October 29, 2010 in City

Vestal: All the mud a million bucks can sling

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Chris Marr really opposes negative ads. He says he’s been the victim of “hit pieces” by his opponent. He says that his political campaign for the state Senate ought to be about the issues.

“The public deserves better than what we’ve seen so far,” Marr said in a KSPS debate not long ago.

Michael Baumgartner really opposes negative ads. He says he’s been the victim of “hit pieces” by his opponent. He says that his political campaign for the Senate ought to be about the issues.

“The public does deserve better,” Baumgartner agreed. “This campaign should absolutely be about the issues.”

Yes, yes. The public does deserve better.

If only someone could give it to them.

Marr, the Democratic incumbent, and Baumgartner, the new-to-town Republican, are going to spend more than a million dollars in their battle for the 6th District seat, not counting money from “interest groups.” It’s the biggest legislative mudfight in the state.

And look what we get for the money: a magnificent stream of mire.

Both are heading into the last days of the campaign with TV commercials accusing the other of running an unscrupulous campaign. Ah, yes – the vital issues: Who went negative first? Who was more negative than the other? Whose negativity was just tough politics and whose was an affront to the history of civilization?

Just what the public deserves.

These ads – stamped from the same template of grainy photos, ominous voice-overs and pure manure – leave us with the impression that our only choice here is between the lesser of two weasels. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s no thanks to the candidates.

Marr and Baumgartner might say that’s unfair. Marr argues that unrestrained and unreported outside money, long a problem but now truly rampant, is corrupting the system. Once a negative accusation emerges, he says, he has to respond.

“Do I wish the system was different? That there wasn’t a million dollars (raised by candidates) in a legislative race and maybe a half-million in independent expenditures? Sure,” he said.

But he said if he doesn’t respond, it’s like playing by the Marquess of Queensbury rules when your opponent is playing in World Wrestling Entertainment.

Baumgartner makes a similar argument: self-defense. He says the Marr campaign has lied and misrepresented his record. “You have to refute it,” he said.

He agrees that this element of the campaign season can be discouraging, but notes that there are other, more substantive ways to get information.

“The most important thing is for citizens to pay attention, not just in an election year but every year,” he said. “The more informed the citizens are, the less effective those ads are.”

Fine points, all around. And yet, the bottom line for both of them seems to be: It’s not my fault.

Isn’t it somebody’s fault? Besides the other guy’s?

I like one of these candidates better than the other, but I’m not here to make an endorsement. I’m here to register a futile complaint. A wish that our politics weren’t so stupid.

Baumgartner’s side probably still holds a slight lead in the sleazefest, based on an anti-Marr ad paid for by one of the gutless anonymous “interest” groups that do the dirty work these days. That ad tried to paint Marr as a sexual harasser for settling a lawsuit involving a former employee of his. Even the woman who sued has denounced it.

The ad appeared a couple weeks ago, and Marr was justifiably angered by it. Since then, though, he has gone after that ad with an outsized vengeance, most recently taking out an ad attacking the ad.

It was, he said, an outrage.

Well … yeah. But you know that clear, bright line? It’s hard to see it under the deluge of mud.

Both of these guys have said things that were not true about the other. Both have taken great liberties in describing their opponent’s “stands.” Both have implied things about the other that simply cannot be implied honestly.

The ads aren’t all there is to the campaign, of course. You can watch debates online, there is good coverage at this newspaper’s website, and there is issue-oriented material from the campaigns themselves.

But what the candidates choose to bring to you most prominently – what they spend tons of money to bring right into your home and put in your lap – has nothing at all to do with the issues.

A million bucks. If only there was something of social value that could be purchased with that money. Some need that might be met. Just anything at all. …

There’s another legislative battle here in Spokane, one whose contenders you haven’t seen all that much on the boob tube. One whose ads haven’t required a constant policing of facts by the newspaper. A Democratic incumbent and a Republican challenger. There’s a lot at stake in that one too. It isn’t some Mayberry pie-eating contest.

It’s John Driscoll versus John Ahern. Sixth District House seat.

The Marr-Baumgartner race could pay for the Battle of the Johns three times over.

And yet for the public – remember the noble, deserving public? – it’s been worth so much less.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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