Common Cents approach

The latest issue of the trade publication covering the campaign-consulting business features an article by the consultants advising the campaign organized in support of Orange County's proposed 1-cent sales-tax hike. "The ramifications of mail-in ballots and early voting on campaign resources (are) incredible," say Steve Welchert and John Britz in the August 1997 article in Campaigns and Elections. "The decisions about when you spend your money and who you spend it on are more sensitive than ever." Poised to drop at least $300,000 in promoting passage, the Common Cents political-action committee is banking on the knowhow of Britz and Welchert, partners in the Welchert Co., a public-relations and political-consulting firm which has established itself as a leading expert in campaigns promoting issues to be decided by mail-in ballot. In 1989, Welchert scored its first success by directing the campaign that convinced Denver voters to approve all 10 components comprising a $240 million bond issue. Since then, it has worked in about a dozen states, even arranging corporate sponsorships for all three Forums of the Americas, international trade gatherings of business leaders and politicians from 34 democracies in the Western hemisphere. The upcoming forum, to be held in Brazil, will help shape trade agreements expanding a North American Free Trade Agreement mindset to South America. But Welchert has focused itself on direct mail and mail-in ballot issues legal only in Oregon, Colorado and Florida. The firm has directed about 12 mail-in election campaigns: "It's something we saw coming,"Welchert said in a telephone interview. "It changes your strategy quite a bit." Common Cents will need an adroit direct-mail campaign maximizing the effectiveness of its campaign funds to overcome a natural anti-tax sentiment in Orange County. It will be the largest mail-in election in state history, and Welchert says it's probably the largest local-government mail-in election ever. Such expertise doesn't come cheaply. But money is probably a secondary concern with the financial support of the Downtown Development Board, the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors and the International Drive Chamber of Commerce. Also expected to donate freely are the owners and operators of hotels who would save about $15 million a year through passage of the issue - expected to raise $2.2 billion in sales tax in 10 years - which would simultaneously repeal a penny of the 5-cent tourist development tax levied on hotel visitors. "This is the most important decision our community is going to make. Don't we deserve the best?" said Common Cents co-chairman Tico Perez, an attorney with Baker and Hostetler and chairman of the Greater Orlando Chamber. Neither Welchert nor Perez was willing to say just how deeply the firm would be dipping into the campaign's coffers. "It's a negotiated price. You'll see it when we file our report," Perez said. Welchert responded,"That's between me and the campaign committee." This secretive transaction will become public information when the committee files its campaign-expense report in October. Welchert is gathering information to use in planning the campaign. Meanwhile, Common Cents has begun sending representatives to speak to community groups and holding fund-raising events aimed at boosting the campaign's finances to help pay not only Welchert's fee, but the cost of direct mailings aimed at voters who'll return the ballots - which will be mailed Oct. 15 - well in advance of the 7 p.m. Nov. 4 deadline. Explained Welchert and Britz in the trade article: "With mail-in and early voting, targeting media buys and message delivery will require earlier expenditure of funds, and new, creative ways to engage the voting population." With cost no object, Common Cents has shown common sense in hiring its adviser.