These 13 powerbrokers play political game behind the scenes

Ceisler
Ceisler
Posted: November 28, 2012

THEY'RE SOME OF the biggest players in Philly politics, yet you've probably never heard of them.

They're behind the scenes, advising politicians, unions, public officials and CEOs on what to say, where to go and who to talk to.

They strategize on political and issue campaigns, putting a spin on the facts to favor their clients, from charter schools to soda taxes.

They are Philadelphia's top political media consultants, and what follows is a who's who of folks in the know.

It is a tangled web. The 13 consultants on our list have worked for many of the same clients, like former Mayor John Street (Frank Keel, Dan Fee, Mark Nevins), former Mayor W. Wilson Goode (Ken Smukler, Larry Ceisler), the American Beverage Association (Ceisler, Dan McElhatton) and the 1st Judicial District (Frank Keel, Jeff Jubelirer).

"The consulting world in Philadelphia, and frankly the consulting world nationally, is much smaller than people expect it to be," said Nevins, who helped start The Dover Group.

Sometimes they're on the same team and sometimes not.

Ceisler and Keel both have ties to powerful union leader John Dougherty, business manager for the electricians. But Ceisler is working for the city as it explores selling the Philadelphia Gas Works and Keel for the PGW employees' union, which opposes it.

And because these people are contractors who move from job to job, it can be tricky to track the public money they get - or to get financial disclosures, as you would with city employees.

"If that consultant is working for several different politicians, usually several different politicians that are part of the same faction, it can end up costing the public a great deal of money," said Zack Stalberg, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. "It's definitely something that exists in the shadows, and the people who are doing that kind of work like it that way."

Most consultants say that they try to be up front with their clients. Keel said that working in politics is a blessing and a curse.

"Because I get involved in politics, as many friends as I win, I lose others," he said.

THE PLAYERS

Larry Ceisler (Mr. Detail)

* Background: Ceisler worked as a TV producer in Philadelphia while attending law school at night. A job on then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode's re-election campaign got him into politics.

* Clients past and present: Comcast, Wal-Mart, US Airways and PGW.

* What he brings to the table: Longevity with employees and attention to detail. "I have people here who started as interns and this is the only job they've had."

Dan Fee (Cool Customer)

* Background: A veteran of numerous political campaigns, Fee has run The Echo Group since 2004. He offers communications strategy for politics, public-policy issues and crisis situations.

* Clients past and present: District Attorney Seth Williams' campaign and Dan Onorato's bid for governor; the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians; the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.

* What he brings to the party: He tries to help clients get their message out directly. "I am a big believer that the most effective spokesman is that person," he said.

Barbara Grant & Luz

Cardenas (The Partners)

* Background: The duo - Grant has a journalism background and Cardenas a history in PR - worked in Mayor Street's press office before forming Cardenas-Grant Communications.

* Clients past and present: Government contracts, including the city and state health departments; media buying for the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office.

* What they bring to the table: The firm sometimes partners as the minority subcontractor for other agencies, advocating for energy efficiency, smoking cessation and antiobesity efforts.

Kevin Feeley (The Advocate)

* Background:A journalist turned attorney, Feeley was looking for something new when a friend suggested Ed Rendell's campaign for mayor. That led to a City Hall job. Lobbyist Stephen Wojdak helped Feeley launch Bellevue Communications after his City Hall tour.

* Clients past and present: Citizens Bank, Comcast, Liberty Property Trust, Ameristar Casinos, Acme Markets, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

* What he brings to the party: A dedication to helping Philadelphia improve. "All of us who worked in the Rendell administration caught that bug."

Jeff Jubelirer (The Republican)

* Background: A longtime partner to Larry Ceisler, Jubelirer - son of former state Sen. Robert Jubelirer - started his political communications shop in 2009.

* Clients past and present: Philadelphia Charter Schools for Excellence, an advocacy group. Held the press contract for the 1st Judicial District before Keel.

* What he brings to the party: His GOP contacts. "Harrisburg is Republican-run right now. It's Corbett, it's the Senate. Philadelphia ain't going to get much done without Harrisburg."

Frank Keel (The Big Talker)

* Background: Keel, who's been running his own shop since 1999, specializes in campaign communications work and flacking for unions. He's a big guy who delivers a message with a stick if necessary.

* Clients past and present: Longest running client is the powerful electricians union Local 98. He also represents the 1st Judicial District, the firefighters union, the union for Philadelphia Gas Works employees and state Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane.

* What he brings to the party: "I have a great rapport with 99 percent of the journalists and editors in this city. I understand what makes a story of interest. I try not to waste people's time with dumb stories."

Harriet Lessy (The Grande Dame)

* Background: A former Daily News columnist, Lessy started her political business in 2001 and has worked on political and issue campaigns over the past decade.

* Clients past and present: Sheriff Jewell Williams' political committee and several Sharif Street campaigns. She worked with the Food Trust in 2003 on a campaign to get soda banned from high schools.

* What she brings to the party: Lessy says that she doesn't take projects she doesn't believe in. "My passion really is the issue advocacy work. To me that's my real passion. But I also like to eat. "

Daniel F. McElhatton (The Newbie)

* Background: The longtime chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, McElhatton recently struck out on his own, working for Fee's Echo Group before setting up his own shop, McElhatton LeCompte Public Affairs. His Washington experience and policy know-how - as well as a wry sense of humor - could make him a player in time.

* Clients past and present: The American Beverage Association's efforts to stop a soda tax in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Sports Zone, a planned stadium project in the Northeast and some clients at the law firm of his father, former Councilman Daniel P. McElhatton.

* What he brings to the party: McElhatton says that he's able to help clients - even those with limited funds - figure out how to spread their message. "Folks without those resources have to figure out how to leverage traditional and new media," he said.

Bill Miller (The Veteran)

* Background: Miller learned political organization from the late state Sen. Hardy Williams and others who organized African-Americans in West and Northwest Philly into a power bloc. He founded Ross Associates 30 years ago. The firm now includes his kids Darisha and Billy.

* Clients past and present: Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Jr., the School Reform Commission and City Council. His son is working on the re-election campaign for District Attorney Seth Williams and the City Controller campaign of Brett Mandel.

* What he brings to the table: A sense of history in the city and longtime relationships. "I imagine, if I defined myself, I'm a strategist. Most of my work, nobody will know about it if I do it well."

Mark Nevins (Mr. Nice Guy)

* Background: Nevins, who came to town in 2003 to work on Mayor Street's re-election campaign, is a partner at The Dover Group.

* Clients past and present: John Kerry and Hilary Clinton's presidential efforts. He recently worked on the successful City Council campaigns of Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson and state Treasurer Rob McCord's re-election team.

* What he brings to the party: If you're running a campaign - political or not - Nevins says he's the man to get your message out. "We provide communications for campaigns, but they can be political, corporate, nonprofits."

Marty O'Rourke (Mr. Bipartisan)

* Background: O'Rourke began his career in the 1960s as a Vista Volunteer and worked briefly in the U.S. House. His Philadelphia political experience started with Ed Rendell's unsuccessful primary race for mayor in 1987.

* Clients past and present: City Controller Alan Butkovitz and the Philadelphia Parking Authority; City Councilman Jim Kenney and state House members Bill Keller and John Taylor.

* What he brings to the table: O'Rourke works easily across political party lines for Democrats and Republicans. "I've sort of always worked for individuals. I'm a Democrat myself. It was never an issue with the party thing."

Ken Smukler (Mr. Solo Client)

* Background: Smukler was in a popular Center City bar years ago when he heard a guy say he just took a job with then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode's re-election campaign. Unhappy with his job in the city Law Department, it was "like a lightbulb went off." Smukler wound up working with the guy, Larry Ceisler.

* Clients past and present: Smukler compares himself to Tom Hagen, the attorney/consigliere to Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather." His lone client is U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia. He also runs a firm that helps media outlets like MSNBC and CNN target voting problems on election days.

* What he brings to the table: Smukler prefers developing projects for Brady rather than public-relations work. "I'm not terribly interested in answering a reporter's call."


" @ChrisBrennanDN

Blog: phillyclout.com

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