Candidates face choice: Clean campaign pledge?

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor



Keeping it Clean

Legislative candidates from districts in Clark County who have signed the League of Women Voters of Clark County’s pledge:

• Democrat Paul Spencer, running for Position 1 representative in the 14th Legislative District.

• Republican Julie Olson, running for Position 1 representative in the 17th Legislative District.

• Democrat Tim Probst, running for senator in the 17th Legislative District.

• Democrat Ralph Schmidt, running for senator in the 18th Legislative District.

• Republican John Braun, running for senator in the 20th Legislative District.

• Republican Eileen Qutub, running for senator in the 49th Legislative District.

• Republican Carolyn Crain, running for Position 2 representative in the 49th Legislative District

Source: League of Women Voters of Clark County

In a political climate often full of negativity, are clean-campaign pledges a way to reduce the mudslinging?

Anne McEnerny-Ogle thinks so. She's president of the League of Women Voters of Clark County, which circulates such a pledge. The pledge includes four promises:

• Candidates will be honest about their records and policies.

• They won't launch unfair or misleading attacks against the opposition.

• They won't make personal attacks.

• They will denounce any independent political group that unfairly attacks the opposition.

Signing a clean campaign pledge might allow a candidate to take the moral high ground during campaign season, but it can become a handicap if the candidate's opponent doesn't follow suit. Though the pledge does not ban negative campaigning outright, signing it sets a tone that might prevent some of the political punches dished out on the campaign trail.

"Signing that pledge puts it at the front of your brain," said McEnerny-Ogle. It prompts candidates to think: "What are the ethical issues that are important to me? What am I going to say? What are my campaign helpers going to say? It helps them think twice about how they're going to come across."

As of Friday, seven legislative candidates in districts within Clark County had signed the clean campaign pledge. The pledge is included in the elections packet they receive after filing to run for public office, and there is no deadline for returning the pledge.

McEnerny-Ogle said the list of candidates willing to sign the pledge has become more politically diverse in recent years.

"I think people are getting tired of some of the ugliness and have swung to more of a civil tone," she said.

'Advantages and disadvantages'

In general, politicians should be cautious about signing any pledge, said Democratic political strategist Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants. Based in Kentucky, Emmons has worked on about 800 political campaigns, of which more than 600 were successful, and he conducts candidate training sessions.

He said he tells new candidates to take a "buyer beware" approach when considering whether to sign a clean campaign pledge. Some campaign pledges found in other parts of the country limit how much money a candidate can receive from certain donors. Others require a candidate to spend resources on denouncing any unaffiliated political action groups that distribute misleading information to attack the opposition.

Emmons said his general advice for candidates is to avoid creating a new set of campaign rules that nobody else is playing by.

"It's an admirable goal they're trying to achieve here," Emmons said of the League of Women Voters, "but it's not as simple as some people might think. … There are advantages and disadvantages."

When all candidates in a race sign a clean campaign pledge, it can be beneficial to the candidates because then they're all "playing offense," Emmons said. "You're selling ideas and your platform. It allows you to persuade. … You score points."

But what if you're the only candidate in a race who signs the pledge?

"I wouldn't recommend anybody do that," Emmons said. "You're playing by one set of rules, and the other team is playing by another set of rules. … You'll have to spend some of your money defending yourself. You can't let a negative go unanswered. People are going to assume it's true."

Benton and Probst

In one of the county's most competitive legislative races, 17th District state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, has signed the League of Women Voters' campaign pledge and his opponent, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he plans to. Probst announced in April that rather than seek re-election to his House seat, he would make a run for the Senate seat currently held by Benton.

Although both candidates intend to refrain from misleading attacks, they both said they see no problem drawing truthful comparisons between themselves on political issues and track records.

Benton, who said he's always signed the pledge, said he has never used an approach that he considers negative. Sometimes people find "contrast pieces" that still fit within the scope of the pledge to be negative, he said.

"I guess if you're on the unpopular end of those contrasts, you might consider that to be negative," he said, adding that his definition of inappropriate campaign messages includes those that "attack their character or mislead or twist out of proportion."

Probst also has a record of signing the pledge in all of his campaigns.

"I signed it because I want to be a public servant, not a politician," Probst said. "I just didn't even think twice before I signed it. It's exactly the right thing to do."

Negative political advertisements have been shown to be part of a successful campaign strategy. But Probst said that Clark County voters are smart enough to discern who the best candidate is for them, despite any campaign negativity.

"I think the voters know the difference between attack-ad politicians and a guy who is just working hard to try to make things a little better each year," Probst said. "I think they see the authentic difference."

In the race to fill Probst's vacated House seat, Republican Julie Olson has signed the pledge, Republican Matthew Homola hasn't, and Democrat Monica Stonier said she plans to.

"That's the campaign I intend to run, so I thought I might as well put it on the record," Olson said. "I don't like extremes on either side, and my style is not to get personal. If the other side attacks me in some way, I'll answer it, but I won't answer it with another attack on my opponent."

Olson said she's already asked her staff to change some campaign materials because she felt they might come across as too negative or aggressive.

Stonier said she also will sign the pledge because she planned on running a clean campaign, anyway.

"I like to run the kind of campaign that I can be proud of," Stonier said, adding that there are "thousands of former students -- and my own children -- who are watching my campaign."

Pledge enforcement

There is no penalty for candidates who violate a clean campaign pledge, other than the damage it might cause to their reputations.

"I know in the past, some candidates have felt that they want a stronger enforcement of the issues by the League of Women Voters," McEnerny-Ogle said. The league used to take complaints about candidates who allegedly violated the pledge and then would make a ruling as to whether they believed that candidate did indeed violate the spirit of clean campaigning. They would then issue a news release about their findings to local media.

But the group doesn't do that anymore. Instead, those complaining of clean campaign pledge violations are encouraged to approach media outlets and the public with that information.

From there, "it's up to the citizens to take a look at what information is coming out and vote accordingly," McEnerny-Ogle said.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523;;;