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The Portland Phoenix
November 14 - 21, 2002

[Features]

The last cheaters’ waltz

by Al Diamon

In the post-Clinton era, infidelity ain’t what it used to be. Voters appear to be less interested in where candidates lie down than in where they stand on such matters as the economy, taxes, and health care.

When it comes to extramarital affairs, Republican state Senate President Rick Bennett seems to have misread this shift in the electorate’s mood. That’s a mistake that could cost him his position at the rostrum, as well as a sizable portion of his credibility.

Bennett and his campaign adviser, Dan Billings, run a political action committee called Maine Unlimited (Billings is the PAC’s treasurer, while Bennett raises money and makes the key decisions). Maine Unlimited’s name is apt, because there don’t seem to be any limits on the lengths to which it will go to elect GOP Senate candidates. In the 2000 election, its ads walked a fine line between hard-hitting and harsh, but were just restrained enough to be effective. Bennett and Maine Unlimited got much of the credit for Republicans’ net gain of three seats and a share of control in the Senate.

If the edgy ads worked, Bennett and Billings appear to have reasoned, even edgier ones should produce better results in 2002. So the PAC targeted races where the GOP had chances to pick up seats, and, in the final week of the campaign, mailed attack brochures the likes of which haven’t been seen in Maine politics since pre-Prohibition days, when it was routine to refer to one’s opponent as a drunk, a womanizer, and a scoundrel — even if said opponent happened to be a teetotaling virgin who donated half his salary to orphans.

Maine Unlimited’s 2002 ads helped revive that tradition. Most of the mailers were semi-hysterical, claiming the targeted Democrat “doesn’t care” how high your taxes climb because his or her real agenda is to “spend more so you can pay more.”

While those characterizations of candidates’ motives may be questionable, the brochures differed from their 19th-century counterparts by being generally accurate in specifying tax hikes and spending increases for which the candidates had voted. The tone was nasty, but, in most cases, within the bounds of what passes for campaign ethics (that siren you hear is the oxymoron alert).

The same can’t be said for Bennett’s and Billings’s efforts in the state Senate District that covers Lincoln County, where Democrat Chris Hall of Bristol and Republican Les Fossell of Alna were locked in a tight race for an open seat.

Instead of attacking Hall on his voting record as a state representative, Maine Unlimited criticized his morals. In addition, the PAC strongly implied Hall’s alleged ethical shortcomings were the result of his national origin.

One side of the flyer features a photo of noted British philanderer Prince Charles and his girlfriend, along with the caption, “It may be fine over there . . .” The other side carries the headline, “But it is not right here.” It’s followed by the claim that Hall, who moved to the States from England in 1973, thinks it’s “okay to lie about adultery.” This assertion is based on comments Hall made in 1998, when he was chairman of the state Democratic Party, defending Bill Clinton. Hall suggested Clinton had failed to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky because, “Gentleman do not harm their families by going public about sexual trysts.”

That seems to be something less than a ringing endorsement of dishonesty, but Maine Unlimited wasn’t concerned with subtleties. The mailer concludes, “If Chris Hall thinks it is okay for politicians to lie to the public, how can we ever trust him?”

Even some GOP operatives admitted to being embarrassed by the flyer. Said one campaign veteran, “Somebody had a brain cramp when they decided to send that out.”

Billings had no comment on the brochure. Bennett told the Bangor Daily News he was “offended and outraged” by Democratic criticism of him for producing the ad, but after the election, sent out a statement saying the flyer “failed to meet the high standards we should have for political discourse,” and apologizing to Hall.

Republicans were counting on winning the Lincoln County seat (after all, the Dem candidate was practically a foreigner) to give them a majority in the Senate, but when the votes were counted on November 5, Hall had survived the Bennett-Billings blitz by a two-vote margin. By the time you read this, a recount will likely be underway, but even if the results are reversed, some party activists are blaming Maine Unlimited for boosting Democratic turnout.

“You’ve got to be careful what districts you send that kind of stuff in,” said a GOP campaigner. “It just enrages the Democrats . . . Sometimes you’ve got to go a little softer.”

A politician once told me, “Campaigns are only about winning,” so there’s probably no point in climbing up to the moral high ground to castigate Bennett and Billings. Better to offer some practical advice: The trouble with over-the-top advertising is not that it’s over-the-top. It’s that it’s counterproductive.

Maybe Maine Unlimited should be a little more limited in 2004.

Smear ’em or clear ’em by emailing this column at ishmaelia@gwi.net.

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