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Ex-wrestler Kates is skilled in political ring

Mitch Kates, who wrestled professionally as “Jason the Terrible,” directed Ken Beckner’s winning campaign.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2007)

Mitch Kates, who wrestled professionally as “Jason the Terrible,” directed Ken Beckner’s winning campaign.

TAMPA — Democrats in this part of Florida haven't had much to celebrate in recent years on the local political scene.

Republicans control the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions and dominate the bay area's state legislative delegation.

But a political consultant who once wrestled under the nickname "Jason the Terrible" has delivered a few take-downs that are getting attention.

Mitch Kates notched his third victory in as many elections Nov. 4, cementing a reputation as a budding elephant slayer. He helped propel Democratic newcomer Kevin Beckner to a knockout of another former wrestler, incumbent Hillsborough Commissioner and former "Killer B" Brian Blair.

With the latest victory, Kates has provided a template for Democratic resurgence: Find a candidate willing to work; surround that person with volunteers willing to sweat; get them singing from the same hymnal; then spread the gospel through any media available.

Some Republicans are starting to take notice.

"Those guys were everywhere," said GOP political consultant April Schiff. "Mitch has established a good record. I think he's getting there."

Kates, who is 6 feet 6 and bald, donned a mask and wielded an ax during his pro wrestling career. He lost a bid for Pittsburgh City Council in 2003 before working for Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, then long-shot Boston mayor candidate Maura Hennigan in 2005.

He arrived in St. Petersburg soon after, tapped by party leaders to assist Democrat Charlie Justice in a fierce fight for an open state Senate seat against Republican Kim Berfield.

Showing an offbeat sense of humor, Kates rallied volunteers by casting Justice as a superhero and them as his justice league. They won despite being dramatically outspent, with Justice pledging to fight rising property insurance rates, which he said Berfield had not addressed in the state House.

"He works as hard as anyone will work," Justice said of Kates. "If he commits to a race, he commits to a race."

He followed a similar script of relentless door-to-door, grass roots campaigning in helping relative unknown Mary Mulhern beat Shawn Harrison a few months later in a nonpartisan Tampa City Council race. Mulhern pledged fixes for transportation and South Tampa flooding, and ripped her opponent for doing too little on those fronts.

The Beckner-Blair contest illustrates his approach.

"It started with a small group," Kates said. "It grew into a bigger group of people who wanted to help. We were very focused. We created a campaign plan and strategy, and we followed it."

Kates, 44, met Beckner two years ago and immediately liked what he saw: a young, good-looking, well-dressed and well-spoken financial planner eager to make a difference.

They embarked on a two-year campaign, knocking on voters' doors in four regions of the county chosen as fertile ground for persuadable voters.

"Mitch played a great role in the strategy and parts of the community to target," Beckner said. "One thing that was a common effort in all three campaigns is grass roots focus on people."

Beckner delivered a narrowly tailored pitch from which he almost never strayed. He pledged as a commissioner to work on quality-of-life issues like improving transportation and keeping the cost of living affordable, and said his opponent was a radical who had worked on behalf of developers and his own self-interest.

The campaign repeated those themes in a series of distinctive direct mail pieces depicting Beckner meeting with voters.

Kates won't say how he targets either the door-to-door or mail efforts in a race in which nearly 500,000 people cast votes.

"Ancient Chinese secret," said Kates, who once worked in marketing and has a penchant for quoting old television commercials.

The Beckner campaign tapped another, relatively inexpensive, means of reaching voters. While he raised nearly $200,000, the campaign spent none of it on television and little on the radio.

Kates joined forces with Larry Biddle of St. Petersburg, the deputy national financial director for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which introduced the power of the Internet to national politics.

Biddle, principal of the communications strategy firm PlanningWorks, has been working in Florida since trying to see if those same online social-networking principles could be applied in local races. He worked on Betty Castor's U.S. Senate campaign and in Alex Sink's successful bid for state chief financial officer.

Along with others, they created a vote-local campaign on the Internet to promote Democratic hopefuls down ticket on social-networking sites such as Facebook. Beckner had his own page there, as well as advertisements with videos and other links to campaign promos pitching the same repetitive message.

"One of Mitch's strengths is he's very rigid and disciplined that the candidates stay on message," Biddle said. "It sounds boring as hell. But the fact of the matter is, if you don't do that, there is no resonance about it."

It's difficult to say how much the Web campaign helped. Democrats enjoyed strong early-voting turnout in the election, which also clearly aided Beckner.

Beckner beat Blair by 10 percentage points. Another Kates' candidate, Hillsborough County School Board hopeful Stephen Gorham, lost a challenge to incumbent Carol Kurdell in a nonpartisan race.

"I think there's a lot of different facets and a lot of different elements that go into a great campaign," Beckner said. "In many cases, it's like the elements that go into a great and powerful hurricane."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Ex-wrestler Kates is skilled in political ring 11/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 28, 2008 5:44pm]
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