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Mud-slinging political campaigns are business as usual

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2002 10:00 pm

His opponent claims Congressman Richard Pombo has "raided" the Social Security system.

Her opponent accuses Barbara Matthews of misappropriating funds because she sent mailers to constituents.

And a flier was sent out accusing Assembly candidate Alan Nakanishi of, among other things, nearly running Lodi's electric utility into bankruptcy.

Pombo, Matthews and Nakanishi all hotly deny the contentions, which they say distort the truth. But as the Nov. 5 election nears, it seems negative campaigning against incumbents has become a favored tactic.

There is little mystery about why: It can work. And it can be of special value when a relatively unknown challenger takes on an established incumbent. Campaign managers, though, say it can also detract from a larger examination of pressing issues.

"Unfortunately, it's become business as usual," said Pombo, R-Tracy, a veteran of four races for Congress.

Pombo is currently in the midst of a nasty campaign with Democrat and political newcomer Elaine Shaw of Danville for the 11th Congressional district, which covers most of San Joaquin County and parts of Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

A recent political mailing sent out by the Shaw camp includes accusations and sensationalism set amid a vaudeville theme. It uses an old joke line ("Knock knock. Who's there?") as its hook.

The Pombo camp is not amused.

"What about just sticking to his (Pombo) congressional voting record?" questioned Steve Ding, congressional aide to Pombo.

Shaw's camp looks at it differently.

"It's not harsh; everything in there is factual," said Evan Jacobs, spokesman for Shaw.

The mailer, which is approximately the size of a compact disc cover and several pages in volume, goes like this:

The front page says "Knock, knock." Upon opening the booklet, using an elderly woman as a protagonist, she said, "Who's there?"

Open it again, and it says "Dwayne." The next page shows yet another elderly woman saying in a curmudgeonly manner "Dwayne who?"

And now the punchline: "Richard Pombo 'dwayned' your retirement accounts, and now he is going after social security."

The remainder of the lengthy mailer makes statements such as:

"Pombo voted to raid $1 trillion from the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for tax cuts for big corporations."

Jacobs substantiates the claim with a Congressional bill which received a "yes" vote by Pombo, and passed by the House of Representatives on March 20, 2002. The passage of the bill supposedly gave big corporations a tax break while borrowing from Social Security funds.

Jacobs wasn't able to identify the $1 trillion trim from the budget which affected Social Security, saying it's a big, and complicated bill.

He's right. The bill, which established the budget for the United States for fiscal year 2003 and set appropriate budget levels for fiscal years 2004 through 2007, is 25 pages in its annotated version. It lists revenues and expenditures for 18 different categories, in addition to reserve funds and contingency plans. Social Security's budget is bundled with education, training and employment.

The bill does not explicitly say Social Security will be depleted by $1 trillion.

"It cites a political questionnaire that Richard Pombo supposedly took in 2000. They're wrong; he didn't take the questionnaire in 2000," Ding said.

Jacobs admits they goofed with the reference but stands by the mailer, and said his boss chose the absurdity of using jokes and vaudeville against her opponent to "get the attention of voters."

Enron found its way into the "Knock knock" piece when Shaw claimed Pombo voted to give a $250 million tax break to the Enron Corporation as per his vote on a 2001 bill.

"She pulled that bill far out of context," Ding said. "And, to some extent, it might mislead voters."

Ding also pointed out that Shaw has referred to Pombo as "Dick" Pombo, though he has never used the nickname.

But while such negativity garners voter attention, does it distort the facts?

"Yes, it does," claimed Cathleen Galgiani, aide to Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews of the 17th Assembly District.

Her boss has been faced with what she calls absurd claims by Republican candidate Brian McCabe.

Galgiani said McCabe has plucked select parts of Matthews' voting record in the Assembly and manipulated it to fit his campaign needs.

"Mr. McCabe has been running ads distorting Barbara Matthew's record since September," Galgiani said.

"It has distracted from the more important issues - transportation, water, jobs, education."

And, McCabe's Web site states that Matthews is misappropriating funds by sending out mail to constituents, an act that is practiced by all assembly members, Galgiani said.

"That doesn't make it right," McCabe said. "Folks who did it, regardless of (party) affiliation, shouldn't do it."

McCabe said Matthews has made accusations against him when she claimed he accepted money from Enron.

"I find it ironic that she is trying to link me to a group I have no connection with."

Katherine Maestas, Democratic candidate for the 10th Assembly district, misled voters when she claimed Lodi City Councilman Nakanishi had left the City of Lodi's Utility district "nearly bankrupt," Nakanishi said.

"That's not true. The electric department has an 'A' rating," said Nakanishi. "Anybody can check that rating with the city."

Janet Keeter, Lodi deputy city manager, confirmed Nakanishi's claim.

Andrew Acosta, Maestas' spokesman, points to a News-Sentinel article, dated Sept. 25, 2002, that states cash flow problems exist at the Lodi Electric Utility Department.

The same article quotes Alan Vallow, director of Lodi's utility department, saying "it's not that dismal," concerning the financial problems.

"There is more to the tale than they would have you believe," Acosta said.

For his part, Nakanishi's campaign material has stuck to issues and his own track record as an elected official. That's a change from the primary, when Nakanishi fought fire with fire in a negative campaign for the Republican nomination.

Acosta would not comment on Nakanishi's mail advertisements that compares the ideology of the two candidates.

Maestas also claimed that Nakanishi has voted to increase taxes 30 times. When asked by local journalists to back up the contention, she agreed to provide the details but never came through.

Pombo, too, has kept his campaigning material focused on major issues. Although he has countered claims made by Shaw against his transportation voting record, he has virtually ignored the "Knock knock" mailer.

Ding said its easier for the challengers who have not served in office to attack the incumbent: The challenger has no record to defend or to have attacked.

"We don't even know who Elaine Shaw is," Ding said.

Do voters care about the negativity?

"Yes, I am bothered," said Kelly Warddrip, of Lodi. "They should just tell me what they're about and not spend so much time telling me what the opponent is about."

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