Joseph J. Napolitan

Joseph J. Napolitan
Family photo

Joseph J. Napolitan

Joseph J. Napolitan, a longtime Edgartown seasonal resident from Springfield who rose to national and later international prominence as a political consultant, a term he helped coin, died on December 2 in Agawam. He was 84.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Martha Cownap said.

In a lengthy obituary published December 9, the New York Times described Mr. Napolitan as a “campaign consultant whose use of polling and media advertising heralded the rise of independent strategists like himself and the waning power of party organizations in the management of American political campaigns.”

Mr. Napolitan’s story is rooted in the American dream. The son of Italian immigrants, Pasquale (Patsy) and Lucy Anzolotti Napolitan, immigrants who had arrived separately from the town of Bagolino in northern Italy, he was born on March 6, 1929, at home on Plymouth Street in Springfield.

He was only 7, and his sister Peggy only 4, when their father died. The family pulled together and at an early age, Mr. Napolitan understood the value of work and study.

Following high school, Joe Napolitan joined the Army and was stationed in Guam, where he made a library in his tent. He also attended secretarial school in the army, where he learned to be a fast typist, a skill he put to use.

He attended college at American International College and later worked for the Springfield newspapers at night, first in the sports department and then as a news reporter. He met Mary Nelen, a social worker, and they married in 1952.

Their first child, Mary, died during childbirth, so Joe took his wife on a long trip to Europe to help her recover. There he wrote stories about the places they visited and sent them to be published in papers back home. After a few months they ran out of money and returned home.

In 1956 Joe quit the newspapers and opened an advertising office in Springfield. His first political client, Tom O’Connor, was running for mayor as an underdog. He won. “Joe enjoyed helping good politicians get elected, and he was good at it,” his daughter said. So good that it would become a career.

He worked for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1964, and helped Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey stage an 11th-hour comeback that almost put him in the White House in 1968, the New York Times reported.

Two upset victories helped Mr. Napolitan seal his reputation as a master of the long shot, according to his obituary in The New York Times In 1966, he helped the independently wealthy Milton J. Shapp win an insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania against Robert P. Casey Sr., a state senator favored by the party establishment. In 1968, in a Democratic primary in Alaska, Mr. Napolitan helped Mike Gravel unseat Ernest Gruening, a popular United States senator.

In both races, Mr. Napolitan’s use of weekly polls to fine-tune his candidates’ media messaging, almost unheard-of at the time, was considered decisive.

Mr. Napolitan’s innovation and independence from party hierarchy made him an exemplar of a new kind of politics in the late 1960s. The New York Times described him in a 1968 profile as “that newest American phenomenon, the professional campaign manager.”

The campaign consultant’s job, he wrote in his 1972 book “The Election Game and How to Win It,” which became a primer for candidates and campaign professionals, was to practice “the art of communicating a candidate’s message directly to the voter without filtering it through the party organization.”

He was among the first consultants to argue that voting is, more often than not, based on gut feelings. “Decide what you want the voter to feel or how you want him to react,” he advised candidates. “Then decide what you must do to make him react the way you want.”

He ended up advising over 100 democratic clients in the U.S. He also worked for Valerie Giscard D’Estaing, the president of France, and the heads of state of Costa Rica, the Sudan, the Philippines, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mauritius, among others. He convinced Oscar Arias of Costa Rica to make “Peace” the theme of his presidential campaign, and Mr. Arias later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1968, Joe and his friend Michel Bongrand from Paris formed the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) to promote ethical campaigning and democracy. He also founded the American Association of Political Consultants.

Despite his fame and fortune, he remained generous, approachable, and modest, friends remembered. He chatted with presidents as easily as cashiers.

Joe first visited the Island by seaplane in 1954 while working as a reporter for the Springfield Union on an assignment to cover hurricane damage to the Cape and Islands. he remarked to the photographer that Martha’s Vineyard looked like a nice place to take his wife, Mary.

In 1961, he and his family enjoyed a summer vacation in a little camp on Lobsterville Beach. He rented every summer after that. In 1970, he spent most weekends in a rented house in Edgartown working on his first book, “The Election Game.”

He purchased his longtime summer home on Cooke Street in Edgartown in 1971, where he installed his family for the summer. Although his work took him away most weeks, he made a point of spending August on the Vineyard where he entertained many family members and friends from all over the world.

He was a fixture at 3:30 pm every afternoon at Helios restaurant, now Among the Flowers, in Edgartown where he enjoyed having a cup of coffee and visiting with his dear friend Lucia Evans (later Moffett), after which he would often shop at his favorite store, Sundog, on Main Street for a new hat or one of his signature sherbert-colored sweaters.

Long hours spent on the back porch of the family house with a good book and a cigar followed by a quick trip to Edgartown Seafood for fresh fish and a stop at Morning Glory Farm for vegetables — Joe was a pretty good cook — was the respite he needed from his high-powered career.

Even after Alzheimer’s robbed him of most of his short-term memory, he retained his character. Once in recent years he was in a grocery store, and saw an old woman walking out with a couple of bags. He held the door for her, and said, “Can I help you with those?” Even after he forgot most things, he still remembered kindness.

Mr. Napolitan is survived by his daughter Christina Napolitan of West Tisbury and her daughters, Lucy Savage and Mary Sage Clinton Napolitan, his son Luke Napolitan of Longmeadow, and his daughter Martha and her husband, Ben Cownap, of Kimberton, Penn., and their children, Francis, Clara, and Diggory.

He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Napolitan, and son, Jay Napolitan.

He was buried on December 7, 2013 at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Springfield.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Napolitan Scholarship Fund, ℅ American International College, 1000 State Street, Springfield, MA 01109.