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Tactics: The operative

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

FOUNDED: 1996, Portland
DIVISIONS: Green Insight, reports on trends in the sustainability market

LISA GROVE, founder of Grove Insights.

It was in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s where Lisa Grove — today a political strategist and pollster but back then a fresh, idealistic Lewis & Clark graduate — learned a key commandment of the political game, and one that would later shape the success of her Portland-based political consulting firm. “It’s not issues; it’s politics,” she remembers being told after asking fellow pollsters what issues they were working on. “I realized that the issues are a vehicle to help get people elected. I was scoffing at that and then, of course, became part of it.”

Grove worked with two of the nation’s largest polling firms before returning to Oregon to found Grove Insights in 1996. In ensuing years, Grove says the company has racked up the highest win/loss ratio in the nation for initiatives it’s worked on: 58/8. Over the past 15 years the firm has also worked with probably every major Democratic name in the Pacific Northwest: Kulongoski, Gregoire, Wu, Hooley, DeFazio, Blumenauer, Wyden — the list stretches from the national level all the way down to Portland politics.  And as the list has grown, Grove has become what some Salem insiders say is one of the most powerful non-elected people in Oregon politics.

For many political strategists, the difference between personal politics and business is irrelevant. But for Grove, her personal ideals have inexorably shaped the work she does, and conversely shaped the success and limitations of her business. Travel back to the 1960s in Beaverton,  and you’ll find a young girl walking the streets with her education-activist mother knocking on doors and advocating for school bond measures. Travel forward in time and you find a consultancy firm that works exclusively with left-of-center candidates and issues. Which, obviously, eliminates half of its potential business.

It sounds antithetical to basic business practices, but it’s been a smart move. While Grove says it’s hard not think about the lost work, limiting the business scope has allowed Grove and her team to create what she sees as a boutique firm — a company that has a hands-on, often personal relationship with candidates. Other factors have helped push her firm forward: Following Sept. 11 and the last two presidential elections, politicians began seeing a disconnect between the major Washington, D.C.-based polling firms and what people were actually thinking in the rest of the country. Grove, with her inside-the-Beltway street cred but West Coast location, has been in a prime spot to capitalize.

No matter what the politics or the location, at the end of the day, Grove Insight has one major metric that defines its success: Election Day. What happens on that day determines everything else.

“It’s always about winning. People pay attention to the win/loss,” Grove says. “I think our success has had everything to do with winning.”


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