News & Politics

‘My job was to try and kill him’: Oppo research and New York politics

It’s brutal out here!

Oppo research allows campaigns “plausible deniability.”

Oppo research allows campaigns “plausible deniability.” Nodar Chernishev/Getty Images

You’ll quickly realize two things while talking to people in the world of opposition research, or “oppo”: Those who currently do it are very hesitant to talk about it on the record, and war metaphors are common.

“Research, by definition, has one single purpose: to destroy the person you’re running against, or the person that you’re in a battle against … to get rid of the enemy,” said longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, the id of political consultants. “Sometimes, if you’re smart, you get in front of it early on before campaigns take off. You show somebody some research, they disappear, which has happened in my career. The other alternative is to play a game – which is so that consultants can make money – which is: get the person in the race and kill them, so that everybody can, you know, have a gleeful battle like in a Roman arena.”

The researchers describe their findings, once published by journalists, as “hits.” “They saw him as a threat, and my job was to try and kill him,” said Stu Loeser, another longtime operative, describing how he was hired as a researcher in 2001 to ruin the mayoral chances of Alan Hevesi. “You have to put on your bulletproof vest sometimes and just keep walking through,” said Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, describing oppo about him.

Research, by definition, has one single purpose: to destroy the person you’re running against, or the person that you’re in a battle against … to get rid of the enemy.
Hank Sheinkopf

When we talk about a negative story, we often say information “surfaced.” The word conjures an image of old social media posts, voting records, misdemeanors, lawsuits, residency questions, speeding tickets … floating up from the depths by accident like the body of a missing person. But the word conceals a very different process. Information like that doesn’t just “surface.” It is painstakingly exposed inch by inch like a delicate fossil. Often, the people doing that work are paid large sums by an interested party, and they only share their findings with reporters on the condition of “no fingerprints.” Often, the information cycles from a campaign through the press, then back onto campaign flyers, debates, TV ads, then sometimes back into the press again. And no campaign that can afford it is above participating in this process.

Loeser was hired in 2001 by Mark Green, then the New York City public advocate. Green wanted to draw a contrast between himself and Hevesi, the city comptroller and another relatively liberal Jewish candidate. “There’s a reason why New York City comptrollers historically run for mayor: because they are one of two real citywide jobs that have power,” Loeser said. “And there’s a reason why they don’t win, which is: There’s just a lot to dig into.” After Hevesi was eliminated, there was a notoriously ugly runoff between Green and then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, during which Green campaign aides OK’d flyers with racist anti-Ferrer cartoons that were reportedly sent to voters in Italian and Jewish areas of Brooklyn. Green denounced the flyers. Green ultimately lost to Mike Bloomberg in the post-9/11 general election, though not before Loeser tipped off the Daily News that billionaire Bloomberg’s campaign T-shirts were made with sweatshop labor in El Salvador.

Fernando Ferrer campaigns for mayor in 2005 with the Rev. Al Sharpton. / Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Ferrer made another attempt at the mayoralty, running against Bloomberg in 2005, Bloomberg hired Loeser. “We found out when (Ferrer’s) press conferences were, and we made sure to put out our oppo hit of the day. We had one every day,” Loeser said. For example, the Daily News called the Democratic candidate “Fibbing Fernando” for claiming he was always educated in public schools on his campaign website, when he went to private schools. “Freddy at one point was asked about a quote he gave in 1984 to a high school paper,” Ferrer’s campaign manager told The New York Times, describing what it was like to be on the receiving end of all that oppo. Bloomberg beat Ferrer by 19 points. Loeser went on to serve as Bloomberg’s fearsome press secretary, a post he held for an unusually long time. He said he has run into Ferrer on the train a few times since that 2005 campaign. They don’t speak to each other, and someone always switches cars. Ferrer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Totally demoralizing for the staff and consultants”

Campaigns can be gnarly, especially in New York. Politics is a blood sport, they say. I asked every active researcher I spoke with whether they ever feel guilty about ruining someone’s career. They all said no, of course, and they insisted that isn’t the true goal. “Opposition research isn’t always about landing a particular hit,” said Nolan Wanecke, a New York City-based researcher who has worked with multiple progressive campaigns and organizations, including the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie’s campaign and Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s campaign. “Sometimes the messaging goals are to criticize an opponent, but sometimes they are to just simply differentiate in a very particular context from an opponent.”

Two perhaps apocryphal examples illustrate the variety of forms oppo could take: One researcher told the story of the damning revelation that a politician played the oboe. Not illegal, not unethical, just uncool. Another said a politician had researchers figure out the Social Security number of his opponent, and then he wrote it on a slip of paper which he left on his opponent’s podium – just to freak him out. A classic real oppo story, albeit not a New York one, was the revelation during the 2012 presidential race that Mitt Romney planned to build himself a car elevator, unearthed by Barack Obama’s campaign. Is having a car elevator itself a crime? No. But the story reinforced Obama’s message that his opponent was out of touch. An oft-cited New York example: Someone tipped off The Atlantic to pay a visit to longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel at his Maryland home during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 – and Engel stood in his suburban doorway while insisting that he was actually living in his Westchester County district in the epicenter of the pandemic. Engel, then running for his 18th term, looked silly as hell, and he lost his primary a month later by 14 points.

Loeser recalled that much of his oppo against Hevesi in 2001 was aimed specifically to make it as difficult as possible for the teachers union – a “coveted” mayoral backer – to endorse Hevesi in the Democratic primary. The UFT hated Mayor Rudy Giuliani, so Loeser worked to draw parallels between the comptroller and the mayor, starting with the donor base. “We were able to have a steady stream of stories about people who had done scandalous things during the Giuliani administration then cozying up to Alan Hevesi,” he said. (Loeser’s mission failed. The teachers union did ultimately endorse Hevesi.)

Another goal could be to alienate a specific donor, filling the top search engine results with negative stories that might offend a particular wealthy person. Then there’s the psychological impact on the opponent’s campaign – the goal of simply getting in their heads. “It’s also totally demoralizing for the staff and the consultants working on that campaign,” one researcher said. “When it’s going well for your side, the enemies, you know, I’ve seen people check out.” Another researcher described a “small hit” that didn’t get much play in the press but struck a nerve with an opponent, who turned it into a much bigger story by ranting about it on social media: “It probably wasted a lot of their campaign time and resources thinking about that.”

Oppo can also be used to inform positive messaging about your candidate, progressive consultant Camille Rivera of New Deal Strategies said. For example, if oppo uncovers the fact that the opponent has had marital and financial issues, a candidate could choose to emphasize their own positive traits in those areas. “If we know the vulnerabilities of the candidate, you know that, well, maybe we can’t say this, but we’re keeping it in our back pocket,” she said of oppo. “But maybe we do talk about ‘family values’ or ‘being a good financial planner.’”

In addition to targeting their candidate’s opponent, researchers are responsible for identifying their own client’s biggest vulnerabilities, or performing “a proctology exam of my whole life,” as one former candidate said. “If you are a campaign with a larger budget: Congress, citywide, statewide, you absolutely have to seriously consider it,” said political consultant Trip Yang, who is also a member of City & State’s advisory board. “Not just to learn a little bit more about your prospective opponents, but also to learn a little bit more about yourself and understand where your potential vulnerabilities lie.” If there is a limited budget, Rivera said self-oppo comes first. “You forget about a parking ticket you never paid or the old lease that wasn’t paid, or you’re missing a tax bill,” she said.

Living life on Internet Archive

In New York, the oppo research community is small. Wanecke is well respected. Much ink has been spilled about the skills of Jonathan Davis of Northside Research and Consulting – though he maintains a mysterious brand. (His website is a black box with an email.) Menashe Shapiro, currently Eric Adams’ deputy chief of staff, is a longtime practitioner. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee compiles oppo for federal races, and D.C. firms, including Spiros Consulting and Jones Mandel, are frequently in the mix. Adam Herbsman of Grand Central Consulting has been in the game since the aughts, and recently worked for Melinda Katz, Laura Gillen and the New York Real Estate Chamber. At smaller upstart campaigns, Rivera said oppo can look like “an intern Googling.”

Researchers don’t just work for political campaigns. They also investigate opponents in legislative fights and policy campaigns, working on behalf of unions and advocacy groups. Yang said a typical oppo book on a candidate and their opponent can cost between $20,000 and $30,000. Davis was paid $35,000 each by the 2022 congressional campaigns of Alessandra Biaggi and Carlina Rivera, and Scott Stringer’s mayoral campaign paid him more than $80,000 in 2021. Local campaigns prioritize research too. Yusef Salaam’s City Council campaign worked with Davis last year, as did Susan Zhuang’s. Wanecke worked with Sandy Nurse’s campaigns. “It’s just a neutral part of the business, and you would be naive to completely ignore it,” Yang said. The low-hanging fruit are the easiest things to dig up: old news reports on a person, their legislative voting record, campaign fundraising and expenditure records, what they’ve said on social media. Another starting place is what the opponent is claiming about themselves. For example, if they say they’re born and raised in the district, the researcher would start by verifying that. Another common tactic is looking for online content that the opponent has deleted – spending a lot of time on Internet Archive. Deception and hypocrisy are common themes in successful “hits.”

Rep. George Santos, poster child for failed oppo. / Win McNamee/Getty Images

“I love oppo,” said political consultant Evan Stavisky, whose firm Parkside Group has worked with state Senate Democrats and Rep. Tom Suozzi. “Candidates have an obligation to voters to present them with the full picture about who the candidates are and what the stakes are in the election.” His mom, Queens state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, had a primary challenger in 2016 who had made anti-gay comments in Korean to a church group. “It would have done a disservice to the constituents for them not to understand that,” Evan Stavisky said. And it’s true. When there is a lack of vetting, voters can get burned. Just look at disgraced former Rep. George Santos, the poster child for failed oppo. After the Times finally exposed the extent of his lies post-election, there was quite a bit of discourse and finger-pointing about vetting. Everyone was blamed: the Nassau County Republican machine, the state Democratic Party, Democratic candidate Robert Zimmerman’s campaign, the researchers, the journalists, even the voters themselves for not caring enough! The DCCC did put together an 87-page book on Santos, but it largely focused on Santos’ conservative stances and involvement with Jan. 6 and “The Big Lie.” It also stated that Santos attended Baruch College, which the Times later found was false.

“That went onto a negative mailer”

It is common practice for a campaign to bring oppo to a reporter, who then writes about it, only to see the article they wrote cycled back into campaign ads. In 2022, the DCCC was shopping around oppo on how New York Republicans had been inconsistent in their stances on abortion. City & State eventually wrote about the flip-flopping in 2023. Just recently, there has been a spike in traffic on that story. That’s due to a series of social media posts in late March from a sponsored Facebook page called “The American Horizon,” which took our logo, added new photos and rewrote our headline. Who pays for “The American Horizon” posts, according to Facebook’s ad library? The DCCC. A closed loop.

Jeff Coltin, a former City & State reporter who now writes for Politico, recalled when that happened to an oppo story he wrote about state Sen. Robert Jackson in 2018. Jackson was then a candidate for state Senate, and Coltin’s story was about how Jackson was paid more than $100,000 to lobby for “Big Styrofoam.” “That went onto a negative mailer, and it was like, ‘Robert Jackson: Styrofoam lobbyist.’” Coltin recalled. “I don’t remember being particularly bothered because I think that was a fair and accurate description of what he did.”

Oppo comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a PDF research book full of multiple leads, but sometimes it’s just a phone call with a hunch. At least half of opposition research pitches and tips he receives do not make it into stories, Coltin said. “Sometimes pitches are so minor, like someone misspoke 20 years ago, and you’re just like, ‘whatever.’” He recalled a pitch about a past tweet from a staffer, which he turned down because it was so far removed from the candidate. Political consultant Sam Raskin, a former New York Post reporter, said he regularly turned down pitches that didn’t bring out any new information or contradict how a candidate was already presenting themselves. “You’ll often see (oppo research) documents that are just pages and pages and pages of weirdly formatted news stories and YouTube clips and sometimes some public records where it’s just like, ‘This is what they believe. And we think that’s bad,’” Raskin said. “There’s no gotcha, there’s no hypocrisy, there’s no scandal.” The relationship is symbiotic, but it’s not stenography. Reporters often take a tip and build on it, surpassing what the researchers discovered. This was the case when Raskin was tipped off about then-Rep. Mondaire Jones using a COVID-19 exception to vote by proxy while he vacationed in France – and Raskin connected the dots that Jones was attending HBO star Issa Rae’s wedding. 

Oppo is useful because candidates don’t want to get their hands dirty and don’t want to be seen as in the mud, putting out unflattering information. So that it allows people to have plausible deniability.
Sam Raskin

Not all campaigns want to recycle news stories based on oppo research back into their own messaging strategy, Raskin said. On the contrary, opposition research can give candidates the ability to publicize their opponent’s misdeeds without seeming sketchy themselves. “Oppo is useful because candidates don’t want to get their hands dirty and don’t want to be seen as in the mud, putting out unflattering information,” he said. “So that it allows people to have plausible deniability.”

“Ugh, no, no!”

Negative stories published about someone in a competitive race that involve highly specific details about their past are often based on oppo research. But reporters are independently interested in vetting candidates and taking a close look at their filings, and competitive races generate organic scrutiny in addition to the manufactured kind. From the outside, it’s impossible to identify stories as oppo with certainty because oppo research is almost always shared on background, meaning the reporter agrees not to name the person or campaign that tipped them off in exchange for access to the information. This is mutually beneficial, because the campaign has an interest in the information being presented by a reputable third party, and, as a Times column put it, “a reporter would rather not be identified as being spoon-fed information.” But reporters don’t work in a vacuum, and story ideas come from all sorts of conversations.

This story was inspired by a suggestion from our publisher more than a year ago, which I was reminded of in February while chatting with friends about oppo research over dinner, and that does feel kind of weird to disclose. It’s impossible to know for sure what the origin of a story really was if you didn’t write it, and it’s awkward to ask – though I’ve certainly tried.

Times Union Managing Editor Brendan Lyons said he doesn’t have a blanket ban on oppo, but he cautions reporters on the paper’s investigations team to be very careful about letting people share information without attribution. When considering whether to accept information that is damaging to an adversary without disclosing the source, journalists have to consider a number of different factors, Lyons said. “You sort of go through those steps: What is this person’s motivation? Why should source anonymity be granted or denied? Would we pursue this story if it was a tip from a member of the public or a state worker as opposed to someone with political motivations? And then what level of information are they giving you? Is all the information provided by the source or does it require legwork by a journalist? … Is it fair to report the information? How old is it? What’s the news value? And would we pursue the story if the other side provided information about their opponent?” This is quite a high bar. Lyons and Times Union Editor Casey Seiler somewhat famously applied this logic on a now-public call with former Cuomo administration Secretary Melissa DeRosa in 2021. When DeRosa attempted to anonymously share a document about one of the women who was accusing the governor of workplace sexual harassment, Seiler refused. “Ugh, no, no! Not off the record,” he said in the transcript of the call, which was lauded by many media columnists. “No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa, OK?”

Oppo has existed forever, but in 2024, researchers are quick to remind us that many reporters are not part of a well-funded investigative team. Many are toiling for low pay in shrinking newsrooms with dwindling resources. Many are new to their beats. In this media environment, researchers – and some journalists – say they’re filling a void. “In the best-case scenario, it’s somebody uncovering information that should be out in the public for transparency reasons,” Coltin said.

Still, it’s worth asking: Does oppo make our politics better? Do more substantive “hits” actually result in proportionally more damage to a campaign than the more lurid or simply embarrassing ones? Lyons, who’s been reporting for the Times Union since 1998, noted that there’s been a shift in voter tolerance for negative stories. “I think the public is generally more forgiving of past transgressions,” he said. “They don’t want to hear about someone’s drug use in college or their sexual preferences.”

What they supposedly want are capable leaders with integrity, compassion and self-respect. Perhaps the reason oppo is such a shadowy field is that campaigns worry it seems at odds with those qualities – while simultaneously wanting to prove that the opponent lacks them. But if we had to decide between knowing something about a candidate for elected office only because the rival campaign dug it up to “destroy” them, or not knowing it at all, most voters would probably choose to know.