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The Dream job political operative Mitch Kates couldn't turn down

As the limo raced down the darkened highway, Mitch Kates stared out in a jet-lagged daze at snowflakes swirling in the Caucasus mountains.

It was well past midnight in February 2012. Soldiers dotted the roadside, their breath icy white, their automatic rifles at the ready.

Only a week before, in Tampa, Kates had been contemplating his next step after a 10-year career as a political consultant. He had helped novices and unknowns win seats in the state Senate, the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission. But he craved more regular hours, less hand-to-hand combat. He was packing for a new non-political job in Pittsburgh when an email arrived.

Craig Smith, one of the nation's top pollsters and a mentor of Kates, wanted him in D.C. right away. The next morning, Kates was sitting in the offices of Patton Boggs, the legal and lobbying firm, listening to a pitch from two of the principals.

There's this election in Georgia — the former Soviet republic — pitting a bunch of upstart reformers against an entrenched and powerful incumbent. The odds are stacked against them.

Smith said: You're the perfect guy for the job.

I'm not doing this anymore, Kates protested. But he knew Smith was right — this was the kind of race he loved.

Within days, Kates had a new passport and a plane ticket for Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

As the limo barreled toward the city, Kates saw the familiar face of a gray-suited man waving at him from a billboard. Was that George W. Bush?

Indeed it was. The 43rd president had been honored by the grateful government of the man Kates had come to Georgia to oust from office.

He had eight months to do it.

//

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003 as a reformer — a leader of the so-called Rose Revolution. He was elected president in 2004. But reforms were slow. And he led the country into a brief but disastrous war with Russia in 2008 over a disputed territory called South Ossetia. Facing a term limit, Saakashvili's United National Movement Party voted to shift governing power from the president to the prime minister.

Although he didn't say he would seek the job, the opposition was convinced Saakashvili was about to pull a "Putin" — staying in power by simply changing jobs.

In protest, a publicity-shy billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest man in Georgia, published an "open letter" in October 2011 announcing that he would lead a coalition of opposition groups to challenge Saakashvili. He called the group Georgian Dream.

When Kates emerged from his hotel the first morning, he was driven through the narrow streets of the old city and up to a modern steel and glass house on the side of a craggy peak.

"It looked like the villain's hideaway in a James Bond film," Kates said.

It was Ivanishvili's home and the temporary campaign office.

Kates quickly fell for his candidate. He was a slight man, sincere, quiet. He had made his billions in banking and minerals in the anything-goes days in Russia. He spread around his fortune at home, building churches and community offices and employing hundreds of people.

His political touch was less confident. In his early speeches, he vowed he didn't want to be a permanent politician. If he became prime minister, he promised not to keep the job too long.

Kates was assigned a translator and a desk, but it became apparent quickly that his American expertise wasn't necessarily an advantage.

Polls that he helped organize were dismissed by Ivanishvili's top aides, who assured their boss he was way ahead. How could these American polls show him 12 points behind? During a tense meeting, locals Kates hired to do the polling were labeled "spies" and "tools of the government."

Meanwhile, Saakashvili's ruling party was clamping down. Officials had stripped Ivanishvili of his citizenship — even though he was born in Georgia and currently resided there.

Donors to Georgian Dream candidates were accused by the government of making sham contributions that had really come from Ivanishvili. Fines were levied that were five to 10 times the amount of the contribution, and when the donors failed to pay, their homes and business assets were confiscated.

Georgian Dream wasn't helping itself much either. The group had so many different agendas it took months to come up with simple campaign platforms.

And the party seemed determined to demoralize its strongest supporters — the hundreds of young volunteers looking desperately for change.

"They assigned these two older women — in their 50s or 60s — to oversee them. I went to the first meeting and it was terrible," Kates said. The women reminded Kates of "severe schoolteachers."

A few weeks later, young volunteers were organizing a midnight march on the first anniversary of a May 26, 2011, protest that had resulted in four deaths after police moved in with riot gear and clubs.

They found the American they called "Meetchi" in his office before midnight sipping cognac. They thought this square-shouldered, 48-year-old American who had left his country to help theirs would be the right guy to inspire the marchers.

Kates, who had learned to play to a crowd during a brief career as a pro wrestler, couldn't resist.

Standing before them, he recalled all the locker-room speeches he'd heard growing up and added a few memorable Hollywood versions for effect. The cognac lighting a fire in his stomach didn't hurt either.

"This is your country and this is your time," he said, scanning the crowd of young faces.

"You are all very brave doing what you are doing. I'm proud to be here fighting with you," he said, thrusting his fist into the air. "Let's get this done and save your country!"

The cheering crowd pushed onto the streets — fists pumping, signs waving, heading toward Tbilisi's Freedom Square. Kates was pulled along with them, shouting one of the few phrases he knew in Georgian: Gaumarjos! Victory!

//

Despite all the missteps, Georgian Dream had momentum. Rallies were drawing hundreds of thousands and growing each day.

With the election little more than two weeks away, Kates' poll numbers showed the campaign pulling ahead of the government. But Kates knew that winning close wouldn't be good enough. The win needed to be decisive.

That's when Ivanishvili caught a huge break. A former prison guard released videos of prisoners beaten and raped with broomsticks by guards. Within days, two of Saakashvili's Cabinet members had resigned.

"We all saw something very horrific yesterday. But we can't respond to it," Ivanishvili said at a gathering of his supporters. "That's what the government wants you to do. We need to stay calm and on Oct. 1, this is all going to end."

On Oct. 1, the full American team was in place. Craig Smith and more staff members had arrived to perform critical exit polls. The campaign needed numbers to counter claims the government might make on election day. In a prior election some precincts had reported 110 percent of the vote for the government — more votes than voters.

To battle the fraud, Kates hatched a plan that he shared only with his closest allies. He ordered thousands of T-shirts and kept them in boxes until the night before the election, when he had them distributed to campaign offices around the country.

As the sun rose, voters arriving at the polls saw two people standing outside in bright orange T-shirts with two words: ELECTION OBSERVER.

"They didn't have anything to do except stand there," Kates said.

It worked. Soon, TV news reports were showing these election observers and the government was demanding to know who they were.

Exit polls showed that Georgian Dream was winning with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. Smith reported those results on TV as soon as the polls closed — before the government had a chance to release its own numbers.

Shortly after Smith was off the air, the government counterattacked on state TV: Yes, we may be losing the popular vote, but we are winning many local and regional races and will keep our majority in the parliament.

"We've got to get Craig back on the air with the local numbers," Kates shouted. He and his colleagues gathered their data and raced across town in limos, cutting off cars like a scene from an action movie. Kates and his colleagues burst into the station to find that the set for Smith's segment had been dismantled.

"We told them to shut the cameras off," Kates said. "Reset the studio."

As the camera lights came back on, Kates jumped out of camera range. Smith, speaking in a calm, Southern accent, told viewers — and just as important, the international observers — that the exit polls on the local races were clear. Georgian Dream was going to win a parliamentary majority.

By 11, Saakashvili conceded. Georgian Dream had won.

//

Kates returned from Georgia in early 2013 after taking a couple of months to travel Europe, his first days off since starting the campaign. He took a job heading a Pittsburgh firm bringing luxury brands onto the international market.

On Sept. 2, 2013, Prime Minister Ivanishvili released another open letter. The message was simple: He will give up the prime minister position after the Oct. 27 election for the now largely ceremonial post of president.

He is going back to private life.

"I expect we're both out of politics for good," Kates said.

Former Times staff writer Paul Wilborn is the executive director of the Palladium at St. Petersburg College.

The Dream job political operative Mitch Kates couldn't turn down 10/02/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 4:43pm]
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