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Byrd drops telemarketing plan

Constituents and colleagues sway the House speaker from dialing up voters.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 13, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Johnnie Byrd on Wednesday pulled the plug on a controversial plan to spend tax money to blanket the homes of voters with computerized political messages.

It was a sign that the Plant City Republican is rethinking an unusually bold public relations agenda that has provoked much discussion about him and raised questions about the quality of the political advice he's getting.

"I think he got a lot of feedback, from constituents and members alike, constructive feedback," said Byrd spokeswoman Nicole deLara. "A lot of folks just don't want to get phone calls at home."

Byrd's office also released proposals by 11 telemarketing companies, including three from Tampa, to provide up to 50,000 30-second messages in an hour. Companies also were asked to provide a cost to build a database of information about voters who answered the calls.

Companies were asked to provide cost estimates for both live and taped messages. Conquest Communications Group of Richmond, Va., cited in its application its clients: the Republican National Committee, Republican Party of Florida and the GOP's Senate and House campaign committees.

The telemarketing idea was the most controversial aspect of what Byrd calls his "Enhanced Member Communication Plan." It is an expensive program to improve communication with the public, but Byrd said it is being done with existing resources.

Those dinner time calls are so aggravating that many Floridians gladly pay $5 to the state every year to be on a no-solicitation list. Many others rely on answering machines or caller ID.

The idea that the Legislature would use techniques of long distance phone companies and credit card companies became a public relations disaster for Byrd even as he spent $614,000 on public relations specialists, researchers and a full-time TV producer.

Byrd has hired a $35,000-a-year producer to record his comments and send video clips to local TV stations. Glossy "whip notices" from the majority leader's office now appear weekly, summarizing the House schedule and featuring Byrd's smiling face. Media outlets receive "The Byrd Report," weekly summaries of House activity.

Democrats said Byrd seems more interested in boosting his profile to run for statewide office, possibly Bob Graham's U.S. Senate seat, in 2004. Still, they praised him for pulling back.

"I do think we need to concentrate on the issues and problems facing Florida, and not how to telemarket," said Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, the House Democratic leader. "It was a good decision and the correct decision to make."

Telemarketing was to have been a key element of Byrd's "Member Assistance Program." His idea was to use the phone to sample public opinion on issues and help House members attract crowds at town hall meetings.

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