Toxic Political Ads Scorch, Spur Defamation Suit
Political attack ads go with the territory of running for office. But as Amanda Vinicky reports, one candidate says a new ad crosses the line. And he's suing over it.
It was 50 years ago last month that a new type of campaign commercial aired -- one devised to make President Lyndon Johnson's opponent look bad, rather than to extol his own virtues.
"Daisy" only aired once, it was so controversial: the scene of a girl pulling petals off a flower crossed into one of an exploding bomb. That commercial changed the political landscape.
Any inhibitions campaigns may have had in 1964 have long since vanished. Now, negative ads are the norm.
Let's begin with two TV ads -- one each from the two men duking it out to be Illinois' next governor. As he's the incumbent, we'll start with one from Pat Quinn:
"Bruce Rauner's healthcare company, APS, was caught by the FBI defrauding taxpayers and cheating patients. Rauner's company had to pay a $13 million settlement. The U.S. Attorney said Rauner's company took Medicaid's money for itself and left some of our most vulnerable citizens without the aide they deserve."
There's a harsher one, too, that tries to more directly tie Rauner to deaths at nursing homes, paid for by union members who support Quinn; but we'll get back to that soon. First, the ad Rauner just came out with:
"They were just children, our most vulnerable. With their whole lives ahead. Tragically, senselessly, from abuse, neglect, while in the care of Pat Quinn's administration," a narrator says over spooky music.
Voters may well be left feeling like they have choose to choose between a man responsible for the deaths of children, or a man responsible for the deaths of old people.
"It's all about making your opponent unelectable, and Rauner is a vulture capitalist, elitist, whatever, and Quinn is a criminal mastermind, and a bumbling fool, all at the same time. And it's just ... uh. It's really appalling."
That's Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois Springfield political scientist who says the race has gotten nastier than he's seen in his many years studying campaigns here.
Still, he's never known an Illinois candidate to do what first-term State Rep. Scott Drury has done in his bid for re-election.
Drury, a Democrat from the North Shore, has filed a defamation lawsuit in Cook County court.
Drury says an ad that aired on cable TV, as well as a campaign mailer sent to his constituents, lied. They claim he supports legislation that would lead to cuts in state funding to his local schools, when Drury says he's against the plan.
"But it goes beyond that. I mean there's allegation -- it's not an allegation -- one of the mailers states that 'Scott Drury supports defunding our schools so that party bosses will fund his campaign'. Now that's an allegation of a quid pro quo, which could be an allegation of criminal conduct. And absolutely - there's absolutely no truth to that," he said Tuesday.
Drury says as an attorney who used to prosecute criminals, being accused of a crime could destroy his reputation. He says that takes it beyond fair political play, and makes it defamation.
"It's a sad day when people say this is just how it is in politics, so shouldn't you just go along with it?" Drury said.
Drury's lawsuit seeks $9 million in damages from his Republican opponent, Mark Neerhof, conservative radio host Dan Proft, and Proft's political action committee, Liberty Principles PAC.
Neerhof's campaign manager Mick Paskiewicz says he never authorized any material relating to that particular school funding bill. Which would make sense -- candidates' and third-party PACs aren't supposed to coordinate under campaign finance laws. Proft didn't immediately respond to a call seeking comment, but he's been quoted as calling the lawsuit "frivolous."
"Scott Drury's natural response to any challenge is to file a lawsuit. Scott Drury filed this lawsuit because he knows he's an embattled incumbent who needs to distract voters form the fact that he has taken nearly a quarter of a million dollars from PACS controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan," Paskiewicz said. "Our campaign will carry on with our positive message, that has gained traction throughout the district, and we do not, and will not, tell outside groups groups what to do, and not to do."
That the lawsuit comes just weeks before the election, as he's trying to prevent Madigan from holding onto a veto-proof majority, has not gone unnoticed by House Minority Leader, Jim Durkin.
Durkin says Drury needs to grow a thicker skin.
"Our campaigns, they are not gentlemens' duels, let's be perfectly honest with you. But the fact is, to say that you're going to run to the courthouse every time somebody says something which they don't like ... to me it just shows somebody who's just not ready for prime time, to be in Springfield," Durin said.
Durkin says his candidates are consistently the subject of unflattering brochures, paid for by Madigan's multi-pronged fundraising apparatus. Durkin says most offensive to him are mailers that accuse Republican incumbents of opposing funding for rape crisis centers, just because Republicans voted against an out-of-balance state budget.
"It's just horrible. It's not stretching the truth. It's lies," Durkin said. "But we're not going to go to court. We're going to go out and talk to people in the district, to the local press."
It's not clear Drury's strategy of going to court to stop attack ads will work; a federal judge last month struck down an Ohio law that made it illegal to publish or broadcast "a false statement" about a candidate's voting record.
The judge in that case wrote that "we do not want the government ... deciding what is political truth." That's for voters to decide, he wrote.
UIS political scientist Kent Redfield says voters generally don't want to hear the truth.
"The truth is so bad," he said. "I mean if you really are going to honestly discuss what the state's problems are, and what the possible solutions, are, then ... I mean ... If you promise people that you will deliver painful budget cuts and tax increases, you're telling the truth, but it's not a very good campaign slogan."
And if you can't talk about the issues, he says, all that's left is to hammer your opponent with the dirt campaign consultants have dug up.
Redfield says thanks to the Internet, there's plenty of it. And outside PACs have unlimited funds to spread it around.
He says all of that negativity is enough to make voters so cynical, they don't even try to distinguish what's true and what's not.
"It's so toxic when you get these wise-guy, outside consultants with unlimited money and unlimited technology, that are just, you know, scored-earth kind of campaigns, and then the day after the election, they're on the campaign to California, and everybody else is left in Illinois trying to pick up the pieces."
To the election victor will go those spoils.