Alan Huffman is hired to find the info used to destroy political campaigns. As an opposition researcher, he is an expert at finding a candidate's faults and mistakes. He's part of a trend that is fast becoming a staple in any American political race.
"In today's political environment, the documented facts are often left backstage, where they gather dust; while half-truths and untruths - always enthusiastic, able performers - enjoy the limelight." It's an accurate summation of American politics, and one of many insights into the campaign process found in We're With Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics.
Huffman, 56, is one of those insiders, along with colleague Michael Rejebian. They both co-wrote a book offering an unprecedented look into this once-mysterious profession. Their research firm Huffman & Rejebian specializes in finding the dirt on political candidates by hunting through finance reports, police records and other public documents. You won't see them running around campaign offices; they are unseen and in the shadows, where they like it.
Since 1993, Huffman has worked in opposition research, a segment of political campaigns rarely discussed above ground. But you've seen it. In 2006, George Allen, a former governor of Virginia running for the Senate, uttered his disastrous "Macaca" comment and the crude video of his ethnic slur was posted on YouTube. The insult, which cost him the election, had been aimed at a volunteer for Allen's Democratic opponent, who was following Allen around with a video camera.
Oppo research, as the experts call it, also hit John Kerry hard during the Swift Boat fiasco several years ago. And Rick Perry's misguided statements about a fabricated Occupy Wall Street protestor named Jeremy got him in the headlines for the wrong reason; and videotaping Perry's every word was a tracker whom Reuters dub an opposition researcher.
"I don't feel guilty about what I do," says Huffman in an interview with Digital Journal. "Nothing I put out there is untrue, it's all documented facts." Huffman stresses he never gives his clients info he can't verify on paper; working with innuendo, gossip and online news can be deceiving. Let's just say court clerks know his face all too well.
A passage in the book reveals why Huffman and Rejebian take pride in their jobs: "We've helped derail the political aspirations of unsavory or otherwise unattractive characters, and we believe the public has a right, even a responsibility, to know the truth about whomever they choose to lead them."
That truth can be a DUI or misappropriation of funds; it could be legislative efforts to exploit the crisis of post-9/11 America. Or it could be suspicious property purchases eventually making it to air in an attack ad.
Based in Mississippi and New York, Huffman has worked on many campaigns, both state-wide and municipal. And no, he's not involved in the GOP presidential race or the Obama administration. But he notes the GOP race has seen the most negative campaigning he's ever witnessed, thanks to the Super PACs, political action committees raising unlimited amounts of anonymous money to make attack and advocacy ads during campaigns. "In many ways, PAC campaigns are unmanned drones," Huffman says, "because you can’t point to a candidate and say 'You are responsible for this!'"
The front cover of the book We're With Nobody
Working in oppo is lucrative for those who know what they're doing. Huffman won't give exact figures, but they don't work for less than $1,000 and national campaigns can run in the seven figures, depending on how deep the campaign's pockets get during fundraising. One state campaign may offer him $5,000 for one job and another state may offer him $35,000, so the pay fluctuates depending on the work and the money available.
The high price of oppo research not only reflects all the research and info requests the firm must do, but also the many roadblocks they face. In the book, the authors recount how they might be followed by Southerners with little hospitality for snoops; or they'll receive threatening phone calls in the middle of a campaign. Luckily, Huffman says, they haven't been physically hurt during their investigations.
As someone deeply entrenched in uncovering the truth about political candidates, he's frustrated when the American public is swayed by rumours and lies (Obama's birth certificate, anyone?). "Everybody is barraged with info and when it comes to looking at factual citations, people treat them like punctuation in email – they don’t look for it anymore," Huffman says.
But he applauds the efforts of online powerhouses such as Factcheck.org and WikiLeaks, who aim to reveal truths buried by beauraacy. He's wary of citizen journalists masquerading as oppo researchers, saying "knowing how to connect dots and verify information is still a pretty special skill. And not everyone has it."
Where should oppo research go in the future? He'd like to see more public records be made available. He adds, "I like how our work gets people talking, even if it's bad-mouthing dirt-diggers, with people accusing of sullying the political process. But the thing is, is our research true?"
And 10 times out of 10, it is, Huffman says. He stakes his reputation on finding the secrets no one else discovers. It's a dirty job and he's happy to do it.