October 25, 2013 in City

Shawn Vestal: Public shares blame for smear tactics in campaigns

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

And so we come to another election season when we are asked to consider: Whose interests are “special”? And whose are simple, pure, virtuous and just?

Just kidding. We’re not asked to consider it – i.e., think about it – in any way whatsoever. We already know the answer: Our interests are simple, pure, virtuous and just. Theirs are special, and all that that implies.

Spokane is growing up, politically, which means more money and more odious nonsense on the airwaves. So we get developer-funded ads criticizing candidates for taking union money. And we get union-funded ads criticizing candidates for taking developers’ money. Neither side seems to see anything contradictory in this. It’s just the snake swallowing its tail.

We’ve even gotten, from the mayor-backed group doing its seedy takedown on Jon Snyder and Candace Mumm, a developer-paid ad insinuating darkly that Snyder and Mumm took money from developers. Followed in fairly short order by an ad that casts that ad in the same shadowy fashion – grainy video, doomsday voice.

An ad against an ad.

One would be tempted to call this cycle the height of hypocrisy, except that, in this realm, it is only the middle of hypocrisy. The mean. We expect, and accept, and – some of us – pay for this hypocrisy, whose terms are explicitly other-than-truthful.

Mayor David Condon himself, in a recent radio interview, protested the notion that there was anything unusually nasty in the heated City Council races, and the amount of money involved, and the amount of distortion and smear.

It’s just normal, he said. It’s just Halloween.

Well. Condon is surely right about this type of thing being common in politics, and negativity is not unheard of in city politics. But these types of ads have not been common in City Council races, and for that he bears responsibility for the first shot across the bow.

He and his chief lieutenant, city administrator Theresa Sanders, have inserted themselves more prominently and directly in this election than any similar officials in recent memory. Sanders has given money to Michael Cannon; Condon’s re-election campaign chief runs the PAC that contributed the most money for the ads against Snyder and Mumm, which try mightily, using all the techniques of cheeseball politics, to tar them as tax-raisers and union whores.

Typically, politicians distance themselves from this muck, hiding behind the integrity-laundering operation of political action committees – while “liking” their opponent on Facebook. Not Condon. He’s owning it. In a recent radio interview, he defended the attack ads on Snyder and Mumm – and left no question about whether he had a hand in it.

“We don’t focus on the people,” he said about the ad. “We focus on the policy.”

This is a dubious assertion, but give him credit for owning the smear. One wonders what kind of cooperation he can expect, if he cares about that kind of thing, if everything doesn’t go his way on Election Day.

The City Council races are interesting, and they’re important in terms of how the city’s government will operate. If a liberal majority takes over – if Snyder keeps his seat against John Ahern and Mumm beats Cannon – the mayor will have a much harder row to hoe, legislatively. If Cannon or Ahern win, the mayor will have the same more or less reliable majority he has now. In some quarters, this has been described as “balance.”

So of course the races have attracted big spenders – horseflies to cow pies. And they have adopted the intense partisan spirit of the rest of our politics, despite the pretenses of nonpartisanship. The same thing is happening across the border in Coeur d’Alene, where candidates are using Saint Ronald Reagan and the Dark Lord Barack Obama to tear down their opponents in the battle for who will sit on the City Council and vote on parks and police.

This is a double-barreled problem, despite each side’s ability to be blind to it; it is comical to see unions present themselves as mere disinterested individuals in the community, when they have a clear compensation stake in the elections. The lockstep relationship between unions and Democrats ought to be no less concerning – if you see money and power and influence distorting democracy – than that between developers and Republicans.

But it is also true that each side and its money represents more than just the special interest. And it is true that the pit we find ourselves in – sharing alternative versions of the same world, seeing only demons and angels in our political battles – grows from a very simple, very fertile soil: The failure to grant the other person the assumption of good faith.

This kind of campaigning has a lot to do with that. The people who pay for it, and the candidates who profit from it, have a lot to do with it. The string-pullers who pretend this is mere accountability – who pretend they do not distort facts into arguable assertions – have a lot to do with it.

But this manure apparently works, so it’s our fault, too, those of us it works on. Otherwise, the groups with so much money to spend – those special, special folks – would spend it in some other way.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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