the way to his landslide loss to Congressman Ron Klink, Mike Turzai discovered that even in politics, some things are more important than winning

Sunday, November 08, 1998

By Bill Steigerwald

Mike Turzai didn't lose the biggest election of his life Tuesday night. He lost it two weeks ago.

  "I'm just so sorry": Mike Turzai, the Republican candidate for Congress in the 4th District, chokes up at a staff meeting Oct. 23 as he apologizes to his friends and volunteers for letting them down. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Counting the votes in the 4th Congressional District on Election Day was a mere formality. The final score was incumbent Democrat Ron Klink 64 percent, Republican underdog Turzai 36 percent. In sports talk, that's a drubbing. In political speak, it's also a drubbing.

To be fair, a rookie's chance of beating a veteran like Klink in the heavily Democratic 4th District was always slim to miraculous.

But for more than a year, Turzai and his family and friends worked their tails off. He didn't have quite enough money to buy all the TV ads or hire the experienced campaign staffers he needed. He played the game hard, he played to win, and sometimes he played a little dirty.

He made lots of the small mistakes rookies always do - and one big one that killed any chance of coming even close. It happened on Oct. 21, when two Turzai supporters, armed with a video camera and inappropriate questions,scuffled with Klink on the dark sidewalks of Downtown Pittsburgh.

Klink, the former TV newsman, reacted decisively and spun the story to his advantage. Turzai did neither. A week later, Turzai apologized publicly. Meanwhile, thanks to the nightmarish swirl of newspaper headlines and TV newscasts and a video of a helicopter his campaign hired to take pictures of Klink's house, Turzai became this year's poster boy for all that is wrong with politics in America.

  Special Photo Journal:

Moral Victory: The Turzai campaign


From outside his campaign, it was easy for pundits and talk show hosts to write Turzai off as just another in a long line of dirty tricksters who was willing to do or say anything to get elected. But the plot line of Turzai's story is more complicated and not so morally unambiguous.

Since March, the Post-Gazette followed his campaign and was given unparalleled access to Turzai, his family and many of his staff meetings. What we saw not only provides a rare inside glimpse into what a congressional campaign is like. It also sheds unflattering light on the way politics works in America.

Mike Turzai - on paper and in real-life - looks like one of those good people everyone is always saying we need more of in politics. A Notre Dame grad. A former Allegheny County prosecutor. A church-going Catholic son of Hungarian-Irish working-class parents. He is an honest, hard-working, youthful man of 39 who reminds some of comedian Jim Carrey. His wife, Lidia, is a pediatrician.

A moderate, pro-life conservative Republican who lives in Bradford Woods, his generic but heartfelt political message centered on cutting middle-class taxes, downsizing the federal government and building stronger families. Partisan politics aside, he ran for Congress for what many would argue are the right reasons.

He promised everyone if he got elected he would always do the right thing, not the political thing. He promised his friends, financial supporters and the thousands of strangers whose doors he knocked on and whose hands he shook at community picnics and high school football games that he wouldn't change into one of "them" once he got to Washington.

  Turzai makes a private, personal apology to Ron Klink before a meet-the-candidates event in New Castle Oct. 28. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Turzai specializes in insurance cases for a well-connected Downtown Pittsburgh law firm, Houston Harbaugh. Despite the Duke law school degree and the works by George Will, Robert Bork and William Bennett on his shelves, he says his world view isn't Republican or Democrat, it's Catholic. As one of his most devoted supporters in the Republican Party, also a Catholic, says exasperatedly to explain his overactive conscience, "He's so Catholic, he thinks he's the Pope."

The Pope maybe, but Turzai doesn't try to pass himself off as a saint. He's too emotional, too intense, and his temper can go off in a flash, as the guys who played touch football with him 12 years ago can attest.

Maybe he was naive to think he belonged in Congress with Gingrich, Armey, Kasich and the boys. Maybe he was too idealistic. Maybe he was a rookie who bit off a bigger office than he could chew.

But one thing is pretty clear. Near the end of his campaign, Turzai and his conscience smacked into the reality of how big-time politics is played by the pros - and he found out that doing what you know to be the right thing and apologizing for your moral lapses aren't in the league rule book.

It's Aug. 17, hours before President Clinton will confess to the American people that he had had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Turzai's advisers at BrabenderCox, the South Side-based political media firm that George magazine called "the new GOP media wizards," have not yet devised a definite plan to exploit Clinton's scandals - and never will.

But the squeaky-clean lector at SS. John & Paul Church doesn't need a nationally known consultant firm to tell him "it's a good time for a guy like me to run. I make a clear, unspoken contrast to a guy like Clinton."

Turzai has no time for the distractions of national politics. He's holed up in his headquarters in Cranberry performing his most important and always most pressing role - dialing for more dollars. The two-room campaign office is stashed above an oral surgeon's office at the end of the LaSalle Plaza strip mall on Route 19 in Cranberry.

Next to Turzai is Mike Devanney, a savvy-beyond-his-years 19-year-old college intern with six years' experience in grownup politics under his belt. He's feeding Turzai names and phone numbers from a list of possible donors generated by Amy Petraglia. One of the few full-time political veterans on Turzai's staff, Petraglia is an invaluable paid political fund-raiser on loan from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's office. Counting the primary, she will ultimately help raise more than $600,000.

Turzai hates asking total strangers for money, but he spends several hours a day doing it. "It's the crass part of it," he says, almost apologetically, "but you can't have a winning campaign without it." What do contributors want in exchange? "They want to know if you can win and if you're talking a message that is 80 percent of what they believe. They want to know we're working hard."

Turzai knows he's a long shot. But he's got a feeling in his gut. "We're going to win. I'm not just saying it. I honestly think we're going to win. People don't like Ron Klink. He's arrogant. People think he's changed, and they've never been presented with a good alternative. I'm the right contrast to Ron Klink."

Turzai's mother, Ann, and several women volunteers her age are at a round table taking care of the paperwork and mailing chores that consume so much of a campaign's staff-time and money. Mrs. Turzai is full of hearty laughs, virtually apolitical, and can't do enough for the son she and everyone else has always called "Mickey."

Hand-addressing a huge pile of Turzai postcards , she says he first showed an interest politics in early grade school. She and her husband, aka Big Mike, a retired public school gym teacher, did what all good parents who want the best for their children would do. They ignored it and hoped it would pass.

In his senior year at Notre Dame, though, Mickey Turzai ran for class president and won. Later he would run for Bradford Woods council. When he announced his plans to run against Klink, his mother knew he'd give "his usual 10,000 percent." Everything he's gotten into, she says, he plays to win. If he doesn't beat Klink, she predicts, "he'll be very disappointed. But it won't stop him. ... He really thinks he can make a change for the better."

At the Lawrence County Fair, Turzai is doing what he likes best about politics and what he can't seem to do enough of - meeting people. The night air is heavy with greasy smoke from scores of french fry and burger shacks. Turzai, the only person in sight wearing a tie and buttoned-down dress shirt, is stationed at the Republican booth in Commercial Exhibits Building No. 1.

Commissioner Bob Fosnaught, a natural-born politician who has been Turzai's trusted friend and crucial link to the county's 19,000 Republicans, is blowing up helium balloons printed with his or Turzai's name.

Turzai - going into his patented, over-the-jury-box-railing lean - sticks his right hand into the current of potential voters flowing by. "Hi, I'm Mike Turzai," he says, giving a guy in a Steelers shirt a red, white and blue card with his picture on one side and his résumé and a series of campaign promises on the other. "I'd appreciate your help. I won't change. I'm for lower taxes. Smaller government."

Some folks seem startled by Turzai's lunges into their lives. Politics is the last thing on most minds, but responses are polite and hardly ever elicit a word, much less a conversation. Turzai has no time to hold debates or make converts anyway. He's trying to imprint his name, face, smile, striped tie, sincerity - anything - on as many people as possible who might still remember him 21/2 months from now.

By the end of the night, Republican dairy farmer Gary McConnell is squiring Turzai around the stables where prize Holsteins are on display. Turzai's gravely voice is raspier than usual, and his blue shirt is rumpled from hundreds of 10-second encounters with total strangers.

As McConnell introduces the candidate to farmer after farmer, the smell of cow manure is overpowering. But the suburban-grown big-city lawyer - who owns a horse that he hasn't had time to see in nearly a year - is having too much fun running for Congress to notice.

Turzai campaign headquarters are in a state of siege. The doors are locked. The phones are ringing. The media are trying to get to candidate Mike Turzai. Talk shows are trashing him and his campaign. A WTAE-TV satellite truck is parked outside. Newspaper reporters are knocking at the door.

On the afternoon of Oct. 22, after months of operating under the media's radar, Turzai and his grassroots campaign are suddenly the hottest news of a sleepy election season - for all the wrong reasons.

Until then, Turzai was doing better than any first-time challenger could reasonably expect. Dollars were pouring in nicely. Direct-mail pieces were going out by the thousands. TV ads were running on cable and would soon move to broadcast TV.

But the night before, two Turzai staffers scuffled with Ron Klink and his chief of staff Joseph Brimmeier outside the Duquesne Club. The staffers - utility man Mike Devanney and volunteer and Turzai friend David Chontos - were lurking on the Downtown street to try to get some unflattering video that could be inserted into an anti-Klink ad.

Turzai's media-firm for hire, BrabenderCox, had been bugging their client for months to get some footage it could use. The intent was to rile Klink up with a probing question and get a scowling, unflattering image of him that could be used in a TV or print ad. Videotaping your opponent in public places is fairly common in politics. The hope is that he might say something stupid or might be caught flip-flopping on an issue, and it can pay off handsomely.

In the state's 1996 U.S. Senate race, for example, Harris Wofford's video teams trailed Rick Santorum around for months before Santorum said something fuzzy about raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. When Wofford used the video of the speech in a TV ad, it terrified older people and almost cost Santorum the election.

Chontos, a Penn Hills lawyer, took the videotaping tactic to a new low, however. To ensure a telegenically useful reaction from the congressman, Chontos says he decided to ask questions based on stories the Turzai campaign had heard. He says he asked Klink twice if he was "having sexual relations with a staff member." Then he asked if he was taking illegal campaign contributions.

At that point, pushing and shoving and yelling ensued. Police were called. Chontos' borrowed video camera suffered $1,700 in damages. But no one was hurt, and no charges were filed.

Klink's version of the incident went out to newspaper reporters that night: They were accosted and had been struck by the camera. Meanwhile, Turzai, who was campaigning in Beaver County when the scuffle occurred, returned to headquarters around 10 p.m. and learned the news. He dodged a reporter from the Tribune Review. He also hung up on a Post-Gazette reporter who called him at his home about 11:30 p.m.

Although Turzai's advisers at BrabenderCox were urging him to respond that night, he did not. He thought - and BrabenderCox was hoping - that it was a news blip that would quickly fade away. It was a fatal error. The textbook response, according to the political pros, should have been to take responsibility, call it an inappropriate act, fire one of the supporters and then knock Klink for not wanting to debate the issues or flip-flopping.

By the next afternoon, the blip had grown into a blimp. Turzai forces collaborated on a press release that took responsibility for the video incident but tried to turn the story back on Klink. It accused Klink and Brimmeier of physical violence, destroying property and of trying "to 'spin' his terrible actions of last night to deflect attention from his record on the issues."

It didn't work. The story already had a life of its own, and Turzai's side was helpless to do much about it. By the time Turzai gave his first TV news interview to Channel 4, at about 5 p.m., Klink was already leveling a new charge of bumbling Turzai dirty trickery.

On Monday of that same week, Klink said, a helicopter had hovered over his house and scared his kids. One of his kids had home video to prove it, which he was more than happy to loan to Channel 4. Later, the footage of the helicopter - an off-duty news helicopter with Channel 11 written all over it - was used in TV attack ads accusing Turzai of spying on his home and family.

In fact, the helicopter had been hired by BrabenderCox to get footage of Klink's 7,000 square-foot home for use in a possible Turzai attack ad. Turzai, who had repeatedly pressed BrabenderCox to get video of Klink's house, defended using the chopper. He insisted it was a legitimate campaign issue because Klink had voted for higher taxes, voted himself a pay raise to $135,000 and then purchased "a $600,000 mansion."

Turzai's campaign was on the defensive, and Turzai-Klink had become the only race worth covering. His publicity had been almost 100-percent negative. But at least his name recognition was suddenly high. And reporters would start showing up at his events, said one adviser, looking for a bright side.

By Friday morning, Oct. 23, his name was being taken in vain all over town. KDKA's Mike Pintek - a conservative who ordinarily would be Turzai's natural ally - blasted him on his morning talk show.

"If you want to win this campaign, I don't think this is the way to do it," Pintek sarcastically advised Turzai, who wasn't listening. "I think most Pittsburghers will look at that and say, 'You know what, Turzai? If this is the kind of guy you are, we don't want you.' "

Mike Turzai hits rock bottom sometime after 9 that Friday night.

He is slumped at the end of the couch. Around him on chairs and on the floor is the inner circle of his campaign staff - 20 good friends, allies and savvy part-time advisers/GOP operatives like political director Keith Schmidt of Sen. Santorum's Western Pennsylvania office.

They are crammed into the living room of Turzai's $140,000home for their regular Friday night planning meeting. Lidia Turzai, her hand resting on her eight months' pregnant stomach, sits on the floor.

The Crisis is two days old. The mood is glum, but there are random laughs. "Who's doing the videotaping tomorrow?" Turzai asks dryly. When it goes over like a lead campaign balloon, he blurts out, "Guys!? Come on! It's a joke!"

Turzai isn't fooling anyone. He's beat. Not physically. Emotionally. He is not a happy campaigner. For half an hour the talk is about priority numero uno - money. Specifically, how they can raise another $38,000 toward their first broadcast TV buy of $82,000?

As the room falls oddly quiet, Turzai, hiding half his face with his hand, tries to speak.

"We can still do it," he begins haltingly. "And I apologize for it."

"Mike," says Petraglia, sensing what's coming.

"No please. You guys have been so with me ... and ... I lost sight." He's starting to choke up.

"No you did not," Petraglia inserts into the dead silence.

"And I really apologize to all of you for putting your hearts and souls into this race. ... I'm ... so ... sorry. I'm ... just ... so ... sorry. I got into this game because I thought I would be different, and I was not different."

Turzai quickly regains control of himself. "We made a lot of good friends out there," he says. "Let's keep it up and see where it goes."

"Mickey," says his sister Becky, "it's because of who you are, that is what brings us here."

"I know. I appreciate that."

"You've got to be up," says Petraglia encouragingly. "People do not think it is as bad as you think. Honest to God. It is not that bad. They think it's politics. It's no big deal. ... Stay the course. Get focused. We're all here and we're all going to do it."

More encouragement. Jokes about helicopters. Then reminders from the pros in the room about staying on message. But the subject keeps coming back to what some are starting to euphemistically call "The Event." Should Mike apologize, someone wonders?

"No. Absolutely not," says Petraglia, speaking for the political pros of America.

He's thought about apologizing, Turzai says. He did the wrong thing. It's his fault. Apologizing would be the right thing to do. But it's probably too late. He wanted to do it yesterday. What if he calls a news conference?

"What if we go on, and we apologize, and we specifically say it was inappropriate to ask that [sex] question?" Turzai asks. "And we tell people we're running a positive campaign from this point forward. And we run positive ads only and we withdraw the negative ads. Maybe from a strategic point of view that's stupid. Maybe there are people involved who know better than I would."

"That's stupid," says Schmidt.

"That's stupid," says Petraglia.

"Real stupid," says Schmidt.

But, argues Lidia Turzai, one of their top five supporters has called and said his relatives are now no longer willing to help. "That's devastating, Keith. It's devastating."

"But you don't get out of that devastation by apologizing," says Schmidt. "I'm sorry to tell you that. You might get a few people back who think you're a hell of man to apologize, but you're never going to win an election by apologizing."

Around and around the conversation goes. Schmidt stands at the end of the room, part preacher, part football coach at half-time, delivering the hard cold truths: Negativity works and apologizing doesn't.

"You have to refocus and keep on pounding," he says. "On the way home, I don't want to be dirty, I never want to be dirty. But I want to be negative all the way home. Because negative wins elections.

"Let me tell you what that helicopter did: It reminded people that Ron Klink built a mansion. That's what it told them. This is a guy who raised your taxes, took big pay raises and moved to a big comfortable home. We have to keep pounding that message.

"In the end, we cannot let them like him. Let me tell you, when you apologize, they're going to like the person you're apologizing to more than the person doing the apologizing. They're going to feel bad for him."

"Yep," says Petraglia.

The pros may be on the same page. But Lidia, Mike's co-conscience in a campaign that has been going on their entire married life, isn't buying it.

"I'll be honest," she says, her voice cracking. "I feel like it's a sham. I feel like for a year I've gone to all these places talking about how we're from working-class ethnic backgrounds. How we're different. ... Then all the sudden we're talking sex and houses, and I feel like it's a big joke. I feel like the whole year has just gone out the window in a day."

In its darkest hour, the Turzai soap opera takes an unexpectedly happy turn.

Early the next morning, on Saturday, Oct. 24, after less than an hour's hard labor, Lidia gives birth to a son. Andrew Michael Turzai, as he would eventually come to be named, is born a month early.

Within a day, the new father is back on the campaign trail, more emotionally volatile than ever. He and Lidia are two deeply troubled souls. On Tuesday, Oct. 27, Turzai is talked out of a making public apology again, this time by BrabenderCox.

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, Klink, who knows the value of negative TV and radio ads, pounds him round the clock for being "a slime" and a purveyor of "lies and distortions." After a small fund-raiser starring Sen. Arlen Specter at Allegheny Country Club that morning, Turzai gets a call from Lidia. She's in tears.

Turzai steps out into the privacy of the 10th hole and calls John Brabender. With only his loudest shouts and expletive-deleteds drifting to the ears of his waiting friends, Turzai says he doesn't care what anybody thinks. He is calling a news conference later that day to apologize to Klink and announce he is pulling his negative TV ads.

At 5:55 that night, Turzai apologizes on TV for any distress he has caused Klink or his family. He says he is ordering an end to all TV ads that include Klink's name. What's more, 75,000 pieces of direct mail that refer to Klink's house and cost $9,000 to print will not be sent out.

Back at his house, Turzai looks as though a 1,000-pound rock has been taken off his shoulders.

"I should have done it Monday," he says, heading for a League of Women Voters' candidates night with Klink in New Castle. Before sitting down on the brightly lighted stage, Turzai shakes hands with Klink and apologizes to him privately. When Turzai again apologizes publicly at the end of his opening statement, Klink reaches for his hand, and the audience applauds.

Meanwhile, in the rear of the hall, Mary Kiernan, Klink's communications director and a former BrabenderCox employee, is already waxing cynical. She suspects Turzai's TV act of contrition is some sort of calculated attempt to play off President's Clinton's incomplete apology of Aug. 17.

Six days later, the Turzai-Klink circus came to a merciful end. Klink went negative all the way home. Turzai, re-energized and refocused, sprinted to the finish line. All the final mailings went out. Poll workers were readied. All his bills would be paid. More than 13,000 Republican voters were called and encouraged to vote.

At dawn on Election Day, Turzai was in New Castle waiting for a polling place to open. He and his friend and driver, Dave Evans, put 400 miles on their car, zigzagging through the district. By the time they joined their loyal friends that night at the Turzai Victory Party at the Holiday Inn in Beaver Falls, televisions in the banquet hall were tuned to local pundits who were assessing the elections.

Turzai, not surprisingly, was being trashed for being a sleaze. For being an attack dog. For being an amateur. Even for being used by Sen. Santorum to bloody up Klink in case he has designs on challenging Santorum in 2000.

Turzai couldn't watch. His 15-month adventure in politics was all over except for the final verdict. He said he wished his campaign could be remembered for the hard work and dedication of his good friends and supporters, not for dirty tricks. As the returns dribbled in, he shot a glance at the TV talking heads and managed a joke.

"I'm getting trashed," he said, trying not to sound too bitter. "I'm going to forever be associated with Chopper 11."

Bill Steigerwald is a Post-Gazette staff writer, and Annie O'Neill is a PG staff photographer.

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