News

As election nears, direct mail misleads

As the June primary nears, voters’ mailboxes across the state are filling up
with campaign propaganda. But some of these pieces of direct mail, long a
staple of political campaigns, aren’t completely on the up and up. Some are
downright untruthful.

“More and more consultants don’t even care whether mail is truthful or not,”
said former GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum, who is now an elections
analyst. “They only care that the mail works.”

With gerrymandered districts that tend to favor one political party, almost
every legislative seat in the state will be decided in the upcoming June
primary. The powers of incumbency, combined with districts’ heavy partisan
registration advantages, ensure that vast majority of June victors will
serve in Sacramento for the next several years.

Such high-stakes elections have set the stage for some serious mudslinging.
Accusations of malfeasance and misleading voters are flying in the Los
Angeles-area Senate race pitting Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach,
against former Assemblyman George Nakano, D-Torrance.

Nakano’s first mailer of the campaign contained a checklist of his
accomplishments, both in and out of the Legislature. One bullet point was,
“Own children attended local public schools.” Nakano had a check; Oropeza
did not.

Problem is, Oropeza doesn’t have children.

“I have never seen anything like that in my life. You have got to know that
you are going to offend people,” said Oropeza’s campaign consultant Parke
Skelton. “It is kind of hard to send nonexistent children to public school.”

Three more bullet points on the Nakano checklist tout bills that the former
Assemblyman supported to test student performance, make schools safer and
provide money for English language classes. Oropeza did not vote for any of
those measures, the mailer intones. But all those bills came to a vote in
1999 and 2000–before Oropeza was ever elected to the Assembly.

“That was pretty appalling,” says Skelton.

But the Oropeza campaign has sent out its own piece that Team Nakano has
condemned. In it, Oropeza attacks Nakano for voting “NO” on SB 5, which she
describes as voting “not to protect low-income neighborhoods from toxic and
polluting industries.” But SB 5 covered a different topic altogether–and was
a bill that Nakano supported.

“It was a typo. I just screwed it up,” said Skelton, who produced the
mailer, saying the real bill was SB 89.

But the Nakano campaign wasn’t done. It turns out that Nakano didn’t vote
“NO” on SB 89, he didn’t vote at all–because he was hospitalized. At the
time, Nakano had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had surgery to
remove the tumor only months later.

“As a cancer survivor herself, one would think that Ms. Oropeza would have
the integrity not to make scurrilous attacks against other cancer
survivors,” said Nakano consultant Gale Kaufman. “Sadly, that is not the
case here.”

Camp Oropeza contends that Nakano voted on the day in question, and that
there was no way of knowing in advance that he was hospitalized.

Days later, a missive from Nakano’s campaign accused Oropeza of taking
“political grandstanding to a whole new level,” after she touted the passage
of her Fair-Campaign Pledge bill out of the Assembly. The bill makes more
public the list of candidates who pledge to run “clean” campaigns.

And all that direct-mail commotion is from a single legislative race.

In the Central Valley’s 25th Assembly District race, GOP hopeful Bill Conrad
sent out what many observers are calling the nastiest hit piece in recent
memory, attacking primary opponent Tom Berryhill for having a heart
transplant.

“Tom Berryhill doesn’t have the HEART for State Assembly,” reads the
headline. In a smaller font, the mailer notes that the “average lifespan of
a heart transplant recipient is 7 years,” then goes on to say that
“Berryhill’s transplant was six years ago.”

Berryhill himself was dismayed by the piece.

“Conrad showed his lack of honor and dignity by producing a mailer that is
false, distasteful and hurtful to my family and to so many others,” he said.
“This type of negative campaigning really keeps some good candidates from
running for office.”

The heart transplant smear is not the only questionable part of the mailer.
“Truth 1” on the backside says that Berryhill only moved into the 25th
district after losing another election in the 26th district. That’s
technically true, but Berryhill moved before the 2001 redistricting, meaning
he didn’t enter into the district until after the lines were drawn around
his new home.

“I don’t know what he is talking about,” said Berryhill spokesman Bob
Phelan. “Unfortunately, he is delusional. Conrad is a desperate candidate
and he is going to lose.”

Back in Los Angeles, in the crowded primary in the 41st Assembly District,
Democratic candidate Barry Groveman put out a mailer with a picture of
himself in front of a podium with a Sierra Club logo. “Groveman joins Sierra
Club in opposing LNG plant,” reads the caption.

But the Sierra Club endorsed Groveman’s opponent, Kelly Hayes-Raitt. And
Groveman signed an agreement to not use the logo with the club’s approval.
Howard Strauss, chair of the Sierra Club’s state political committee, sent a
letter to Groveman denouncing the “misleading and improper use of the Sierra
Club name and logo.”

Hayes-Raitt said the mailer undermines the public trust. “Here we have a man
who is a lawyer and certainly understands the law,” she said. “And he
explicity violates an agreement he has with the Sierra Club. That undermines
my trust in him.”

Hoffenblum, who specialized in direct mail when he ran campaigns, says the
increasing negativity of mail pieces–and the decreasing reliability of the
information presented, are hurting campaigns.

“[Mail] is becoming more shrill and as a result it is losing credibility,”
he said. “The effective hit piece is the exception, not the rule.”


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