Washington –- Hartford has become the unlikely setting for a story about Alaska politics, a bitter legal fight, honor and fancy stationery.
Our saga begins in 2008 when a failed Republican candidate for an Alaska U.S. Senate seat decided not to pay a bill for the services of a Hartford–based political consulting firm owned by Tom D’Amore and John Doyle, two former aides to Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., because he didn’t like their work or the way he was treated.
“All they did is open a campaign office, hire an office manager and buy fancy stationery,” said David Cuddy.
He said the consulting group, which also crafted poll questions, did no work to help him decide whether he should run for office or find ways to fund his campaign.
Doyle and D’Amore are outraged that Cuddy not only violated the terms of a contract, but challenged them to do something about it.
“I’m not in the habit of suing my clients,” D’Amore said. “But if someone tells me, ‘No, I’m not going to honor this contract, sue me,’ I’ll do that.”
The arbitrator of this fight will be Connecticut’s Appellate Court, which heard oral arguments in the case brought by Doyle and D’Amore against Cuddy in April and is expected to issue a decision any day.
What’s at stake is $20,000 in unpaid consulting fees, a pittance in this world of multimillion-dollar Senate campaigns. But Cuddy, who said he’s already paid $60,000 in legal costs fighting D’Amore and Doyle, said it’s a matter of principle and honor.
D’Amore and Doyle won the first round against Cuddy when a Litchfield court ruled last year that he should pay the bill.
D’Amore called it “bizarre” that Cuddy keeps fighting and worries the case may go all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Cuddy is an Alaska native who once worked for an Anchorage bank owned by his parents, served one term in the Alaska legislature and is now an independent filmmaker in Austin, Texas.
He’s also someone who says he’s outraged at what he believes is a corrupt culture in Washington and Alaska.
He wanted to change it by running for the U.S. Senate against former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in 1996 in a GOP primary. Cuddy lost.
Having spent $1.5 million of the race, Cuddy thought he was through with politics.
But then Stevens became embroiled in a federal corruption trial just as the senator was gearing up to run for re-election in 2008.
That’s when a well-known political and advertising consultant named Bill Hillsman, famous in political circles for the offbeat ads he did for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Ned Lamont in Connecticut, came to visit Cuddy in Austin.
Cuddy says Hillsman tried to convince him to run again and to hire his firm.
Hillsman said the talk was mostly about filmmaking.
But he admits he has little memory of the details of the 2008 meeting in Texas.
“I can’t remember that much about what happened that long ago,” Hillsman said.
In any case, Cuddy agreed to accept Hillsman’s help.
Now the stories really diverge.
Cuddy said he thought he was hiring a firm that would do the groundwork for an exploratory campaign, using his “fat Rolodex” of important Washington contacts. He said he was dismayed when he ended up with a Connecticut lobbying firm with no knowledge of Alaska and a losing record in previous races.
Hillsman remember the agreement differently. He said it was understood that D’Amore would take over because he needed someone who could structure a campaign, not plan strategy or create political advertising. Hillsman Is a ad guy, not a campaign manager.
“I told him, ‘Sorry, you’re not ready for my services yet’,” Hillsman said.
Cuddy thinks he lost his 1996 race against Stevens because he ran against “pork” — special projects that were once directed by members of Congress to their states or districts. Congress banned earmarks several years ago.
Stevens was known as a “king of pork,” rising to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and steering hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaka projects, including millions for the now-infamous “bridge to nowhere” that helped spur the earmark ban.
But his pork-fighting tactic backfired, Cuddy said, because Alaskans loved earmarks.
He needed a political consulting firm that could understand and tackle that problem, he said.
But D’Amore and Doyle came up with a strategy to attack earmarks, which Cuddy said was not going to work in Alaska.
Hillsman said D’Amore and Doyle were more than qualified to help Cuddy.
He worked with them on Lamont’s insurgent Senate campaign in 2006, when Lamont won a Democratic primary, forcing Joe Lieberman to run as an indepdent.
Doyle and D’Amore have long political bona fides. Doyle was a top aide to former Connecticut Gov. Thomas Meskill in the 1970s. D’Amore is a former Republican state party chairman. Both men worked for Weicker.
In 2007, after the Lamont campaign, Hillsman and D’Amore joined two other political consultants to create a firm that specialized in independent candidates and named it DHOB.
Hillsman was with this firm when he approached Cuddy but, he said, “I did not do any work for Cuddy.”
D’Amore said the trouble in their relationship with Cuddy started when they determined he would do better running as an independent, instead of a Republican.
Cuddy eventually did decide to take Stevens on again after the former senator, who died in a 2010 plane crash, was indicted. He lost again.
Now he says the deck is stacked against challengers, and political consultants take advantage of that.
One thing is true. D’Amore and Doyle do more business as lobbyists than political consultants. Their roster of lobbying clients is long and impressive and includes Anthem/Blue Cross-Blue Shield; Siemens; CNA Insurance; and the Mark Twain House.
It also includes a couple of gubernatorial candidates in New York and Virginia.
Doyle admits “in most years,” the firm conducts more lobbying than political consulting.
Yet Lamont said he was very pleased with the work D’Amore and Doyle performed for his campaign.
“They represented the independence streak of Connecticut and introduced me to a lot of people in Hartford,” he said.
But as far as political consulting for an Alaska candidate, “I think you need to be an expert at a political niche,” Lamont said.