True Confessions of a former mayor: How to win elections by doing things differently and never going negative.

Deke Copenhaver
Jul 14, 2015 · 4 min read

I’ll never forget when I told my campaign consultant back in 2005 that I never intended to go negative and that I didn’t want my campaign to look like anything anyone had ever seen before. He reminded me that sometimes it was necessary to “highlight the differences” between me and my opponents but I shared with him that I never had any intention to engage in any kind of mudslinging. Call me naive but I simply figured if I couldn’t get elected based on my vision and my track record I really had no business running in the first place.

The first thing we did differently was to do a robo call giving people my actual cell phone number and asking them to call me with their input on what they wanted to see happen in the city. I’ll never forget recording that call one morning and then heading to the dentist. When I got back to my car my cell phone was literally blown up with messages. I remember my first call being to Clint, my consultant, to ask him how many people the call had gone out to. His response? Thirty-thousand registered voters! I kid you not and ultimately I believe I ended up taking or returning about two thousand calls. I used to joke that this showed I either had true commitment or that I needed to be committed or potentially both. I still have that same cell number ten years later. Fortunately I think most people must not have written it down.

The next time we did something a little different was to cut a commercial based on something Clint had seen in Alaska where I was in a classroom with a bunch of young school children. The premise was pretty simple: put my name up on the blackboard and see if the kids could pronounce it. I’ll never forget how much fun the kids had that day as they repeatedly butchered my name with they’re classmates giggling hysterically at each new interpretation. I remember my two favorite versions being “Duke Coconut” and “Deke Alligator”. The commercial was a huge hit and for my first few years in office lots of folks liked to call me Mayor Alligator which I always got a huge kick out of.

Throughout that campaign we always tried to keep it to the high ground which I believe honestly helped the other candidates to do the same for the most part making for a pretty clean campaign overall. It took a run-off to win that first race but I ultimately prevailed with 57% of the vote. Its always been my observation that if you keep it to the high ground you’re much harder to shoot at and with two more campaigns to go I figured if it wasn’t broke, why would I fix it?

After another successful campaign in 2006 that was once again marked by no major mudslinging and featuring a special guest appearance by the Godfather of Soul as I mentioned in my last column I set out to do something truly different in 2010.

While we were at the height of the Great Recession I remember hearing a projection that over two billion dollars would be spent on campaign adds that season and thinking what that money could have done to have helped people struggling during the financial crisis. It was then that the idea hit me that a better expenditure of people’s hard earned dollars during the campaign that year would be to ask folks to donate to local charities instead of to my campaign as I felt like they needed it more than I did at that point. I also figured that if people didn’t know me and what I was all about after five years in office there was probably no amount of campaigning I could do to change their opinions of me.

With no polling done prior to the race and with about $5000 to run a citywide campaign in a city of 200,000 people the same little band of merry men (and women) who had come together to support me in my first bid in 2005 came back together, a few years older and a few years wiser, and we ran a very fun, very energetic and very lean campaign that year. I’ve since joked that I bet it was one of only a handful of carbon neutral campaigns as all we did was yard signs and we asked people to recycle them. There’s no telling how many signs my wife Malisa delivered that year as she was pretty much a one woman wrecking crew with those things.

I remember when election night came wondering what the outcome would be as I’d always polled before a race and had at least some potential idea of the outcome. That night I was flying blind but I figured if things didn’t turn out the way I planned at least I had done what I felt was the right thing and had hopefully made a point. However as the numbers began to roll in the media made an early call and I ultimately won with 64% of the vote.

I’ve always been told that politics is a dirty game and that’s just the way its always been and that it always will be. When I decided to run I always believed that this didn’t have to be the case and that if you provided people with a different, more positive alternative that they’d support it. Ultimately I believe I was blessed to have the overwhelming support of the people I served because I stayed positive, did things differently and was never a typical politician or really a politician at all. If it can be done here in Augusta it can be done anyplace. In the end its pretty simple really: people just need to be provided alternatives to politics as usual.

Deke Copenhaver

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Principal, Copenhaver Consulting LLC, former mayor of Augusta, triathlete, writer & runner focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.