November 12, 2008
Suben camp reflects on victory
Success attributed to aggressive campaign, higher voter turnout
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Cortland County district attorney-elect Mark Suben, left, talks with his campaign manager Jeff Johnston Friday about their experiences together campaigning for the 2008 election for Cortland County district attorney.
Jeff Johnston, campaign strategist for County Attorney Mark Suben’s successful bid for district attorney, said Saturday he knew the road to winning would be difficult.
Sitting in Johnston’s Main Street office on a rainy morning, Johnston and Suben explained how they managed to turn the tables from the 2004 campaign when Republican David Hartnett defeated Suben with approximately 60 percent of the vote.
Suben made a comeback in Tuesday’s election, with unofficial results showing he had won with about 53 percent of the vote to Hartnett’s 47 percent.
“The final result matched our strategy like a glove. We neutralized the outlying areas and carried the city heavily,” said Johnston, who is president of The Greystone Project, a local corporate communications business.
In 2004 Hartnett carried every town in the county, and by a greater margin than the ones he took in 2008. This year Suben took Homer, Cortlandville and Virgil and garnered 1,504 more votes from the city wards than Hartnett.
This was a much heavier pull in the city than he had in 2004 when he had 587 more votes than Hartnett.
In 2004, of 22,276 registered voters in the county, 18,193 voted. As of press time the percentage of those who actually voted in 2008 was unavailable because absentee ballots were still being counted, but 28,260 were registered.
Johnston said he applied his advertising and public relations skills to the campaign, which he became involved in through a mutual friend, Gary Walter.
Walter, the father of one of two Homer High School boys who had been prosecuted by Hartnett in 2006 for shooting plastic BBs at classmates with an air gun, was angered by Hartnett’s treatment of his son and implored Suben to run again.
“It was not my intention to run again,” said Suben, who was the defense attorney for the other boy charged in the case.
“Gary convinced me it was important I did (run) after the case was over and done with.”
Suben said once he committed to running again, he never thought he could lose.
Johnston said he felt by basing the campaign on Hartnett’s record as district attorney, Suben could win.
“The Walter case was over the top. With anything that wrong, the ground could be tilted,” Johnston said.
He was referring to what was seen by some within the community as Hartnett’s overly aggressive pursuit of the teenagers during the case. He charged the teens with felony assault, charges that were later dropped.
Hartnett has stood by his handling of the case.
Suben and Johnston also attributed the win to the passion and energy of their campaign team. Suben said numerous people would attend strategy meetings whenever they could and give their input. Johnston credited Suben with having campaigned throughout the county and attending as many functions as possible.
“He was nonstop over the past six to eight months. He went to every pancake breakfast or fire department dinner and showed his commitment,” Johnston said.
Suben said he attended town board meetings and spoke earnestly about his goals.
“I talked about what the problems were and why they mattered,” Suben said. “Most people do not understand what the DA does because they don’t have anything to do with a DA. But now they see how important it is,” Suben said.
His campaign team adopted the motto: “Because It Matters.”
Johnston said the race in 2004, though he was not part of it, was a completely different race from this year’s. He said in 2004 it was strictly a Democrat versus Republican race and reflected the majority Republican population of the county.
The tide has shifted since then, with the number of registered Democrats in the county rising to 9,171 and closing the gap on the 10,938 registered Republicans.
In 2004, 9,441 voters were registered Republicans compared to 6,991 registered Democrats. This year’s election also drew 6,130 more people to register to vote than in 2004.
This time, however, Suben and Johnston do not think the race fell along party lines. Half of Suben’s campaign team is Republican, Johnston being one, and Johnston said they saw no “coat-tail” effect from Democratic President-elect Barack Obama’s victory.
Marathon resident Connie White, who is vice chairman for the county Republican Committee, disagrees. White thinks Suben “rode the Obama wave” and also attributed his win to an aggressive campaign.
“He had a well-run campaign. He had a lot of volunteers and he used technology and a Web site. He was progressive,” White said.
“Where he did well was in the city and they were all voting for Obama there,” White said. Of 8,622 total votes for Hartnett, 2,109 came from the city. Suben received 9,825 total votes, with 3,613 coming from the city.
Hartnett had not returned phone calls for comment as of press time.
Johnston attributes the win to a real and valid desire for a new district attorney. “It was about change. Cortland wanted a change and there were reasons for it,” Johnston said.
Suben’s campaign contributions, which outweighed Hartnett’s, also helped.
According to the financial disclosure forms each party had to file Oct. 3 and Oct. 24, Suben raised a total of $28,254 and spent $23,424. Hartnett raised $20,348 and spent $16,372. These numbers could not be verified by either party as of press time.
Suben said the money came from “tremendously committed supporters” and it was spent on news media advertising and signs. Suben placed television, radio and newspaper ads and positioned multiple signs throughout the county.
“He got his name out. Money is a biggy in getting your message out,” White said.
Johnston said he applied his advertising expertise to the campaign, thinking of Suben and Hartnett as Product A and Product B and informing the public about what each had to offer.
Suben stressed that Johnston’s technique was not just about selling an image.
“I have an opportunity to serve my hometown and I love this place. It is what I feel I was meant to do and this is the place I want to do it in,” Suben said.
Voter Karen Thompson, who lives in the city’s 1st Ward, is registered Republican but has been voting Democratic for years and she voted for Suben this year.
“From the things I read in the paper I liked his comments in the debates,” Thompson said. Thompson said she did not have a problem with Hartnett’s record but rather voted for Suben because she thought he had “integrity” and would do a good job in the office.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe