Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Candidate Gets Very Early Start

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Rick Hendrix announced his 2010 campaign for Congress a few weeks ago. But his campaign is off to an unconventional start — beginning with the fact that he hasn’t chosen a district to run in yet.

That hasn’t stopped the entertainment industry insider from promoting his candidacy, however.

“After his speech to a corner of celebrities and political icons during Vanity Fair and Google’s exclusive, elaborate blowout finale [at the Democratic National Convention], few are left in the dark of Mr. Hendrix’s plans and aspiration as he draws a sharp distinction between his political career and his lifelong dedication as a Christian,” began a news release that announced Hendrix’s campaign soon after the convention.

“Minds are wondering and circles have been a buzz for months concerning his shift and almost hierarchy acceptance into the political dynasties of the Democratic Party,” the oddly worded release continued.

Hendrix, 38, was born and raised in Granite Falls, N.C., a town of about 4,600 people on U.S. 320 between Lenoir and Hickory. Granite Falls is in North Carolina’s 10th district, where attorney Daniel Johnson (D) is taking on Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) this fall.

As owner of the Rick Hendrix Co., the self-proclaimed “#1 Promoter in American Music” handles one-third of all Christian and “positive” music on American radio, promoted the film “The Passion of the Christ” and built an “empire that has generated a quarter of a billion record sells [sic] since the 90’s,” according to his Web site.

The Next Barack Obama?

Hendrix’s Congressional announcement was buried at the end of a Sept. 19 Washington Post article about his efforts to team with Burns Strider, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) faith adviser, to reach out to potential Democratic voters through Christian radio. Hendrix was a part of Clinton’s Faith Outreach Committee during the presidential primary, and he was a pledged at-large delegate for the Senator in Denver.

He is also partnering with Strider and former Hill aide Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group to form Faithful Media, a for-profit endeavor designed to “provide unprecedented services and support to progressive causes and Democratic candidates.”

Hendrix might be one of the beneficiaries.

“Hendrix made his political aspirations clear to party notables such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, General Wesley Clark, and the Clintons,” according to his initial release, which read like a news story.

Pictures of Hendrix with Democratic luminaries are available on his MySpace page, including him “escorting” Albright and Kerry out of the Google party.

The release, which was long on name-dropping and short on substance, also compared now-Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) 2004 coming-out party at the Democratic convention in Boston to Hendrix’s 2008 appearance in Denver.

“After this year’s Democratic National Convention showcase of the party’s new and rising young stars, many Democrats are hoping that lightning will strike twice with Rick Hendrix,” the release said.

By announcing his candidacy so early, Hendrix is similar to Obama, since Obama, then a state Senator, began his 2004 U.S. Senate bid before the 2002 elections.

But Hendrix continues to be a candidate without a district. It appears he wants to run in the 10th district, but Johnson is already challenging McHenry, and while he is a distinct long shot, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added Johnson to its “Red to Blue” list, which should boost his fundraising.

For now, Hendrix is playing the part of a loyal party foot soldier and supporting Johnson’s candidacy. Hendrix considered temporarily turning his 2010 campaign Web site into a blog for Johnson’s cause, even though the two men have only traded messages and have never spoken.

“Mr. Hendrix is definitely supporting Daniel’s campaign, and I think it says a lot about what’s going on here in western North Carolina that high-profile people like Mr. Hendrix are getting involved in this race,” said Lauren Moore, Johnson’s deputy campaign manager.

Where Is Home?

Even if Hendrix had a clear shot at the 10th district, now or in 2010, it would not be easy. He was born and raised in the district, but it’s unclear where he lives now.

The Rick Hendrix Co. has offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn. Hendrix said in an interview that he lives in Granite Falls and commutes to Nashville, where his kids attend school (he is divorced).

But he lists Nashville as home on his MySpace page, where 30 photos of “My Nashville Home” are available.

“He hasn’t lived here in 20 years,” said one Democratic operative in the Tar Heel State.

Another challenge would be the district itself. The 10th district takes in all or part of 10 counties in western North Carolina and gave President Bush 67 percent of the vote four years ago. The district has also sent a Republican to Congress for the past four decades.

McHenry, 32, was first elected in 2004 to fill the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Cass Ballenger and was re-elected with 62 percent last cycle. He is a reliable Republican vote and enjoys being combative, but he broke with his party by voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.

Hendrix’s friends in the national Democratic Party — he calls Pelosi one of his “favorite people in the world” — may not be as popular in the district.

“When the curtain pulls, I can see my mama voting Republican,” Hendrix half-joked, showing some instincts about his family and the district.

“You can be a Democratic candidate and serve well without being as red as your constituency,” Hendrix said in a phone interview, adding that he thought the Clintons were a “50/50 split” in the district. “I would not hide from them because of a poll.”

Former President Bill Clinton lost the district by 20 points to Bob Dole in 1996. So why run?

“This is a new door I feel opening,” Hendrix said. “There is a learning curve for all of us. Democrats have never tried this, and I’ve never tried the political thing before.”

Going National, Tapping Employees

It’s clear that the first-time candidate will have to work to transition from promoter to candidate.

Congressional candidates don’t usually launch their bids three years in advance for a two-year term, particularly without a district.

“This is a year if you are a Democrat you’ve got a get-out-of-jail-free card with Republicans who [traditionally] don’t like the Democratic agenda,” Hendrix said about the timing of his announcement. is live, but with minimal information.

“Thank you for stopping by. An exploratory committee has been formed for Rick Hendrix and the 2010 mid-term elections,” it says on the site. According to Hendrix, he has filed an exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission, but he is not yet raising money for a Congressional bid.

The Web site directs visitors to the “Rick Hendrix for Congress National Headquarters,” based in Washington, which could be a first for a Congressional candidate.

Most candidates are running away from D.C. these days, but Hendrix said that even though the national headquarters is not finalized, it could be a natural fit because of all the business that he conducts in Washington already.

“We serve ourselves well by having it there,” Hendrix said, “We need to be in big places and not be afraid.”

Currently, the line between Hendrix’s campaign and his company appears to be nonexistent. The contact phone number for Hendrix’s campaign is the same number listed for his company’s D.C. office. A call placed to the number was answered with an ambiguous, “Rick Hendrix’s office.” And two different staff contacts on the campaign news releases use the phone number as well as company e-mail addresses.

As his campaign ramps up, those distinctions will need to be made, because corporate campaign contributions are illegal and Democrats have been particularly critical over the past few years of Republican businessmen allegedly using their companies to leverage their campaigns.

For now, it’s all a part of Hendrix’s plan.

“We’ll engage the whole company,” Hendrix said, referring to his 2010 bid. “Anyone who works for me will work for the campaign.”

If employees do not want to be involved in the campaign (Hendrix estimates that number to be 20 to 30 out of more than 150), then they can keep their jobs on the music side, according to the candidate.

Official Launch Coming Soon

In general, Hendrix is banking on scores of people helping him after years of promoting and helping others. He believes that all or most of the 700 musical artists (about 70 percent of whom are Christian) that he represents will do fundraisers and concerts on his behalf.

Their willingness may not matter. “Hendrix has demanded that his musician clients let him stage rallies or set up informational tables for Democrats at or near their shows, whether they like it or not,” according to the Washington Post story, which highlighted some of Hendrix’s efforts during the presidential primary. “About half his artists are fine with that, he says, while the others agree somewhat reluctantly.”

Listening to Hendrix, you get the feeling that he is running a national campaign for Congress. Although it’s just in the preliminary stages, it sounds like the most massive Congressional campaign ever assembled.

His effort could officially launch as soon as Jan. 1, with the help of Strider and Sapp’s Eleison Group. Hendrix wants to go into the race with $4 million, hire “major advisers” and have an army of 10,000 volunteers. He’s also talking about 300 billboards, fliers in power bills and a book tour of 600 locations in three months during the campaign.

Hendrix plans to couple the massive e-mail list he’s built over the years with consumer information for micro-targeting. He also plans to reach out to the 34.5 million MySpace friends stretched across his 700 musical artists.

“As the night went on, Hendrix found the small posse he arrived with had blossomed into a room of the world’s most notable figures and their eyes and ears were fixed on his every word, jokes and smiles,” Hendrix’s announcement news release read. “Actress Anne Hathaway said, ‘Rick inspires and excites me about the future of our party.’”

The political world may not be ready for Rick Hendrix.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on October 9, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.