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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sonoma County Politics: Democrats vs. Democrats

Negative Campaigning:
Democrat vs. Democrat

By Stephen Gale

This election year is turning nasty. But they always do.

In partisan races, one expects to hear the Republican front-runner for governor referred to by Democratic Party leadership as "An empty suit," even if the empty suit is named Meg Whitman. Unfortunately, this year the derogatory innuendo, half-truths, lies and damn lies told in negative campaign advertising is spilling over into both local non-partisan political races where all contenders are Democrats as well as the Democratic Primary races.

In the 2nd Senatorial District race, a candidate started this year's round of mudslinging with an eight-page press release targeting Noreen Evans, the presumptive front-runner and endorsed candidate of the California Democratic Party. In the 7th Assembly District, the presumptive front-runner and endorsed candidate of the CDP, Michael Allen, has been similarly targeted by the former campaign manager of one of his two opponents, who left that candidate’s staff before starting a negative campaign that extends to the halls of the state legislature. Stories in the press point to similar “hardball” tactics in a hotly contested District Attorney’s election. Recent articles cite more "softball" mudslinging in the 4th Supervisorial District race, and it seems likely there may be a little mud thrown in the 2nd Supervisorial District before June 8 arrives.

In some races, there are certainly going to be Independent Expenditure committees that will slam one or more of our endorsed candidates and perhaps others who did not receive the local party endorsement. Although the names attached to an IE are often difficult to find, some prominent Democrats -- names you would certainly recognize -- will be contributing to IE's as large-dollar donors or be personally active in their operations.

In the race for the 3rd Judicial Seat, Jamie Thistlethwaite, the candidate endorsed by the Sonoma County Democratic Party, has been attacked for errors made by the local party and false statements made to the local press by some Central Committee and/or local Democratic club members, and in one case the person quoted in the Press Democrat took the cowardly approach of remaining anonymous.

As the Chair of the local party, I made the decision not to respond vigorously to the initial attack against Ms. Thistlethwaite. However, during the League of Women Voters debate on Monday evening (at approximately 45 minutes elapsed time), her opponent chose to continue his smear campaign by making a false statement that also impugns the integrity of the local party's endorsement process, and on that point, I could not remain silent.

The candidate not endorsed stated, "her campaign chair sat on and participated in discussions" that resulted in the recommendation to the Central Committee to endorse Jamie Thistlethwaite. It appears, from a close review of the video on the Press Democrat website, that he claims the party allowed a “campaign chair” to sit on an interview committee, and that was the clear impression left with every member of the Central Committee who was present at the Glaser Center Monday night.

In fact, Patrick Band (Ms. Thistlethwaite's so-called “campaign chair”) notified both the Chair of the Candidate Search and Development Committee and the Chair of the Central Committee of his selection immediately following being hired by the campaign. He was not a member of the interview committee; he did not participate in discussions and did not vote during the endorsement vote at any time during the endorsement process. On the night the Central Committee endorsed Ms. Thistlethwaite, Mr. Band was not even in the room when the discussion took place.

I sent an open letter to approximately 3,000 Democrats who have supported the local party or been active as volunteers over the years in response to the unendorsed candidate’s false statements. In the public statement, the local party also reaffirmed our strong support for Jamie Thistlethwaite.

Nonetheless, I took no pleasure in having to make such a public statement.

For nearly the last year, I have urged Democrats running in both partisan and non-partisan races to engage in fair and positive campaigns that focus on the real issues we face. However, it is a hard-sell for some candidates who fear they may lose. In addition, it is easier to make hay with negative information than to gain column inches of coverage in the press by sticking to the issues that will affect our collective future.

As Gary Galles wrote in Capitol Weekly, "Reality is complex, but appropriately selected half-truths are simple and easier to ‘sell’ to voters paying limited attention." If the candidate being attacked has a long public record, the strategy of negative campaigning can be more appealing, as well, because, as Galles points out, ”Politics also involves compromise, and taken out of context, any compromise provides fodder for attacks that a candidate has abandoned principle."

It is especially tragic when negative campaign tactics are applied in a Democrat vs. Democrat race because it hinders our ability to work together in the future by creating personal animosity or more deeply held emotional reactions that, for some people, may never heal.

In his historically accurate blog article, titled “George Brown vs. John Tunney – the campaign that killed the Democratic Party,” Bob Kholos recounts the events leading up to what has been recognized as the first negative campaign in a California Democratic Primary. He notes the impact of distortions and misstatements on the morale and enthusiasm of the body politic. Near the end of the article, he expands the theme to an observation that transcends party lines in the rhetorical statement, "No wonder why people are turned off to politics."

Yet, as we all know, this election year is turning nasty. But they always do.

When you cast your vote, I urge you to consider whether you are being unduly influenced by negative campaign tactics. I urge you to vote for the candidate who most closely aligns with your values and who supports your point of view on the issues.

Stephen Gale is the Chair of the Sonoma County Democratic Party and a member of the Executive Board of the California Democratic Party.

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