Thursday, June 17, 2010
He Said, She Said, They Said, We Said
A brief exploration of the minor campaign flap du jour: Republican Senate candidate Mike Lee backing out of a debate. I guarantee we do not know the whole story, but there is ample reason to suspect that the real story differs somewhat from that of the debate's now-angry sponsors.
This is not a new trick in the campaign world:
Get the two candidates to agree to a debate at a given time and place, sponsored by a given organization. Rather than being scrupulously even-handed in your preparations, find obvious ways to favor one candidate over the other. It's a win-win. Either the candidate you don't like will get wise to the table being tilted and back out, and you can criticize him for being unwilling to debate his opponent or maybe just rude; or the debate will go on as scheduled, and you can ambush the opponent in any of several ways.
It's dirty politics, and, like all dirty politics, it comes with a risk that the dirt will splash back on you and your favored candidate, if you bungle your press release, or if the other candidate's side of the story gets out.
The E-Mail About the Debate
On Monday, I said I haven't seen much dirt in the Mike Lee-Tim Bridgewater primary campaign for US Senate. Most of the real dirt didn't originate with the campaigns, as far as I can tell. What did come directly from the campaigns wasn't all that dirty -- certainly not dirty enough to justify all the whining about dirty campaigning. It's fine with me if one candidate wants to explain why he thinks the other candidate's profession and career don't particularly suit him for elected office; this in itself is not dirty.
The primary election is five days away, and early voting is in progress. We're seeing more and more capital letters used for emphasis in Facebook comments, as some partisans' desperation to be heard begins to exceed their language skills. And we're certainly going to see some real dirt, either from one or more of the campaigns or from interested third parties with a budget. In fact, this morning's e-mail brought something which immediately suggested the possibility real dirt, in the form of the bait-and-switch caper I just described. It was a press release from the Utah Federation of Republican Women. It reads:
The language of the press release really piles it on. Either the writer doesn't know how to sound even-handed, or she isn't trying. Such a villain, Mike Lee! He's unreliable: he "cancelled his commitment." He's rude: "No excuse or apology was offered." Naturally, we are not just disappointed; we are "extremely disappointed." In case you missed it, it was "Mike Lee's decision to cancel his commitment." Did we mention, "We are further dismayed that no explanation or apology was offered"? And the candidate is flaky; his "unexplained withdrawal" proves it. Despite this atrocity, by the way, we're turning the event into a Tim Bridgewater rally; please join us.
Okay, I'm paraphrasing a little. But the acid in this press release suggests the possibility that the event was already intended to be a Bridgewater rally, with Mike Lee as a less-than-honored guest.
Note that Merit Medical is Fred Lampropoulos's company; he recently endorsed Tim Bridgewater. (I actually liked Fred Lampropoulos as a gubernatorial candidate.)
In case the other clues weren't enough, Cherilyn Eagar's name and address are at the bottom of the release. Her title is not identified; the other two ladies' names in the release are identified as UFRW president and the president of the "WRC of SLC." Eagar was recently a candidate in the same Senate race; she herself has lately endorsed Tim Bridgewater.
Maybe it's just me, but on the basis of the e-mail message alone, there is reasonable suspicious that the UFRW's -- or at least its leaders' -- role here is not as even-handed and disinterested as the organization's lofty title might suggest.
I've been a campaign manager, and I've organized and moderated debates. Doing the latter, you go out of your way to be and to sound even-handed and disinterested. (Note to anyone having a lexical bad hair day: It's not the same as uninterested.) And if something goes wrong, even if your plans fall apart, you don't lash out -- that is, you don't if you want anyone to believe you were playing fair in the first place.
I checked in with Facebook over lunch. I was pretty sure I'd see something about the matter. First I saw the Mike Lee campaign's statement:
I don't know what "as such" means in this usage, but otherwise, this statement supports my debait-and-switch theory.
That statement is in a Facebook status update. One of the comments thereon is by Kathleen Handy, one of the women named in the electronic press release:
(I didn't actually have this comment in mind earlier, when I was mocking people who use a lot of capital letters for emphasis.)
Soon a Mike Lee supporter chimes in with the observation that Merit Medical is already festooned with Tim Bridgewater signs. Then someone pipes up that all that endorsement stuff shouldn't matter. Someone else says that we all know the Republican machine is lined up behind Bridgewater, which is why this particular someone else will vote for Lee. It goes back and forth for a while. Ms. Handy jumps in again to declare that it wasn't dirty campaigning, and everything was kosher at her end, she swears. (Kosher is my word, not hers.) Then someone intrudes who was on the Lee campaign bus when the call was made confirming Lee's withdrawal; he says that everything the Lee campaign said about the matter was absolutely true . . .
One commenter early in the thread offered, "So who do we believe? The great question of politics..."
"So Who[m] Do We Believe"?
If I were on jury duty, I'd want more evidence before I'd convict the UFRW (or maybe just its leaders) of anything more than PR self-mutilation. I'd want to know more about the back-channel discussions and about possible unofficial UFRW ties to the Bridgewater campaign, as well as any history between it and the Lee campaign.
As an outside observer -- and, I admit, a Mike Lee supporter (which does not mean I would excuse stupid campaigning) -- I'd give three-to-one odds that the Lee campaign's side of the story is closer to the truth, and that backing out was a smart move.
I don't think this episode will make much difference either way. Lee can hardly be accused of avoiding Bridgewater or being unwilling to debate; I've been surprised at how many debates there have been. And if Bridgewater keeps a wise distance from this flap and plays the gentleman, not the crowing pugilist, at the event Lee has now declined to attend, little or none of the dirty backlash should land on him.
But I'm really only sure of two things here: First, there is more going on here than just bad, bad Mike Lee standing up the UFRW at the last minute for no reason at all. Second, voters as well as candidates have to have cool heads and thick skins, and keep their heads in the game.
This is just one more little blip in a campaign, which some on both sides hope will blow up into something big and creepy and land on the other guy. Odds are, though, that no one's angry who wasn't already; no one's taking a side who wasn't already -- not over this -- and sensible primary voters are paying more attention to what the candidates say than to what their friends and foes say about them.
Breaking . . . Well, not Exactly News, Exactly . . .
I just read Ms. Eager's rant today against Mike Lee at her blog; this time the subject is her distaste for his legal work for EnergySolutions, to which he alleged he has "sold his soul lock, stock and barrel." I won't try to deconstruct the post; life's too short. I will say that I wonder if she hates Mike Lee because he doesn't hate nuclear waste disposal, or she hates nuclear waste because she hates Mike Lee. At this point, maybe both?
I'm fairly certain that she didn't mean anything by putting the phrases "foreign waste" and "including Utah's governor" together in a syntactically ambiguous way, but I enjoyed it.
I'm glad Cherilyn Eagar is not on my side. There's a pretty good possibility that, in the long run, her tone and tactics hurt the side she's on more than her opponents.
David Rodeback comments (6/17/2010):
Apropos of my last sentence in particular, here's a status update I posted on Facebook tonight: "A voter long undecided between Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater in the Republican primary announced to me this evening a decision to vote for Lee. What tipped the balance? Two recorded phone calls today. One was a bitter attack on Lee by Cherilyn Eagar, which was paid for by the Bridgewater campaign. The other was former Congressman Jim Hansen, talking positively about what Mike Lee would and could do in the Senate."
Like I said, backlash.
David Rodeback comments (6/18/2010):
Here's a little fact-checking on Ms. Eagar's aforementioned rant.
Kathleen Handy comments (6/18/2010):
I came across your on-line blog and was happy to see that I'd provided you with some fodder. I find myself in the unfamiliar territory of having my name, character and integrity questioned in a public forum. You seem reasonable, so I hope you will allow me the courtesy of delineating what occurred as a first-hand participant.
The debate/event was scheduled to take place this coming Saturday, June 19th, from 6 to 9 p.m. We were notified on Wednesday that Mike Lee would not be attending. We had begun to hear rumors that he wouldn't be attending on Tuesday. By Wednesday, with only a few days before the debate, it was evident that we needed to know definitively one way or the other. I phoned Mike Lee's campaign and left a message for Jonathan. (I don't remember his last name.) I assumed Jonathan was Mike Lee's campaign manager because when he called me back, I think he identified himself as such. Anyway, Jonathan provided no explanation or apology as to the reason Mike Lee wouldn't be attending the debate; he only confirmed that he wouldn't. Obviously, we were extremely (emphasis added for your viewing pleasure) disappointed rather than just plain ole disappointed. After all, it is rather difficult to host a debate with only one candidate, and after the many hours we'd invested in preparations at that point.
Yesterday, when I looked at the "Mike Lee for U.S. Senate" Facebook page, I read their reasons for the cancellation. (Obviously, you already know this as you so eloquently referenced it in your blog.) I stand by what I wrote then; all allegations were/are 100 percent false.
How would you feel, by the way, if you were in my shoes and learned all of this off of Facebook? What happened to the courtesy of a phone call, or perhaps a written explanation of concerns prior to the cancellation of a commitment?
Our organization, along with the UFRW, offered to organize, sponsor and promote a debate between the two candidates. After much collaboration, we were able to secure a date that worked for both campaigns. We then proceeded to find a venue. My first choice was the Salt Lake City Library, but they couldn't accomodate us due to another function on the same date. I then tried Ft. Douglas, but was also turned down. My next call was to the Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. They too were unable to accomodate us. I then phoned Julie Dole, the Political Director of the Salt Lake County GOP. She offered to help me find a location. She said that Merit Medical had always been very generous to SL County GOP in the past and that she would call them, which she did. She advised me that not only could Merit Medical accommodate several hundred people, they would also be willing to allow us to use their facility free of charge. With a location secured, we immediately contacted both campaigns to inform them of the venue. Neither campaign offered any objections. We then proceeded to advertise the debate via press release, e-mail, Utah GOP email lists, Salt Lake County email lists, our blog, our website, Facebook, word of mouth, etc.
Our next step was to find an impartial moderator, and we did so with our selection of former Governor Olene Walker. It was always our intent to turn all submitted questions over to her and let her select which ones were ultimately used for the debate. We had advertised that questions which favored one candidate over another would not be used. It was also our goal to provide a forum that was completely fair and impartial to both campaigns. Our bylaws forbid us from endorsing any candidate prior to a primary election. We take this very seriously. (To be honest, I wish all public figures within the same political party would do the same. In a perfect world perhaps.) We never received a request from the Lee campaign to vet questions prior to the debate. We never received a request from the Bridgewater campaign either, for that matter. To be honest, I wasn't aware that candidates saw the questions prior to a debate. Is that really true?
Regarding the Cherilyn Eager mess. I wish her name hadn't been on the press release. Although Cherilyn is a former senate candidate, she is also the UFRW's VP of Media Relations, and has been for several years. The UFRW drafted the press release, and Cherilyn disseminated it. Both Darcy Kruitbosch and I regret that. We didn't know her name would be on the header and footer. It was unfortunate for the UFRW and WRC, because I agree that it made us look bad. Consider it a lesson learned the hard way for us. With that said, however, Cherilyn was never involved in debate preparations, and had anyone from Mike Lee's campaign contacted us regarding her involvement, we would have explained the foregoing and asked her not to attend the debate.
I am a stay-at-home mother of four children who volunteers my time as president of the WRC of SLC. I do so because I am a conservative who chose to get involved. Obviously, I was naive to the world of politics. Apparently, I'm also (well, used to be, anyway) uninformed as to the misuse of capitalization.
It has been hard to watch my personal honesty and integrity be questioned. I can understand why so many people choose not to get involved. I think apathy is killing our country. Despite everything that has happened, I stand by the truth of the above, and will not become an apathetic bystander.
If you have any questions, please let me know.
P.S. If you will go to our blog, you will see that our club hosted both Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater this year. Mike addressed us on February 11th, and Tim on March 11th. Should either of them say they were treated in any way other than with complete respect, it would be untrue. We enjoyed our time with both of them.
One more thing, our former 1st VP (who's resigned to attend law school back in D.C.), Jessica Fawson, works on Mike's campaign, and our Treasurer, Janice Auger, openly endorsed Mike on her FB page a couple months ago.
David Rodeback comments (6/18/2010):
Thanks for the detailed explanation -- and for saying I "seem reasonable," come to think of it. I'm willing to take you at your word as to your and your organization's intended neutrality, but, regrettably, that press release fairly screamed the opposite.
I do know something of the discomfort of your position. Trying to put yourself in any neutral position between two opposing candidates is walking on thin ice to begin with. Odds are, you'll displease some on both sides if you do your job right. And if you accidentally or purposely do something that could be construed as partisan -- note that I did not precede "construed" with "reasonably" -- the ice can give way very quickly, and the water below is cold indeed. Not that you need me to tell you this.
Had the press release been measured and neutral in its tone, had it not been spammed to every known Republican this side of the Grand Canyon, and had Ms. Eager's name not been on it -- especially in light of the things she's been writing and also saying in recorded calls this week -- the debate sponsors might have had a plausible claim to the moral high ground on this one. As it turned out, the e-mailed press release sounded for all the world like neutrality was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. It had the effect of retroactively making Lee's backing out look like wisdom, whether his decision began as wisdom or not.
Even with your details, I still don't have a full picture from both sides of what happened, and I have no right to insist on having one. But I will assume, arguendo, that a certain sort of communication did not occur, and suggest an alternate ending to this scenario, if it had. (Maybe it did occur, but I have no knowledge of it.) Even with my assumptions, I can only tell you what I think I would have done if I were the candidate, or (more akin to my actual experience) if I were managing the campaign.
Had the debate organizers called me well in advance, explaining their difficulties in finding a proper venue and advising me that the only place they had been able to find belonged to a prominent partisan of the other candidate, and asking me what they could do to make that venue an acceptably unbiased one for the evening, I think we might have come to terms. Those terms would likely have included something like this:
Ordinarily, I wouldn't belabor the questions, but, given that we'd be on uncertain ground even with the foregoing, I would also have to be satisfied somehow that the questions selected and their wording would be even-handed; this might or might not include the participation of a representative of each candidate in the selection and wording of the questions. (If both candidates knew and trusted all the parties involved, that particular measure would likely be unnecessary.)
I might ask for more, and I might well settle for less, but I would have to be satisfied up front somehow that every reasonable effort was being made to turn hostile territory into neutral turf for the evening. I confess that one of my motives for insisting on such terms would be not for their own sake, but to insure that a serious effort at neutrality was on the minds of all concerned.
Then, if we came to terms, we could proceed. But my candidate would still go to the debate that evening fully prepared for the possibility that it was still a slanted playing field, and to deal with whatever came up in that vein.
At this point, it's probably fair to ask, how is anyone supposed to know all of this in advance? I don't know; experience, maybe? Unfortunately, it's experience we usually gain by not knowing such things in advance.
Perhaps we ought to be able to assume that we're all friends, all fellow Utah conservative Republicans, all pursuing essentially the same ends for our nation, and so none of this caution (or even paranoia) is or should be necessary. Maybe it should be that way, but it's really not -- again, not that you need me to tell you. This is a high-profile, high-stakes campaign for the US Senate in a particularly consequential election year. It's even on the national radar screen. Moreover, it's the last week of that campaign. Even the most seasoned candidate (neither Lee nor Bridgewater is that), if he were up by 40 points in the polls (also not the case here), could not fully avoid the temptation to last-week-of-the-campaign desperation-verging-on-paranoia. Most people on the campaign staffs are even more susceptible, in part because campaigns tend to be staffed by the young, energetic, untempered, and zealous -- and because by now they're all exhausted, too. Some of the unfortunate stuff that happens toward the ends of campaigns is the result of decent but haggard candidates acting on very bad advice, from people who might have known better two weeks ago.
So maybe "thin ice" was an understatement. At this point, it's more like the vague imagination of a distant memory that someone might have said there may once have been ice there.
The bad news is, even if you do everything as well as it can be done, something could still blow up in your face. There's a lot of incendiary stuff flying around, and there are people on both sides who are perfectly willing to embarrass their own causes in their pursuit of them. (Both these campaigns have suffered their shares of that so far. This week, it's Tim Bridgewater who seems to be suffering more than his share of friendly fire. Those "paid for by Tim Bridgewater" lines at the end of the ranting Eagar and Lonsberry robocalls are costing him a lot of votes.)
Sometimes I want to crack heads and ask the reckless on both sides if they understand that by this time next week, they'll either be expected to rally to the other guy, or they'll be expecting the other guy's supporters to rally to them. How hard do they want that to be?
Not that I haven't gone on too long already, but if I may be a little personal for a moment, whatever side you're on, the last thing I would want is for you to become an apathetic bystander. I believe that a partial cause of our political and societal troubles, in Utah and elsewhere, is that too many parents used their children as an excuse to be uninvolved in the shaping and defense of the society in which their children would live. Maybe we're outgrowing that now, just a little. I hope so. In any case, if you began this episode with a bit of naivete (as you suggest), you've replaced it with hard-won experience now, and will therefore be that much more valuable, if you stay in the game.
And please don't mind too much my cracks about capitalization for emphasis. I seem to alternate between those and similar jabs at men who wear baseball caps indoors. I actually had not read your comment when I wrote that first line about the caps. Even if I had -- this is why I mentioned it again later -- you were not even remotely in the same league with some of what I've seen in the last few days. Truth be told, I'm an unreformed college writing teacher, which either makes me a language snob or perhaps simply provides me an excuse for being what I already was inclined to be.
I'm sorry your debate isn't turning out to be a debate. I know how much work it is to organize even a small-scale event of that sort. And there's really no substitute for putting flesh-and-blood candidates in front of flesh-and-blood voters, over and over again, even if they've done it 34 times already. (I just pulled that number out of the air, but it may not be too far off.)
But that's more than enough for me. Thanks again for the detailed explanation.
Fred C. Cox comments (6/19/2010):
Background on similar events:
Eagle Mountain - meet the candidate night, right after the March caucus meetings.
Both Cherilyn Eagar and Tim Bridgewater and other candidates came, despite the obvious set up in favor of Mike Lee.
Cherilyn's group tied for weeks to pin down what time to come and were finally told, by having a friend of someone that knew more call personally, to come at a time, that we found out afterwards, was after the meeting had started. That left both Bridgewater and Eagar with almost no signs inside or outside the event, where Lee had signs all over the place inside and outside because they were given more information than either Eagar or Bridgewater.
Somehow Bennett's campaign got enough info to have signs up inside prior to the event starting. Not all candidates were given equal time because they wouldn't all pay the fee to speak.
Attempts had been made to schedule a meeting for Eagar in that area prior to the March caucus meeting, but they seemed to have been blocked by several local people in the Utah Rising group.
Cherilyn and Tim still came and spoke to hundreds that night, and may have picked up some votes in that area. The people involved were nice, but the obvious blocking of comunication was pretty aparent. Bridgewater got a public apology, but Cherilyn didn't.
Unfortunately this type of situation occured over and over since the start of the US Senate race. Many have been in Lee's favor, but not all.
I don't know if the debate you talked about was a "set up" or not. Julie Dole stated after reading that the written Facebook response by the Lee camp that it was not correct. I trust Julie Dole in her statement. She has certainly not favored Eagar, or anyone else I can see in this race.
Based on the above info, Lee stepping out on this event was and is and was a mistake. The fact that he ticked off event sponsors is not unique to Lee. I have made that mistake before, but the public wining about being called on it is pretty lame.
Copyright 2010 by David Rodeback.