Politics
5:49 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Why Did Jerry Patterson Hire a Private Eye to Snoop on Dan Patrick? Two Words: Opposition Research

State Senator and Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Dan Patrick may have taken a political hit this week, when a story broke accusing him of employing an undocumented worker in the 1980s. 

The story was reported by The Dallas Morning News and KTRK Houston ABC, but the two got wind of the story when another Lt. Governor candidate, Jerry Patterson, gave them the information - which he hired a private decective to gather .

It's called opposition research. And it's an age-old political tactic that often provides ammunition to candidates trying to gain the upper-hand against an opponent.

His mother may not like to hear this, but Jason Stanford is an opposition researcher.

"Oh God, yes, my mom tells people I'm a used car dealer," Stanford jokes.

He heads up his own political consulting firm that specializes in researching the public records of political candidates. And he knows what people outside of politics think of the work he does.

"When people think about opposition research, they think about going on bimbo patrol. What opposition research really is, is looking for relevant public records that help voters make choices," Stanford said. "And most often all voters really care about is, what did you say, who did you take money from and what did you vote for."

But when someone hires Stanford, Job One isn't figuring out how to take an opponent down. It's about what in his client's past could hurt the campaign.

"A lot of times we'll find that someone lived in an area that was zoned whites only. Or they had an old tax lien that they had in the '80s. Or they kind of forgot to vote a whole bunch," Stanford said.

Once the defensive research is out of the way, it's time to go on offense. Stanford admits there's nothing very high-minded about it. A candidate wants to know the dirt on their opponent -- something, anything, that could help defeat them in the election.

The first step: a run-of-the-mill Google search to see what quotes or stories come up on the candidate. Then it's on to public record databases where you can find everything from traffic tickets to bankruptcies.

It all sounds a lot more mundane then you'd expect. But that's not to say Stanford doesn't get more ambitious research requests from clients who have heard rumors about their opponents and want to find documentation of the despicable act.

"I know that he killed someone and had to go live in Florida for two years. That's a true story. I wish I was making this up. We literally kept that fax because it was so ridiculous. It's taped up to a wall over here somewhere," Stanford said.

Whatever the research is, it usually ends up one of two places: Paid political ads, like mailers, TV or web videos. Or at a local news outlet.

"You know I call this the season of the brown envelope," Texas Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey said.

Ramsey is often a depository for opposition research handed out by political campaigns in an effort to discredit opponents. Some of the envelopes are clearly marked, addressed from a campaign or consultant. But not always.

"My favorite one this year was someone sent me an envelope full of information about a candidate in the Lt. Governor's race that was from Ross Ramsey… to Ross Ramsey. So I think future Ross Ramsey might have sent me some information," Ramsey joked.

So what does a news organization do with these tips? Especially when you consider the goals behind each brown envelope. Ramsey said it's like any other tip that comes into a newsroom.

"People say you ought to look at this, you ought to look at that. And you look at some of them and you say, oh, that's a story and you investigate it and run it down and it is a story. And some of the things that come in as tips you look at them and say, for one reason or another, you know, that's not a story," Ramsey said. "Just because something is damaging to a candidate and came from their opponent, doesn't mean it's not a story. It just means you've really got to check it out."

But Ramsey says there are some brown envelopes that don't get follow-ups. That includes claims of youthful indiscretion that are used as reasons someone shouldn't be elected now.

"So and so did this when they were 17, so now that they're 53, they're unqualified to…. And sometimes you look at those and you go that may actually be right. More often you look at them and say, this is old information. What else you got?"

And with less than two weeks before the March primaries, opposition researchers probably have plenty more to share.