ATTACK ADS: An Exercise in Democracy?

Posted In: Politics, State, Local,   From Issue 625   By: Mike Thompson

02nd November, 2006     0

Democrat Carl Williams is shown with sexual predators because he allegedly opposed putting their photos on a state computer registry.

Republican Dr. Roger Kahn is portrayed over a cartoon skeleton's operating table because he supposedly would not hold drug companies liable for dangerous medicines.
Kahn could care less about the working poor. Williams would let terrorists run free. Just watch TV.

So what's going on in this nasty 32nd District State Senate bloodbath in Saginaw & Gratiot counties?

This is a million dollar-plus swing district that could determine whether Republicans manage to repel a Democratic challenge for Senate control.

And based on this campaign and others, attack ads in 2006 apparently are as prevalent as ever.

He Said, She Said

When Review ventured a month ago to interview Williams & Kahn for an in-depth Q & A format, the attack ads had barely started. "Real issues" were the focus. You can still find their words of wisdom on the website.

An opening 32nd District campaign ad portrayed Williams as a big spender who opposed lifting the Single Business Tax. It was sponsored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Typical stuff. Sort of nasty in that the chamber didn't explain that Williams simply wanted to know how the tax-cutters would accommodate the $1.9 billion revenue loss. But tame in today's game.

Quickly it started to get rough. Here appeared Dr. Kahn on videotape with a stethoscope, the cardiologist checking a little girl's heart rate. Williams was shown in a still photo looking downward, seemingly in shame. Why? The ads tell us Williams opposed putting the perverts' photos on the sex registry. The announcer intones: "Dr. Roger Kahn protects children. Carl Williams protects predators. Whose side are you on?"

Then came another ad. Kr. Kahn again has a stethoscope, but this time it's a cartoon and he sort of looks like a bobble head. He has his hand near the wrist of the patient, but the patient is a skeleton. Is this foolish doctor trying to take the skeleton's pulse? Maybe so, because we're told Kahn opposes holding drug companies accountable for the flawed medications that created this corpse.

Ok, so let's stop here. Kahn spoke promptly to The Review, while Williams delayed and deferred mostly to his campaign manager, David Randels.

The sex predator spot against Williams?

"When I saw the advertisement, I agreed that it was factual but I objected to the tone," states Kahn. "It was produced by Citizens for Roger Kahn, which is actually an outside group. My organization is Friends of Roger Kahn. I had no part of that advertisement's production. I contacted the group responsible and posed my objections, more than once. They told me if I objected, they would pull not only that advertisement, but all support for me. I thought about what I should do."

"But at the same time, Carl shows me turning patients into skeletons," he continues. "So where is HIS disapproval? Maybe that ad wasn't done exactly as I would have done it, but in the end I decided that I should go with it because I believe I'm right on this issue and I believe I would make a better senator than Carl Williams."

"For Kahn to say he's not responsible for that ad is a complete farce," counters Randels. "That's HIS campaign. They show him in his doctor's office, examining the little girl, which had to be pre-arranged. How could he say that was done without his permission? If he says he objects to the tone of the ad, well if he doesn't have enough pull within his own Republican Party to stop them from running that ad, how can he be expected to protect the people of Saginaw? Carl Williams has voted to keep sexual predators locked up and to prevent them from working with kids, whether it's volunteering or in day care, or in any circumstances."        

The skeleton ad against Kahn?

It was submitted by the Coalition for Progress, sponsored by billionaire Jon Stryker of Kalamazoo. He is liberal and until now has foremost spoken out as an advocate for gay and transsexual rights. He was made wealthy because his grandfather, Homer Stryker, was an orthopedic doctor who invented the mobile hospital bed. The Detroit Free Press reports that the coalition, a new layer in politics, is spending $2.3 million this fall for 70,000 cable television attack ads that feature mock opera and cartoon Republican elephants against the backdrop of a Michigan map.

"That ad against Kahn is sponsored by an independent group on the other side of the state," says Randles. "I was as surprised as you when I saw that ad. It says right on the screen that the coalition is not affiliated with any political candidate. (Williams later would not comment on the skeleton ad, and said questions about it amounted to "badgering" him.)

"The ad is ludicrous, constructed to represent trial lawyers who would like to remove any of the little protection that the drug companies may have," notes Kahn. "The truth of the matter is that I have supported legislation that would allow the companies to be sued if: 1) There was fraud in their initial presentation to the FDA; and, 2) They fail to reveal any problems that may occur after the FDA approval; and, 3) They fail to reveal all marketing with doctors. I also have supported a requirement for prescription drug prices to be posted in pharmacies, and supported the import of pharmaceuticals from Canada for lower prices. Those positions certainly are not all popular with the drug companies."

On and On and On

The passages we have just reviewed reflect only the opening shots.
Since then the Williams campaign has produced a TV spot that states, "Roger Kahn is lying about Carl Williams." The narrator says Williams actually is tough on crime, but does not specifically deny the vote against sex registry photos.

Williams' backers state that Kahn voted against a higher state minimum wage. Kahn answers that he backed the final bill for a hike, and opposed earlier amendments only because the Democrats attached them in all-or-nothing packages with other issues. This complaint - that legislators must vote on multiple issues at once - is frequent on both sides.

In the latest round, a Kahn ad invokes the aftermath of 9/11. Kahn's campaign states that Williams opposed mandatory no-parole life sentences for terrorist criminals and opposed a driver license ban for illegal aliens, concluding, "We can't trust his judgment." Williams within a day prepared a response ad: "Roger Kahn is using the 9/11 tragedy to score political points, and it's despicable�I'll never play politics with a tragedy like 9/11."

So do the campaigns agree on anything at all? Seems not.

"I expected to have a civil debate with Carl Williams regarding our respective views on how to make Michigan a better state. Instead, it has degenerated into negative advertising. But I will say, the fundamental difference is that the facts put out by our campaign are correct. The facts put out by Carl Williams are not correct."

"If you paid any attention to the initial TV ads and the literature drops, you will see that I came out positive," counters Williams. "My opponent's campaign came out of the box negative. However, I am not going to let anyone attack my character without fighting back. I will make it clear that I will not tolerate it, and then I will move on."

Blast From the Past

In our interviews, we also looked for insight from other sources. And so we reflect on an anecdote from the GOP's Mike Goschka, removed by term limits, whom either Kahn or Williams will replace. The story is 14-years old, but applies to today's upheaval.

It's 1992. Goschka is a Dow Corning forklift driver, green in political experience but red-hot with enthusiasm. He is challenging the Democratic incumbent Lew Dodak for a state House of Representatives seat. Statewide Republicans see Dodak as vulnerable - a wasteful spender - so they feed dollars and advisors into Goschka's campaign. One among the deluge of TV spots states: "In Lansing, Lew Dodak sits in a $10,000 chair." Unstated is that this is the ceremonial House Speaker's chair, restored in an historic renovation of the State Capitol.        

Dodak reels, his achievement in becoming Speaker transformed into a negative. Goschka scores a stunning upset.

"As far as the $10,000 chair," says Goschka nowadays, "I have thought about that many times over the years. I didn't really know what that chair was. The ad was an outside media ad. I may have referred to the $10,000 chair in a couple of my campaign stump speeches, but I was more comfortable with my own main theme, which was secrecy in the legislative budget."

"My first time actually inside the Capitol was December, 1992, not until after I was elected. Someone pointed at that chair and told me, 'You know what? That's the $10,000 chair.' That's first when I really understood."

And that's the closest a politician will come to a mea culpa in terms of attack ads, although Goschka still isn't apologizing as he returns to a private citizen's life after his maximum six years as a state rep and eight as a senator.

"In a Pollyanna-ish world, maybe you could try to say that you're just going to run positive ads," he says. "But if you do that, you'll probably end up losing, unless you are the runaway leader."

From the other side, a Democratic activist agrees.

"You're going to have to respond," says Rosa Holliday, known for her relentless door-to-door canvassing. "It's just like a fight. You have to protect yourself. It's the same with the ads. You can take the high road by still taking on the issues while you protect yourself, but you can't let a negative ad go unanswered."

Goschka acknowledges that 1992 was his baptism into major politics. The same as Goschka way back then, Kahn and Williams are having their first real experience with the outside experts - the 'pros' that help concoct the media messages.

Could this be influencing how Kahn & Williams are representing themselves? Or maybe in better words, could this be influencing how they have wound up being represented?
Goschka pleads for limits. "Certainly communicate your message, if you have a message; but when you do something like put an opponent's picture on a bobble head, that's meant to degrade. You should understand that when you maintain someone else's dignity, that's how you maintain your own dignity."

Why Not Try a 12-Point Plan?

A neutral observer is John Kaczynski, 26, director of SVSU's first-year Center for Politics & Public Policy. He reported for The Review some of the messages that he imparts to his young students.

"In the general terms of muckraking and mudslinging, recent studies have shown that negative campaigning has started to actually convey negative feels to voters," Kaczynski says.

He acknowledges that he is contradicting the political pros who repeatedly explain that voters are influenced by attack ads, even while claiming not to like them.

"The candidates and their immediate campaign workers are realizing that the negative ads can come back at them," Kaczynski says. "That's why most of these ads are produced by the special interests or the political parties themselves, who may not be as closely in touch."

"Of course, there still are cases in which the candidates welcome the outside ads. The candidates want the electorate to know all about the negatives regarding their opponents while at the same time being able to say, 'That's not my campaign. I'm not funding it.' But people should realize, the central political party usually will talk over an ad with the candidate before they run it. And if a candidate calls a special interest group and asks the group to kill an ad, the interest group usually will take it down."

He insists that in Kahn vs. Williams, the candidate who chooses the higher road - even while perceiving an attack by the other - could gain an edge that would surprise the outside campaign consultants.

"The problem with all these negative ads is that they don't address or hardly address what the candidate would do when they get in office."

"In this year's whole campaign, I haven't seen a single positive 'slam dunk' political ad, and ad that illustrates something like a 12-point plan for the first 90 days in office."   

"I haven't seen a single one."


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