During the lead up to Tuesday’s mayoral primary, some of the noise emanating from the camps of the two Republican candidates had a brutish feel. The majority of the cheap shots were taken via that virtual fortress for pseudo-anonymity and uninhibited shit talking: social media. Should we be surprised?
When a supporter of Bill Bishop tweeted in January that his candidate scared the Curry camp, Curry’s political strategist Brian Hughes jumped right in.
“Better way to describe it,” tweeted Hughes, “… the pimple on my backside needs to be popped.”
That ass-to-the-face retort established Hughes early in Curry’s candidacy as someone who could play schoolyard brute. The Republican media strategist earned his chops as a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Scott and communications director for the Republican Party of Florida. He’s not afraid to scrap.
Hughes left the RPOF in 2012 to return to the Tallahassee company he founded, Meteoric Media Strategies. “Feel free to compare me to Karl Rove,” he told the Palm Beach Post, seemingly quite comfortable with the idea of emulating the mastermind behind former president G.W. Bush’s 2004 attacks that successfully sullied the war record of Purple Heart honoree and now Secretary of State John Kerry.
Meteoric managed the campaign of the state’s chief financial officer Lee Atwater, as well as other conservative candidates in local races. In its campaign media, Meteoric’s attack ads are often purposely made to look amateurish. One produced in 2014 for two candidates running for Citrus County Commission featured the incumbents Meteoric wished to unseat as wanted men in a dusty Wild West town, guilty of raising taxes and supporting corruption. It ended with a bid to run the crooks out of town in a buggy, with a big “YeeHaw!”
Beneath his Twitter profile picture, P.R. pro Hughes promotes himself as combat-ready: “track [trak] to follow; flack [flak] to promote and publicize; attack [uh-tack] to set upon in a forceful way; hack [hak] to reduce or cut ruthlessly.”
For most of the 2015 primary season, the dominant Twitter kerfuffle centered on Hughes — in the Curry camp — and Jacksonville attorney John Phillips tweeting on behalf of Bishop. Both of them tweeted about campaign events and celebrated endorsements and each declared their candidate to be the slap-down winner of the two mayoral debates. But it was the E!-style back-and-forth between the two that provided the most entertainment.
The first volley started with a low ball.
Phillips chose to criticize Curry’s fashion sense. The object of Phillips’ derision: a questionable choice in a dress shirt (which you can judge for yourself in the photo provided).
“Worst shirt ever. Bad decision making,” Phillips tweeted, using the candidate’s fashion sense as a metaphor for leadership skills.
Hughes responded fashion insult to fashion insult, commenting on a picture of Phillips, dressed in a tan cable-knit sweater and darker tan dress slacks, taken that day at the Sundance Film Festival. Hughes cracked: “yeah fashion police uniform apparently a circa 1990 sweater,” he tweeted. “Good call.”
Phillips snipped back: “It’s over $300 and very popular at Sundance. But you might not ever make it there.”
Phillips then added a link the J.Crew catalog page where his Italian cashmere sweater was advertised, priced at $303.
Because social media is a spectator sport which thrives on crowd participation, supporters on both sides chimed in. A series of tweets by a Curry supporter described Phillips as an “ambulance chaser” and made disparaging comments about his reading comprehension and debate skills. Phillips reacted by blaming Curry himself for making the Twitter war personal and cast himself as a victim of campaign bullying. Phillips suggested if Curry would list his stances on key issues, “we could move on from this superficial stuff.” But that punch didn’t quite land with the same power of some of Phillips’ more shallow jabs, like when he made light of Curry’s wardrobe, describing his choice of a jacket-vest as, “The coat version of a mullet.”
In a brief phone interview with Folio Weekly, Hughes said both he and Phillips aggressively defend their candidates. He’s a paid Curry consultant, but he points out that Phillips is entrenched in the Bishop campaign. (In one tweet, Hughes joked that he mistook Phillips for Bishop’s campaign manager because of his social media output on Bishop’s behalf). And he points out that Phillips donated $2,500 to Bishop’s campaign, threw him a rooftop party at Black Sheep on St. Patrick’s Day, and represented him in an equal time demand of a local radio program that gave air time to Curry. When Folio Weekly asked Hughes if it was seemly for a key campaign staffer to come off as trivializing or mean-spirited, Hughes said he and Phillips played the same game.
“I’m an advocate for my candidate,” Hughes said. “[The tweets] are there for you to dissect. Write that we are both trivial,” he suggested.
With Bishop likely out of the race, unless he scored an upset in the March 24 primary, Curry’s supporters will be looking for new targets in the twitterati around Mayor Alvin Brown. Between now and the May 19 election, if the Curry campaign stays true to form, Hughes will be aggressive in defending Curry and he’ll likely respond to insults from anyone in the Brown camp who takes a jab.
As for Bishop’s supporters, when it comes to social media strategy, it’s too early to tell if Phillips and others have learned any lessons worth carrying forward. And, as 2015 is not likely to be Bishop’s last race, it’s possible they’ll have time for self-reflection.
“The way I look at what happens on Twitter, while it’s reality, it’s a bite-sized candy compared to what happens in the real world,” Phillips says, seemingly ready to let bygones be bygones, before clarifying, “but it’s still absurd for a representative of a guy who’s seeking the number one leadership office in town to be so juvenile.”
Those bite-sized tweets seem to have taken their toll.