Now that he's an all-but-declared candidate, surging in the polls and touring key primary states, Fred Thompson's campaign is starting to come together. One of Thompson's top operatives is an old PR hand named Ken Rietz.
Since Rietz is hardly a household name, here are a few things you should know about him.
Back in the 1970s, the late investigative reporter Jack Anderson described Rietz as a "key member of a Nixon campaign 'spy' team." Roll Call recently explained what that entailed: "When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rietz acknowledged he had paid a college student $150 a week to infiltrate a peace vigil at the White House and set up the demonstrators for drug arrest charges. He also tried to plant a driver with then-Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), a presidential candidate, to get inside information."
Rietz resigned from the RNC, then led by George Bush I, and became an organizer for Ronald Reagan in California. In the 1980s Rietz joined the huge PR firm Burson-Marsteller, now run by Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
One of Rietz's big assignments at Burson, as reported by Tom Edsall today, was to set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris. The group, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, was founded in 1993 "to give the appearance of grassroots opposition to smoke-free laws without its corporate involvement being detected." Rietz is now one of a number of powerful tobacco-industry allies in Thompson's inner circle.
During the 2004 election Rietz headed a shadowy 527 called the November Fund, funded largely by the Chamber of Commerce, that ran $10 million in ads in battleground states attacking John Edwards and the "trial-lawyer lobby in DC." In September 2004, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the November Fund illegally received $500,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, colluded with the Bush-Cheney campaign and violated a moratorium on attacking candidates by name 60 days before an election. CREW head Melanie Sloan called the group's work "illegal and unethical."
Today, Rietz is largely in charge of Thompson's media strategy, organizing conference calls, recruiting talent and orchestrating "grassroots" buzz for the candidate.
It's a good thing that Thompson plays a District Attorney on Law & Order. Because in real life his close associates represent anything but.