Whatever possessed Fazio to bet his comfortable, $105,000 a year as a professional prosecutor against Arlo Smith's well-oiled political machine? What chance did Fazio have? Not even when Smith fired Fazio for daring to run against him, thereby handing Fazio at least the shadow of an issue, could Fazio rise above 5 percent in the polls.
Throughout most of the summer, Fazio could barely crack the 10 percent barrier -- enough potential votes to force Smith into a runoff against Supervisor Terence Hallinan, but not enough to warrant giving up one's job.
But then in the last three weeks of the campaign, Fazio began blasting the city with commercials on cable television. Suddenly, there was Fazio on CNN, A&E, Lifetime, ESPN, even Nickelodeon, frowning into the camera from in front of a jail cell and telling us that what the city needed was a "real" district attorney.
By the time Fazio's Thirty Seconds Over San Francisco had unspooled, Fazio's showing in the polls had shot up to well over 30 percent, and it was Smith who was looking at life in the private sector, not Fazio. The difference was the commercials.
"Without a doubt, tactically it made the difference," says Fazio's campaign consultant, William Berry of Sacramento. "It was the only time we were able to talk to the voters on a large scale."
Broadcast television advertising has been considered a waste of resources in San Francisco campaigns, in part because candidates end up paying to reach nonvoters in Marin, Alameda, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. But Fazio's campaign ignored the broadcast outlets and spent its money on the cable channels -- where it's possible to segment the advertising market, and target messages to a more specific audience.
"We heard a lot of criticism from people who told us we were wasting our money, that it was a bad strategic move on our part," Berry says. "But with cable, well -- a lot of people would be surprised, because you can buy time that's only viewed by San Francisco voters."
What's more, according to Berry, cable is cheap -- about $20 for a 30-second local spot on A&E, for example. Even if there are only a thousand viewers at the time the commercial is transmitted, that works out to just 2 cents a viewer -- a lot cheaper than direct mail, and with far more impact.
Even better, for a candidate like Fazio -- the most conservative of the three primary candidates -- cable advertising has a built-in demographic bias: Cable viewers tend to be more affluent, and more likely to vote.
The idea of wiring Fazio's candidacy rather than broadcasting it cropped up during the summer, Berry says, when it became apparent that Fazio had two problems: first, name recognition; second, few voters had any idea of his positions on the issues.
"In May, June, and July, we were just a blip on the radar screen," Berry says. "We knew we needed to introduce Bill to folks, and we knew we needed to tell them why they would want to vote for him. He wasn't in the same position as Arlo and Terence, who've been running in campaigns for years."
Berry adds, "We also knew that we had just enough money for one mailing or maybe two mailings. But we figured that by the end of the campaign, with all the mail in the mailbox, our one or two pieces would get lost in all the noise. And we didn't really think a week of mail would be enough time to do what we had to do."
That was when the campaign first considered the idea of going to the cable system. But where to get the money? It was the old chicken-and-egg quandary: If Fazio were better known he could raise the money, but to get better known he had to have the money.
So Fazio broke into his own savings account, loaning his campaign $25,000 to help get the commercials made and beamed into viewers' homes. This boosted the candidate's name recognition and helped the fund-raising.
By the day of the election, the Fazio campaign had spent nearly $70,000 of its $170,000-plus primary campaign payout on the cable commercials -- more than a third of it Fazio's own money, which Berry hopes the campaign will be able to repay later.
Fazio wasn't the only DA candidate to loan his own campaign money for the primary though. According to campaign forms filed at the Registrar of Voters office, Hallinan loaned his own campaign $22,500 -- on top of $32,000 he'd previously lent to his campaign for re-election as supervisor, which hasn't yet been repaid. Smith loaned his own campaign $31,000 in August and September.
Altogether, Smith raised $194,637 and spent $161,233 through Oct. 21 for his losing effort, while Hallinan, the top vote-getter, raised $82,484 and spent $33,732 through the same period. Fazio spent $170,000-plus through the election, but Berry says the spending for the cable advertising alone accounted for $70,000 of that total.
Will Fazio return to the tube for the December runoff? Berry says it hasn't been decided yet, but that it's possible some of the $140,000 Fazio budgeted for the runoff could come in the form of cable advertising.
"I don't want to tip our hand right now," says Berry.
In other words, tune in yourself.