Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Engineering Stem Cells on the Ballot: Chuck Winner and the California Stem Cell Agency

Chuck Winner is a name that doesn't surface often in connection with California's $3 billion stem cell research effort.

Chuck Winner (left) at USC in 2006
USC Photo
In fact, he rarely appears in the news. Winner's name, however, did surface yesterday when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the state's horse racing board. Most of the stories about the appointment were in horse racing publications. But none, including The Sacramento Bee's, mentioned the Prop. 71 campaign managed by his firm, Winner & Mandabach Campaigns of Santa Monica, Ca.

Nonetheless, he and his firm were the key to winning approval of the 2004 ballot measure that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, an enterprise that is unprecedented in state or national history.

The firm's $35 million campaign for Prop. 71 attracted 59 percent of the vote. That same year, the firm also successfully managed four other ballot measures in the Golden State. Its lifetime average is remarkable. The firm's web site says it has won 90 percent of the 150 ballot measure campaigns it has run throughout the country.

Winner-Mandabach has this to say about how it pulled off the Prop. 71 campaign:
"Surveys (in 2003-04) showed that most voters supported the basic concept of expanding stem cell research. However, because of the state’s serious budget and debt problems, it was also clear that passing such a huge bond measure for any purpose would be a major challenge.

"The campaign overseen by Winner & Mandabach to overcome those odds involved a year-long coalition building effort that ultimately recruited over 40 Nobel Prize winning scientists and more than 100 patient groups, disease foundations and business groups – the largest, most diverse coalition of its kind ever formed to support a state ballot measure. The supporting groups helped mount an intense grassroots outreach and activation effort to their members, who numbered in the millions."
Winner-Mandabach continued,
"The TV advertising developed by the firm featured award-winning scientists, patients and their families, and highly-respected patient advocates like Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve. The ads focused on the potential for cures that could save millions of lives. Details of the initiative and economic issues were addressed through in-depth mail pieces and earned media efforts that included the release of an economic study showing that stem cell cures would help reduce the state’s skyrocketing health care costs. Prior to the implementation of the paid media campaign in late-September, polling showed Proposition 71 below the 50% threshold. But after an intense 6-week advertising, earned media and grassroots campaign, Prop. 71 steadily gained support, even in the face of final attacks by conservative groups and activists like Mel Gibson, and attacks from the left by some anti-biotech groups. Because of its precedent-setting nature, the Prop. 71 campaign became the most watched ballot measure campaign in the nation and generated worldwide press attention. On election day, it was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 59% to 41%."
The key to success on any ballot measure is a firm like Winner-Mandabach, although high profile individuals – in the case of Prop. 71, Robert Klein, who became the first chairman of the stem cell agency – are often given complete credit. Top notch campaign firms have a keen understanding of voters, appropriate political timing and effective PR and TV advertising campaigns. Without Winner-Mandabach – or a firm with the same skillset – the California stem cell agency would not exist.

Chuck Winner, however, does not have an uncritical view of the ballot initiative process, which has resulted in much expensive mischief in California. He told a USC audience in 2006,
"It’s abused time and again. My opinion is that when you circumvent the legislative process or representative democracy to solve a problem, you can take it to an extreme and that extreme becomes, in some ways, worse than the problem you were trying to solve in the first place. Single-issue up or down initiative votes are very often not the best way to govern."
As for the horse racing business, Winner, a Beverly Hills resident, has been involved in horse racing since 1986. His partner, Paul Mandabach, is also involved in the sport of kings. Their firm has not disclosed their record at the track.

(Click here to see two powerful ads developed for the 2004 campaign, including the famous Christopher Reeve spot.)

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