Kenton County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann sat in the Crestview Hills Panera last June ready to make a move for the Judge-Executive's seat. He had a meeting scheduled there with a young political strategist itching to get back on the campaign trail after spending his recent college years there.
Twenty minutes into their meeting Knochelmann not only hired Shane Noem to be his campaign manager but the pair already had a press release drafted announcing the candidate's entry into the race.
Eleven months later, the once overmatched underdog Knochelmann cruised to victory in the Republican primary over incumbent Kenton County Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus. With no challenger expected in November, Noem has now helped place his second candidate into an important office.
"It was kind of surreal," said Noem, 25, of the pace of the development of his professional relationship with Knochelmann. The two immediately got to work in a campaign that saw their opponent eventually raise nearly $200,000 compared to their roughly $80,000.
Noem said the best weapon their campaign had was Knochelmann. "As a candidate, he is second to none," he said. "Kris won for Kris. It wasn't me or volunteer. Kris made the difference."
The strategy involved an effort "to peak at the right time". That involved playing on Knochelmann's strengths and Arlinghaus's weaknesses, allowing the right information to come out at the right time, Noem said.
"Kris's strengths were so strong we were able to defend them," he said. "Any attack against him as a numbers guy fell on deaf ears. He has an accounting degree and he runs a business."
The Knochelmann-Arlinghaus race was a bitter one, a campaign that occasionally spilled into regular Fiscal Court meetings where the two butted heads over budgetary items, how and when to fund heroin treatment beds, and the governance of the CVG Airport Board where an examination of the board's spending practices by the State Auditor continues.
The Knochelmann campaign was often accused of being a negative one, a charge Noem rebukes.
"I don't think it was a negative campaign because it was all fact-based," Noem said. "It was a very tense campaign because you had two very passionate sides. We happily did not strike first in any situation. Anything we did was coming back against an attack against us."
"I think an attack from an incumbent against a challenger speaks volumes about how scared they were at the time."
But when Noem and Knochelmann attacked, they laid it on thick. The airport saga, laid out in a series of articles by The Cincinnati Enquirer, was a natural tool. Noem crafted a mail piece that looked like a passport detailing places that Arlinghaus had traveled. He also created the faux campaign website, Steve Arlinghaus Airlines, that hit the airport issue hard.
"There were a lot of tough conversations and topics that needed to be brought up and we did our best to bring those up in a light setting," Noem said. "If you can do it with a little bit of levity and put a smile on voters' faces, you can get away with a little more."
"If you can present it in an airline or a unique passport format, it suddenly becomes a little fun."
Knochelmann also discounts the negative claim. "When I first ran, I knew in this campaign that you have to uncover things that people would not necessarily like to see and I told myself that if I were not willing to put it in front of my own parents (in their eighties) or my wife who hates politics, I wouldn't put it out," he said.
Instead, Knochelmann welcomed Noem's creative strategies. "The thing about Shane is, because we believe in the same principles, we found a friendship which makes a campaign far greater," Knochelmann said. "Politics in general is not what I love. I love public service. The politics side is fun to listen to but it can be overwhelming and get dirty. Part of what Shane brings, he's got such a foundation: great parents, a great sense of work and what it takes to provide for yourself every day. The guy was a Boy Scout and worked there. He did all that great work on that side of it and gets into politics and there's not a lot of people who want to get into politics with that same foundation."
Noem wasn't going to get into politics at all. After graduating from Ryle High School near where he grew up on an organic farm in rural Boone County, Noem headed to Western Kentucky University to study photojournalism. "I thought I might be the next Ansel Adams or Eric Draper," he laughed.
But journalism classes at WKU were unexpectedly political among his fellow students. "I realized the industry was quite left of center. The students were overly opinionated and made no secret of it. It frustrated me to no end," he said. "I was attempting to be nonpartisan."
Unhappy, he said he swung in the opposite direction. He joined the College Republicans and served multiple years as Western's chapter president. He eventually added a second major: political science. His education in both photography and politics led to a senior thesis project that involved a photo series on western Kentucky Congressman Brett Guthrie.
But his unofficial senior thesis helped land Mike Wilson in the Kentucky State Senate. As a college senior in 2010, Noem managed Wilson's campaign to victory in a three-way Republican primary with more than 50% of the vote and then to unseating Democratic incumbent Mike Reynolds to represent the Bowling Green district.
"He was very instrumental for me, having never been involved in a campaign for myself, in keeping me on task and picking out the different communities where I needed to knock on door," Wilson said. "He was just on me all the time. Where are you knocking today?"
"He's the perfect guy because you just can't get mad at him but he is really on you to make sure you're doing what you need to be doing."
With a second victory now behind him, Noem isn't sure what's next but he is exploring his options. Both Knochelmann and Wilson suggest that he become a full-time political operative.
"He is such a hard worker and has such incredible knowledge about what you need to do, at such a young age, to win a race," Wilson said. "I said to him, you need to be doing this full-time. And especially after (Knochelmann) won. I sent him congratulations and said, you really need to be doing this full-time. Every time he's done it he's won the race."
Knochelmann called Noem "sharp" and "creative" and said that while he will not be extending a job offer at the county to his campaign manager, Noem will still help in an advisory role during the transition next year. Knochelmann thinks Noem should continue helping candidates win races.
"Anybody would be crazy not to want to partner with him but he's going to be able to pick and choose," Knochelmann said.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Knochelmann (left) and Noem on Primary Election Night/Waltz Photography (used with permission)