Some deaths hit particularly hard. For several generations of Massachusetts politicos, the passing of Dan Payne marks the loss of a uniquely creative political consultant and ad maker, a loyal and generous friend, a valued adviser, a wag, a sage, a source, and a commentator.
It’s daunting, trying to sum up all that Payne, who died May 9 of cancer at 79, brought to politics and life. Mark Horan, a friend and admirer, e-mailed that for that task, “needless to say, the best would be Ralph, but alas … .” Ralph as in Whitehead, a storied former University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professor and longtime Payne pal. Alas as in: But he’s gone too. Whitehead passed away in May 2022. In the year since his death, as I’ve watched developments in today’s tumultuous political universe, I’ve had the same quasi-conscious thought as Horan: I’ve got to call Ralph for his take.
You didn’t have to call Dan for his. For years, one could hear him weekly on WBUR or read him on the Globe op-ed page, where he was a contributing columnist. Millions of Americans have no doubt chuckled over a Payne TV spot, for Dan used humor to clarifying effect in political ads that imparted both a laugh and a message.
Back in 1994, when Angus King launched an independent candidacy for governor of Maine, he had never held nor run for public office. What he did have was some name recognition from having hosted a current-events show on Maine public television — and a brother-in-law who persuaded his friend Dan Payne to sign aboard.
King, who credits Payne’s creative ads with helping him win, notes that voters still mention spots from that first campaign. “If somebody 20 years later tells you he remembers an ad, that’s about as good as it gets,” he said.
The Maine senator recalled one classic Payne spot, from his 1998 reelection quest. It featured a crusty old Mainer holding a worn L.L. Bean boot and delivering this message: At first, he “wasn’t so sure about Angus King,” because he was “from away,” but he now thought of King like a reliable old boot: “Once you get him worked in, he’ll serve you pretty well.”
“He understood what people needed to know about his candidates — and he gave life to that,” said Democratic strategist Mary Beth Cahill.
An example: Liz Bankowski, who managed Madeleine Kunin’s glass-ceiling-shattering 1984 gubernatorial campaign in Vermont, recalled that a worrisome percentage of voters told pollsters they wouldn’t consider a woman for the state’s top job. To attack that bias, Payne made an ad that began with black lettering on a white screen and noted that just one candidate had this important qualification or that. Only after that message had been impressed on viewers did the spot show Kunin’s picture and mention her name.
“It was just brilliant,” said Bankowski.
In 1988, when Mike Dukakis ran for president, early primary-season rival Richard Gephardt had transformed himself from a conservative Washington insider into a populist. That political repackaging was working — until Payne and associate Mike Shea produced an ad that showed a gymnast turning flips and somersaults as it detailed Gephardt’s ideological contortions.
“In addition to his high-level creativity, he was a wonderful person, always upbeat,” top Dukakis strategist John Sasso said of Payne, who was also a mainstay of Dukakis’s gubernatorial campaigns.
“Just a great guy to know and work with,” e-mailed Dukakis. “One of the best.”
To work for you, Payne had to believe in you, recalled his friend Chris Gregory. But when he did, “He gave you his heart and soul.”
An abbreviated list of his Massachusetts clients also includes former Boston mayor Kevin White, former US representatives Barney Frank and the Rev. Robert Drinan, and former US senator John Kerry.
Mind you, Payne wasn’t without an edge. Several friends recall a deadpan Payne putdown about a client-poaching rival: “Writes the finest concession speech in American politics.”
Payne did the famous “the bosses may tell me where to sit; no one tells me where to stand” spot that helped Ed Markey win his US House seat. He won a Clio, an advertising award, for a 1984 spot that featured Senate candidate Kerry in a hardware store, highlighting the difference between the real-world price of a hammer and what the Pentagon had paid its contractors for the tool. That award sat proudly in Payne’s office — until, his wife remembers, a burglar broke a window and made off with it.
My favorite was an ad he did for Kerry’s 1990 reelection campaign. The freshman senator’s opponent was well-funded, hard-charging, tough-attacking Republican Jim Rappaport. The Rappaport family, which had a large farm in Vermont, had engaged in a series of politically problematic financial maneuvers, one of which involved one family entity selling an esteemed cow to another.
Payne made a series of ads about Rappaport that commenced, if memory serves, like an old-fashioned movie, with curtains parting to reveal the title. The Vermont machinations were explored in a spot that began, “Chapter Two: We Buy a Cow from Ourselves.”
“That was really one of the best of many, many great spots,” chuckled Kerry.
“He didn’t want his spots to look like everybody else’s,” said Nicole, his wife of 56 years.
No worry there, for as both an ad maker and a person, Dan Payne was in a league of his own.