He does not drive through blue-collar neighborhoods to make sure campaign lawn signs are still standing after a windy night. He does not spot-check the jumbo shrimp before fund-raising cocktail parties or call up candidates' friends in other states to wring contributions out of their checkbooks. The Gray Man does big-picture campaign strategy, not street work, and he likes to operate in shadow. He may or may not be the best of Broward County's full-time political consultants, but he probably is the most invisible. For example, his business card bears a company name so monumentally vague that it might be involved in timber, or aircraft parts, or hospital management. To enter his inner sanctum requires a promise of anonymity.
On the morning of January 19, exactly 85 hours after declaring his candidacy for mayor of Hollywood, John Coleman arrives at the Gray Man's office for a meeting. An irrepressible chatterbox, Coleman shuts up for 90 minutes and sits at a conference table. By the time he leaves the Gray Man's office, Coleman has been offered the following lessons in municipal political science:
1. Campaign finance laws don't really exist.
2. Newspapers don't really matter.
3. Voters are mainly clueless.
4. Democracy is alive and well.
"I'll tell you the secret of winning," says the Gray Man, leaning back in his chair. "The secret of winning is that most people don't give a rat's ass about issues. They don't care about anything except liking and trusting you. That's all they do, OK?
"A voter who says, 'Well what do you stand for?' probably isn't going to vote for you. A voter where you walk up and say, 'Hi, I'm John, and gee, are you as tired as I am about what's going on?' They say, 'You bet,' and then you shut up! They'll talk to you! The more you listen to a voter, the more they like you. It's a lesson some people never learn because they're too busy preaching to everybody."
"Here's the reality of the situation as I understand it," he says, blowing on some herbal tea. "You probably have a populist momentum that you can create, and it can be energized. You have no money, but you need to get your message out, so you need to do two things. You use people, and lots of 'em, and you have to use the phones, which are free. You have to talk to a gazillion people, dawn to dusk. Another thing. You're gonna have to do some signs."
The Gray Man gets up and leaves the room. Estelle Loewenstein has arrived late. Like Coleman, Loewenstein is a first-time candidate. She, Coleman, and a third contender, former Hollywood Mayor Sal Oliveri, are attempting to unseat the current mayor, Mara Giulianti, and two commissioners, Eleanor Sobel and Dick Blattner, who are up for reelection.
Loewenstein leans toward Coleman: "Who is he, actually?" she whispers, meaning the Gray Man. Before Coleman can answer, the Gray Man jumps back into the room waving a set of campaign signs from a recent race he puppeteered.
"These are done on a color printer," The Gray Man explains. "Eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheets. You put the enamel on it, that's it. Great signs. You don't have to have expensive, slick signs. You don't have to have them on every street. Printed on color paper!"
Loewenstein asks: "What, now, ah, what's the, ah, sealed in ah... they're all homemade?"
"Yeah!" The Gray Man shrieks with excitement. "You go to Sam's [Club] and you get a little enameler, and you can make these every day. You have somebody in your group who has a color printer and you do this -- boom, boom! You have somebody to lay it out and it's done! It's not hard!
"The point I'm trying to make here," he continues, "is to get off this idea you have to raise a bunch of money, cause you aren't going to, OK? I wouldn't spend ten minutes trying to raise money. Just put that in abeyance. You have to tell the people that this is their campaign. You cannot internalize it. It's not about either one of you individually. It's not a cult of personality. So let me tell you how you contact people."
Coleman scratches his head. Loewenstein, who is prone to frowning, frowns.
"You'll find that insiders amount to a small handful of people," the Gray Man says. "And you'll find that the majority of voters never read a paper. If they read a paper, like me they'll read the funny pages, or they're gonna read the sports section, or they'll read the financial news, and they'll never, never read the local section. They will never, ever look at a political article. Most people one day before the election won't have an idea or clue that there's even an election, let alone who to vote for."