Concord — May 7, 2004 — Gov. Craig Benson has hired Jack Heath to help him promote himself and his ideas. Heath, 44, is a former news director of WMUR-TV, a one-time congressional candidate and a former spokesman for Benson’s private investment firm.
Heath will get $5,000 a month in state money to be Benson’s part-time consultant on media relations and marketing. He described his new job as advising the governor on how to package his ideas for the public.
“The governor is known for running a pretty tight ship and a pretty frugal ship,” Heath said yesterday. “But he felt there was a need for more marketing and promoting the type of programs he’s championing but that don’t always get covered by the media because of the day-to-day work of the Legislature.”
Heath will retain his corporate clients from his media consulting firm Pinpoint Global Communications of Manchester. His dual role raised questions about potential conflicts of interest between his State House client and his private clients. Others wondered why Heath was getting state money for a job normally associated with a campaign worker.
“After you’re elected governor, you govern – you don’t worry about selling yourself,” said Rep. Liz Hager, a Concord Republican. “Your image should be a result of your governing, not something you have to sell to people. That’s what a campaign is for.”
Heath, who lives in Bedford, said he would not take a role in crafting policy or handle day-to-day interactions with reporters. Rather, he said, he would work directly with Benson to help him better shape his public messages. He said he would play no role in Benson’s re-election campaign this year.
Heath said his hiring stemmed from Benson’s frustration with how his ideas were being received by the public. “He likes to use the pulpit of the office to make change, and he feels he wasn’t doing a good enough job of communicating that,” Heath said. Democrats and some Republicans criticized Benson for blurring the lines between public policy and campaign work.
“The people of New Hampshire should not have to pay to help Craig Benson get re-elected,” said Rep. Peter Burling, a Cornish Democrat and a likely candidate for governor this year. “If Governor Benson wants to hire a media consultant, his campaign, not the taxpayers, should foot the bill.”
Rep. Ted Leach, a Republican from Hanover, said Benson’s new interest in image was consistent with his current governing technique.
“Jack is from the world of television,” Leach said. “He understands sound bites. It’s a good fit for the governor. It’s how he operates.”
Heath is perhaps best known for turning WMUR into one of the most influential media outlets in the state a decade ago. As host of the station’s weekly political talk show, Close Up, Heath acquired a reputation as a power broker in state political circles. His friends included former Gov. Steve Merrill and Joel Maiola, a top adviser to Sen. Judd Gregg.
He stepped down as WMUR’s news director in 1996 to run in the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District seat. He lost to John Sununu, the current U.S. senator, but was seen by many as a rising star in the party. Heath spent the next few years working in media consulting, including the public relations firm O’Neil Griffin Bodi. In 1998, he took a job as vice president for news at WNDS. He left the station two year later.
In 1999, he founded BizNews24, an online information service for businesses. The company was renamed Pinpoint Global Communications in February. Its clients include Lincoln Financial Group, Metlife and John Hancock.
Heath also described himself as an “outside partner” at High Point Communications, a Bow public relations firm. High Point has had several contracts with the state, most recently one awarded this week to prepare a public information campaign for the state Liquor Commission.
Heath and Benson first met more than a decade ago, when Benson was CEO of Cabletron, a technology company in Rochester. Benson was a prominent supporter of Heath’s congressional campaign. Benson has paid for Heath’s advice on his private ventures. As recently as March, Heath was acting as spokesman for Soft Draw Investments, Benson’s private investment company. Heath said he was no longer being paid by Soft Draw or Benson.
Pam Walsh, the state Democratic Party’s spokeswoman, said Heath’s hiring violated an executive order issued by Benson in March that forbade using state money to hire outside consultants. “Benson’s preaching sacrifice to everyone else, and he’s using taxpayers’ money to buy an image consultant for himself,” Walsh said. “Campaigns have media consultants. Administrations don’t.”
But Wendell Packard, Benson’s spokesman, said the governor could break his own orders in an emergency. “The governor has the right to grant waivers and has on many occasions when there’s a need,”Packard said. “And this would be an example.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said politicians often use outside consultants to help market specific programs, such as a new tourism venture. But she said Heath’s proposed role was usually reserved for a campaign staffer, not a state employee.
“It would be unusual for the state to pay to someone whose marketing job is to market the governor,” Jamieson said.