Brad Chism’s parents were killed when he was pre-adolescent, and the aunt he was sent to live with died soon after. The bitter circumstances life dealt him at an early age might have sent others spiraling into a life without purpose.
Instead, Chism, who grew up in Tunica, known for the squalor of Sugar Ditch, embraced life with a winning attitude. A graduate of Millsaps College and a 1982 Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Chism earned a graduate degree in economics and later became a certified economic developer (CEC). Among his varied tasks, he has handled industrial recruitment projects, was executive director of the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, and worked directly for some of the nation’s top leaders, including former Vice President Al Gore.
During Gov. Bill Allain’s term, Chism managed the constitutional study commission that recommended changes to the 1890 constitution and was deputy director of federal/state programs. Recognized early as an emerging young leader by his peers, he was a member of the Mississippi Business Journal’s Top 40 Under 40 Class of 1994. The next year, he ran unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner.
“Brad will tell you he’s a ‘roads’ scholar, not a Rhodes scholar,” said lobbyist Donna Mabus. “He’s had the intellectual scholarship and the road of hard knocks scholarship.”
In college, Chism met John Jameson, who later earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a law degree from Duke University School of Law. In 1996, Jameson founded Winning Connections and brought Chism onboard officially in 2001 as second-in-command. From the Mississippi office, Chism serves electoral clients in Southern states and directs grassroots advocacy programs nationwide. The firm is now the nation’s leading telephone voter contact firm for progressive candidates and causes.
“We’ve used Brad on a number of candidate campaigns as well as issue campaigns,” said Mabus. “His insight into the political drama in Mississippi helped us achieve what we were looking for when we contracted his services.”
In the more than 1,200 campaigns Winning Connections has conducted in 48 states, its clients have won 65%. In five of the last six years, the firm has won more American Association of Political Consultants awards (Pollies) than its competitors. In the last round, the Pollies represented work on behalf of Jim Hood for Mississippi attorney general, James Graves for Mississippi Supreme Court justice, Jackson Convention Center and several out-of-state projects.
“The most complicated Pollie project was on behalf of a non-partisan, non-profit group effort to register low- to moderate-income families to vote,” said Chism. “In certain counties in Florida, the registrars had thrown out the names because voters were supposed to sign in blue ink rather than black, or they put the birth date where the social security number should be, or vice versa. We felt — and so did our client — that there were intentional efforts to suppress this vote. It was our job to call them, explain the problem, and walk them through the solution to make sure they corrected it.”
Another successful Pollie project involved a Sacramento, Calif.-based coalition of education advocates who were dissatisfied with the school board members. Winning Connections was charged with helping the group elect three new members to the five-member board.
This year, the firm’s highest profile political project in Mississippi involves Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.’s re-election campaign.
“We’re doing some limited work in the state Legislature, and maybe some other local government races and ballot measures that might occur, but those are more of a passion for me than an economic income stream,” said Chism. “For example, we’re working with a coalition that has some interest in healthcare legislation downtown. The work is disproportionate to the fee, but I’m doing it because I live here and I want the state to prosper and it’s the right thing to do.”
Approximately 97% of Chism’s work is performed for clients outside Mississippi. He has worked with the Missouri Hospital Association on various business issues, recently wrapped up a project in Kentucky for the statewide malt beverage association, helped ophthalmologists in Georgia and assisted developers in northern California on a zoning issue.
He has handled work for traditional healthcare advocacy groups on a national level, including the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. He has assisted Cingular Wireless in Maryland and New Jersey on telecom issues, and is about to crank up work in three midwestern states.
“Right now, the big issue in Congress concerns universal service fees, which gets phone lines to poor people in rural areas,” said Chism. “That’s not a Democrat versus Republican issue. That’s an urban versus rural issue. There are many more fault lines beyond traditional party lines. In fact, the kinds of grass roots services we provide aren’t appropriate for Democrat versus Republican issues. When President Bush is on one side, and the leader of the National Democratic Party is on the other beating the drum, as a rule, the subtle grass roots advocacy work we do has less impact.”
Building on experience
Before joining forces, Jameson and Chism frequently crossed paths working on various political campaigns, which Chism called “great training ground for advocacy issues.”
“Each time we’re trying to help pass or kill a bill before the Legislature, it’s a mini-campaign, and we learned a lot about the power of words and the timing of the effort and the targeting of the message to the appropriate audience,” he said.
Initially, the firm handled political campaign work exclusively, but the balance changed when Chism came on board. Now during election off years, Winning Connections handles mostly political advocacy work. Even though the gist is the same, the difference between the two facets of business is vast, said Chism.
“With candidates, you know the date of the election,” he said. “With grass roots advocacy, the vote may be tomorrow, next week, or not at all. You have to be more nimble. Sometimes, the client wants us to ratchet up the pressure and we place hundreds of calls to state lawmakers. Sometimes in a matter of minutes, the client will tell us that Senator Jones is now onboard rather than undecided and to quit calling him. The calling has to be quickly re-programmed so constituents of Jones are no longer asked to call him.”
Chism credits Jameson with making Winning Connections a success, who he said, “hired talented support staff and senior operations staff … head and shoulders above competitors” and ensures the workplace is conducive to a results-driven environment.
“For example, the firm’s Washington, D.C. office is atypical for a company with a revenue stream of this size,” said Chism. “It’s casual, not a coat-and-tie, button-down place. It’s value-driven as well. Our people are passionate about the projects we do. Some folks we won’t work for no matter how much money they offer us. Even though we want to eat well, it’s more important to sleep well at night.”
Instead of owning a Washington, D.C.-based phone bank, the firm contracts with phone centers across the country to access as many as 10,000 callers a day to “match up accents and time zones and familiarity with the pronunciation of surnames and local customs. For example, in the Deep South, it’s unwise to call people on Wednesday and Sunday nights because they’re more likely to be in church than if we call the East Coast. In the Chicago area, there are a lot of Polish surnames.”
Chism admitted that complex advocacy issues sometimes present challenges on the phone circuit.
“Last year, we were calling about a complex intellectual property issue in Congress asking people to talk to their congressman, and many said ‘are you crazy? There’s a war going on. We don’t care about this issue,’” he said. “But if we’re calling trade association members about an issue that will directly affect their livelihood, they usually listen.”
When asked why he chose a political consulting career, Chism responded: “If I can be part of making the world a better place and still make a living, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.