Who is that man wearing the American flag?

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Just who is the mysterious Kage McClued?

A passionate Clark County resident willing to take on all comers who disagree with his conservative views?

Or a former political operative who uses a fake name to spout off without taking any responsibility for his often-caustic remarks?

McClued, a frequent letter writer to The Columbian, is a name made up by none other than Kelly Hinton, a well-known former aide to state Rep. Marc Boldt, R-Sifton.

Hinton authored letters, including a couple that praised his own boss, using a fake name while he was working for Boldt and receiving a government paycheck.

He also briefly worked as executive director of the Washington Republican Party during state Sen. Don Benton's stint as GOP chairman.

For more than three years, Hinton used the fictitious name to send out his message loud and clear in two dozen letters and opinion pieces published in The Columbian and in hundreds of e-mails widely circulated throughout Washington.

Why did Hinton, 46, decide to push his views on the Columbia River Gorge, teacher pay and "special rights" for gays and lesbians under an assumed name? And what does it say about politics or, more pointedly, the erosion of the credibility in politics?

Hinton, interviewed outside his Sifton home, refused to answer most questions or to even concede he is indeed McClued.

"People who know me know me," he said. "Whether I wrote under a false name or not, I would say the points in the letters should be the issue."

Other Republicans, including state GOP Chairman Chris Vance, said there is no doubt that Hinton is McClued.

Vance, a former King County councilman who unseated Benton this year, said Hinton repeatedly used the name during the chairman campaign.

Vance said he isn't sure why Hinton chose to use a fake name. One explanation might be an unwritten rule that Republican staffers should stay out of party elections, he said.

"I always thought he was using this name, Kage McClued, so he could get his licks in," Vance said. "I think most members of the state committee knew that if they got e-mails from Kage McClued, they were from Kelly Hinton."

'I don't control him'

Even Boldt, Hinton's boss for more than five years, confirmed his former aide used the McClued moniker.

"I don't know if I was aware of it in the beginning," Boldt said, adding that he believes he learned of Hinton's clandestine activities sometime last year.

Boldt pointedly refused to condemn his former aide.

"He does things on his own; I don't control him," he said. "It's his thing, not mine, what he does on his own time."

Boldt said he doesn't believe that Hinton's letters amount to "dirty tricks."

"I don't," he said. "It's a view of his. Whether he uses his name or something else, he expresses his view, and that's his right."

Boldt, a four-term representative, said he isn't worried that revelation of McClued's true identity will hurt him politically.

"In the list of things that I'm confronted with, it's at the far bottom," he said. "As much dirt that has been thrown at me by the Democrats, this is nothing."

Public skepticism

Others aren't ready to dismiss Hinton's activities so easily.

"This kind of behavior heightens the public skepticism about any political communication," said John Gastil, a University of Washington associate professor who teaches political communication. "It makes the public that more unsure where to turn. ... Letters to the editor in a sense are sort of a large public conversation.

"It's just one anecdote, just one more example, of how the political elite -- in this case a representative of an elected official -- tries to manipulate the public."

Jim Moeller, a Vancouver city councilman who has traded e-mail barbs with McClued, said Hinton's use of a phony name is "appalling."

"Kage has taken me Kelly has taken me to task about my integrity," said Moeller, who aligns himself with the Democratic Party. "I think this is hypocrisy beyond belief on his part.

"My father used to tell me that anybody who didn't have the courage and integrity to use their own name with their opinions and words they put in public didn't have an opinion worth listening to."

State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1992 to 2000, called Hinton's use of the McClued name "a boneheaded trick."

"One of the things that I wished every politician would learn is that it's activities like this that totally turn people off so they have no respect for the system, for the political parties," Prentice said.

"This guy ought to get a clue. If he really wants to help his party, he would learn to operate in a straightforward way. Sleaze doesn't pay."

Tough business

Vance said he isn't sure if Hinton's use of a fictitious name constitutes dirty politics.

"Politics is a tough business," he said. "I'm not saying it's how people want politics to be practiced, but it just happens."

Margie Ferris, chairwoman of the Clark County Republican Central Committee, said the party neither encourages nor condones deception.

"I'm sure the Republicans will be upset, too," Ferris said when told of the Democrats' reaction.

"He isn't representing the Republicans, so I hope they don't blame the Republican Party. He is doing this strictly on his own."

Out of politics

Hinton refused to discuss his letter writing, saying that he has resigned his position as a Republican precinct committee officer and is out of politics for good.

"Why I do what I do or don't do what I do, I don't think that is anyone's business," he said. "The newspaper can come out and beat the hell out of me every 10 minutes if it's so inclined.

"But I'm not going to be a willing participant in that process. I'm out of politics. I'm done."

Hinton added that he is "mystified" by The Columbian's interest in him and in Kage McClued.

"It seems ... there is a vendetta going on here," he said. "There is personal animosity, and I'm not going to participate in it."

Those comments are similar to an e-mail Kage McClued sent earlier this week. The e-mail asked if The Columbian would report on "those on the left that I know of who write under different names."

Hinton, however, declined to provide names when asked about that comment.

Why use false name?

Even if there is no doubt that Hinton is McClued, the question remains why someone would find it necessary to pen letters using a fictitious name.

Gastil said it's rare for someone who works for an elected official to write letters using a phony name.

"The more common practice is to ghostwrite letters and have actual living people publish them as if they had written them themselves," he said.

Gastil said he's heard stories of campaign workers calling radio talk shows and not giving their full names or revealing their positions.

"This is kind of special," he said. "What it shows is a lack of confidence in the views expressed being widely held or for that matter held by anybody. It's a dirty trick because the public doesn't take the time to check the authenticity of letters to the editor or calls into a talk show."

Blasts fellow Republican

Hinton's letters reveal a deep level of deception. In December 1998, The Columbian published a McClued letter saying that he personally called Boldt's office and talked to his assistant.

At that time, Hinton was Boldt's legislative assistant.

Republicans are supposed to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans -- but Hinton showed no such reservation.

He wrote an opinion piece for The Columbian in May 1999 comparing then-state Rep. Don Carlson, R-Hazel Dell, to Judas Iscariot after Carlson broke party ranks and voted for the Senate's budget proposal.

"I suggest that in the few remaining months he has left in office, Carlson should in fact finish the deed, get his 30 pieces of silver and become a Democrat," he wrote. "After all, if he is going to think like one, vote like one and act like one, how much of a leap can it be?"

Unorthodox approach

During his tenure as Boldt's assistant, Hinton built a reputation as a hard-line conservative who took an unorthodox approach to issues.

One month after Boldt took office in January 1995, he sent Hinton on an undercover assignment to spy on the Vancouver welfare office.

A few months later, Hinton helped draft a letter to a Camas woman saying it was not the taxpayers' responsibility to provide preschools for her three children and suggesting her husband should find a more steady job.

"If your situation was subject to so much financial instability, then why did you have three children?" the letter said. "Why is your husband in a line of work that subjects him to frequent layoffs?"