November 1, 2012 at 1:00 am

The Silly Season

As Election Day approaches, political mailers, TV ads sling mud and spend big in hopes of influencing Michigan voters

Republican Jase Bolger, left, is compared to ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in a Michigan Democratic Party mailer even though Kilpatrick is a Democrat. (Detroit News photo illustration)


Pedophiles, child pornographers and alleged crooks figure prominently in this year's campaign advertising, some of which is so low-brow and pervasive it astonishes even the experts.

Political observers blame changes in the law governing campaign finance for ever-escalating mudslinging that can foster animosity and resentment long after the elections are over.

"Given how intense it is, it has contributed to the atmosphere of incivility that we have seen in the legislative process, and the stalemates," said political advertising expert Rick Cole, professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University.

"When (politicians) have to come back into the legislative body and work out agreements that are needed — it makes everything about the process worse. You can't just laugh it off."

Seemingly all sides are guilty of using half-truths and innuendo to discredit opponents, or to link them with perverts or allegedly shady characters. Much of the spending doesn't have to be reported, so it's hard to know who's behind it. The frequency of the ads, already dizzying, is likely to increase between now and Election Day.

"We're probably going to see stuff that's going to curl our hair, and nobody is accountable," Cole said of the few days left in the run-up to Nov. 6. "Half the countries in the world are democracies and I don't know any of them that would allow this kind of uncontrolled spending."

Cole has been awed by the sheer volume of TV advertisements floated by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun in support of Proposal 6. Moroun has dumped $31.3 million into his Proposal 6 campaign to require statewide votes on tunnels and bridges to Canada, according to campaign finance reports. The proposal is meant to sideline Gov. Rick Snyder's plan for a publicly owned bridge, which Moroun's company contends would harm its lucrative border business.

"It's not so much the content of the advertising as the amount of it on the Ambassador Bridge," Cole said. "If the case is an honest one, why in the world would you have to spend so much money making it?"

Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger, who is under investigation by an Ingham County grand jury for his role in a foiled election-rigging campaign in Grand Rapids, has been likened to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in a Michigan Democratic Party mailer that asks "You play by the rules … shouldn't they?"

Forget the irony that Kilpatrick himself is a Democrat.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, in high-frequency TV ads warns that Proposal 2 on collective bargaining will create teaching opportunities for pedophiles, and let teachers drink on the job. The ads don't mention that unions, school boards and the courts would all have to agree to make that happen — an alignment many experts consider unfathomable.

"The wild alarmist pitches are a way to scare the voters that something radical has been placed on the table and they better vote no," said labor expert Mike Whitty, an adjunct professor in the business school at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Some of the nastiest and most misleading ads have come in the Michigan Supreme Court race.

Democrats earlier this month sent out a mailer accusing Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O'Brien, a Republican Supreme Court candidate, of sentencing a child-rapist to one year in prison. The same ad said incumbent Republican justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra found perpetrators not guilty on child pornography charges.

What the mail piece left out is that the rapist in the O'Brien case was developmentally handicapped with the intellect of a 12-year-old — and that Markman and Zahra upheld convictions in both child pornography cases.

Republicans similarly linked University of Michigan law professor Mary McCormack, a Democratic Supreme Court candidate and head of the school's Innocence Clinic, to a convicted child-rape-murderer, saying she was "elated" when he was released from prison. The ad doesn't mention that another guy confessed to the crime, or that the prosecutor agreed to the release of the falsely-accused man.

"We're probably going to have the most secretive, least transparent judicial campaign in America this year," Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said this week.

Robinson blames two U.S. Supreme Court decisions for the unabated mudslinging, as well as the current interpretation of Michigan campaign finance law.

Since April 2004, when an interpretive statement was issued by then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, political advertisements have not been considered campaign expenditures under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act unless they contain words of expressed advocacy, such as "vote for" or "vote against."

"As far as the interpretation of our law, that has managed to exclude $10 million of political ads about the Supreme Court candidates this year," Robinson said.

In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, a significant exception was established to limits on broadcast "issue ads" contained in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly called BCRA or the "McCain-Feingold" act.

The act prohibited corporations and unions from funding "electioneering communications" within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election — and defined that as any broadcast advertisement totaling more than $10,000 that mentioned a candidate for federal office.

In an opinion written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the High Court ruled that the McCain-Feingold limits apply only if an advertisement has no other purpose than to support or defeat a candidate.

"We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship," Roberts wrote.

Then the High Court in 2010, in its landmark Citizens United decision, ruled a federal ban on political advertising by corporations and unions unconstitutional, and allowed them to run advertisements that expressly advocate for or against candidates.

"Third party groups are more negative in general than the candidates, and one of the reasons for that is it protects the candidate from the backlash," said Matt Grossmann, assistant professor of political science at MSU and director of the Michigan Policy Network.

In addition to expensive TV ads and mailers, political flaks are working overtime on creative press releases and other thrifty measures. Republicans this week pitched the story that McCormack defended a terrorist. A University of Michigan legal clinic was among a number of law schools and law firms that stepped forward when the U.S. Supreme Court said representation was required for terror suspects and asked for volunteers. The suspect assigned to U-M was freed by President George W. Bush before its services were required.

"The fact is, Bridget never represented a terrorist," Liz Boyd, McCormack's spokeswoman, said in an emailed response. "She is the daughter of a Marine running to protect families and children."

Meanwhile, Democrats who wish to remain anonymous launched a whispering campaign against Kerry Bentivolio, the Republican in the 11th District U.S. House race, saying he really, truly believes he is Santa Claus.

We checked. He does not.

This is, indeed, the silly season.

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