One of the early practitioners who help professionalize the political consulting industry and fought back against the proliferation of nefarious campaign tactics has died.
Walt DeVries, who authored the book The Ticket-Splitter, lived his professional life by Joe Napolitan’s maxim about how maintaining your reputation is more important than winning a race.
“He believed that the process is fragile and shouldn’t be abused. He respected it,” said Wally Clinton, a media and mail consultant who was inducted into the AAPC Hall of Fame in 2003. “He set a standard, and I think that’s his legacy — the standard of principles.”
In November 2015, De Vries reached out to leaders of the AAPC — a trade group he helped launch in 1968-1969 — to encourage some industry-wide soul searching as the tone of the presidential campaign continued to sour.
“Most of us probably deplore the dysfunction of some of our state legislatures (in my case, North Carolina) and certainly the Congress,” he wrote in an email to Art Hackney, who then headed the AAPC. “It has occurred to me that perhaps…just perhaps…some of us consultants may have contributed to this by the campaigns we designed and executed for candidates.”
DeVries, who worked for clients from both sides of the aisle, co-wrote the AAPC’s original Code of Ethics with Napolitan.
In fact, Clinton said that DeVries, who was born and raised in Michigan, was long concerned about tactics that could do damage to the political process.
“He was very upset with the tenor of campaigns and how they’ve changed and the abuse of the process that’s been going on,” Clinton recalled. “It bothered him greatly. He wrote about it, he talked about it.”
But DeVries’ concern about the tenor of campaigns predated the 2016 cycle. In 1974, he founded the non-partisan NC Institute of Political Leadership (IOPL), which was then affiliated with University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
“The goal was to bring both sides of the argument together and encourage a more ethical style of leadership,” Brad Young, IOPL’s current executive director. “It was probably a little bit ahead of its time. People are probably more distressed by it now, the lack of civility in politics.”
IOPL was meant to be a center where political professionals, candidates and public officials could get more than just a weekend course on ethics. They’d also learn how to fundraise, do interviews. “We try to create a formative experience, something that’s immersive, so people can understand fully what they’re doing, when they do it,” said Young.
DeVries, who held a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, blended the nitty, gritty of a seasoned campaign consultant with his academic background. His firm de Vries & Associates, Inc., did survey research, produced media and did general consulting for campaigns up and down the ballot, including George Romney’s 1967 presidential run that tanked after his infamous “brainwashing” comment.
"I became familiar with Walt before ever meeting him,” said Ron Faucheux, a long-time consultant, author, officeholder and lobbyist. “Both a practitioner and academic, he was a pioneer in the political consulting business. Perhaps most importantly, he was an important standard setter.
“He set the bar very high for both professional ethics and quality. As I got to know Walt in later years, I was impressed by his sharp mind and the rich experiences of his career. He was always full of interesting ideas and insights. He was a role model for all of us."
DeVries also consulted internationally and was an original member of the
IAPC. Nancy Todd, the group’s current president, called DeVries “a prince among men.”
“He took a special interest in me and my career. We talked frequently. His moral compass through all the years and all that he had seen had never changed,” Todd said.
A frequent topic they returned to was the industry’s professional standards.
“He wanted me to come down harder whilst president of both the AAPC and IAPC so our standards and our industry would stay intact,” she said. “He cared.”
DeVries died Nov. 27 at the age of 90. A celebration of life is planned for Jan. 11 at Little Chapel On the Boardwalk, 2 West Fayetteville St., Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.