GreeeneLanders who rely on local newspapers or radio stations for news (as we noted last Friday) would scarcely be aware of the fierce contest that is raging over who shall represent them in the United States House of Representatives. While the contest—the pitched battle, the firefight, the exchange of incivilities—has been covered actively by TimesUnion and other upper-Hudson reporters, our local print media (in Columbia County too) have rendered it almost invisible. We can ascribe their neglect to the facts that (i) the contestants have made few personal appearances here, appearances that would prompt stories by local reporters, and (ii) the coverage that is given to the candidates in Albany and above does not turn into low-cost Associated Press rewrites that can be published here. Rarely will the A.P. pick up stories that are of immediate interest only to people in a single electorate. So: it behooves Seeing Greene to make up for the deficiency. We undertake to recount, and in some places to appraise, episodes in the 20th District contest between John Sweeney, the four-term Republican incumbent, and Kirsten Gillibrand, his Democratic challenger. There is a heavy load of material.
>New rating. The respected handicappers at Congressional Quarterly have just re-classified the Sweeney-Gillibrand contest, from “Leans Republican” (and before that, “Republican Favored”) to “No Clear Favorite.” That estimate of probabilities—in a substantially rural, sprawling constituency (200 miles in length, from Poughkeepsie to Lake Placid) where Mr Sweeney won his previous four races easily, where George Bush took 53 percent of the votes for President in 2004, where registered Republicans out-number Democrats and otherwise-inclined voters (198,000 to 113,000 to 109,000)—is one of many re-assessments, by CQ and by other touts, all in a pro-Democratic direction. A likely consequence is that the 20th District race will become even hotter. Ms Gillibrand will get more campaign money because she now looks like a serious contender; and Mr Sweeney will get more money because some other Republicans now seem dead politically while he seems to be seriously imperiled.
>The Weekend. Yesterday’s television talk shows and other programs were punctuated by two pro-Sweeney and two pro-Gillibrand commercials. The pro-Sweeney ads, in contrast to the pro-Gillibrand ads and to most of his previous spots, were positive testimonials. They publicized Mr Sweeney’s success in getting Federal money for local hospitals and in promoting legislation that facilitates the search for missing children. The latter spot recalls an earlier (“Kathy Brown”) thank-you commercial. It also is noteworthy for the closing frame in which Mr Sweeney emphasizes friendship with Sen. John McCain rather than with President George W. Bush. (All ads coming directly from the Sweeney camp are accessible at www.sweeneyforcongress.com.)
One of the pro-Gillibrand ads was a re-run of a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-sponsored attack on Mr Sweeney’s record. The other, a new spot from the Gillibrand camp, calls the Republican incumbent “corrupt.” On behalf of that thesis, the ad cites Mr Sweeney’s inclusion in an interest group’s Top 20 list of recipients of Special Interest largesse. It also says that the Congressman voted for successive pay raises for himself while voting against raises and other support for our troops, and that he “personally pocketed” $76,000 of donations to his campaign treasury.
Those charges, according to Sweeney’s spokesperson Maureen Donovan, as told to Tim O’Brien of The TimesUnion, are “outrageous and slanderous.”
On behalf of the “Top 20 in corruption” charge, the Gillibrand ad cites a September rating by an organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. But CREW, says Donovan, is a Democratic front. As for the pay raise votes, they did not happen. (Yes; but Mr Sweeney did refrain from trying to block otherwise-automatic pay raises for House members). As for the “personally pocketed” charge, Tim O’Brien guesses that “this refers to the cash Sweeney paid to Creative Consulting, a company owned by his wife, Gayle, for fundraising services.” To equate that payment with personally pocketing campaign funds “might be pushing the truth envelope a bit.”
>Indirect pro-Sweeney ad. Delivered to GreeneLanders by mail late last week was a circular announcing “Medicare Prescription Drug Re-Enrollment Begins November 15th” and offering “Medicare Prescription Drug Re-Enrollment Information.” The circular’s touted information is hard to find. Most of its verbiage consists of saluting the “real savings” that seniors are achieving thanks to “the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.” In addition, however, the circular advises recipient that "Congressman John E. [sic.] Sweeney” (pictured front and back) “has helped seniors across his district to sign up for the new…benefit.” Readers are directed to “call him to get important information” about the program and to “Thank him for helping.”
The circular comes from an organization called The Seniors Coalition of Fairfax VA. According to its web site (www.senior.org) the Coalition is “the responsible alternative to AARP.” As an “advocacy organization” it is dedicated to restoring “ethics and morality to politics” as well as “traditional American family values,” to protecting “the Free-Market from Government encroachment” and—oh, by the way—to privatizing portions of Social Security accounts and to keeping cheap foreign-made prescription drugs out of American hands.
>No-Show. The star attraction-to-be for a Sweeney fund-raiser on Thursday (10/12) didn’t come after all. He is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, J. Dennis Hastert. The cancellation of Mr Hastert (not explicitly announced) was one of many across the country.
>New anti-Sweeney ad. The Gillibrand camp last week unleashed a new video attack ad. It depicts the incumbent (“…doesn’t know when to say when”) as a bibulous party animal who also is too friendly with lobbyists. (It is accessible, along with the candidate’s other television and radio ads, at www.gillibrand2006.com ). To this attack Mr Sweeney responded with a Saturday news release denouncing Ms Gillibrand “for yet another ad full of mudslinging,” in contrast to his “positive” testimonial ads.
>Conditional Consent, maybe. In an open letter last Thursday, Mr Sweeney came close to saying that he would agree to “debate” Ms Gillibrand if she would accede to his demand that she release her income tax reports (“as almost all other candidates have done”). This promise was hedged, however, to the extent that Mr Sweeney stated that if his condition were met, he would authorize his staff to “work with” Gillibrand counterparts “to plan" the encounters.
>Counter-demand. To the Sweeney camp’s insistence that she divulge various kinds of personal information, including (especially) her income taxes, Ms Gillibrand has lately retaliated with calls for candor on his part. In a press release last Tuesday (10/10) she urged Mr Sweeney to tell about (i) past “run-ins with the law (a 1978 drunk driving arrest, a 1977 arrest for allegedly turning in a false fire alarms) and (ii) a driving accident in which he allegedly plowed into a telephone pole, leaving skiers at Willard Mountain stranded on the tow.
Mr Sweeney’s press secretary has replied that the cited cases are matters of public record. The Gillibrand camp has suggested that the relevant records are sealed.
>Bid for vocal support. The Sweeney camp mailed, far and wide, a campaign letter (dated Oct. 2) touting the Congressman's “independence, dedication and commitment to NY’s 20th Congressional District” and appealing for active help in the form not of money but of letters to newspapers, calls to talk shows, and the like. The need “to get the truth out” was deemed urgent because Ms Gillibrand is waging a “nasty, dishonest campaign” and is abetted by outside “radical left-wing organizations” (MoveOn.org) that spew “lies and distortions.” Mr Sweeney allegedly is handicapped by the absence of “outside groups coming in to fund commercials” on his behalf.
>Mocking rejoinder. Responding to the incumbent’s bid for vocal support, the Gillibrand camp put out a release headed “Sweeney Begs for Support.” The Congressman’s appeal was construed as a confession of local weakness. According to Ms Gillibrand’s press secretary, “being one of the most corrupt members of Congress probably does not foster a robust grassroots campaign.”
>Talking Points Pro. Accompanying Mr Sweeney’s call for epistolary backup was a page of “Talking Points For John Sweeney” and a page of “Talking Points Against Kirsten Gillibrand.” Conspicuous in those menus was an absence: an absence of verbiage about contemporary issues. Suggested pro-Sweeney talking points are that he is a regular local guy; that he is “independent minded” and “thinks of his district before anything else”; that he is “committed to securing our borders” (=glancing reference to a policy matter); and that he has brought in substantial material benefits to the 20th district. (The border security problem is expressed in exactly these words: “If 14 million illegal immigrants to cross our borders, terrorists can as well.”)
>Talking Points Contra. As for the Sweeney campaign’s talking points against Ms Gillibrand, they are aggressively personal, as distinct from programmatic or philosophical. The challenger is chronically “deceptive and hypocritical”; is “a rich, elite trial attorney from New York; is “a carpetbagger who is trying…to buy herself a ticket to Washington”; refuses to release information about her background. Also, her ownership of shares in “one of the largest contractors in the Iraq War” puts Gillibrand into a conflict-of-interest situation (not identified). Moreover, to the Gillibrand judgment that “we ‘need a new direction in Iraq’” the Sweeney camp responds with a rhetorical question: “What exactly is that ‘new direction’ she speaks of?”
>Fresh dirt? Conspicuous in Mr Sweeney’s October 2 letter too was the absence not only of verbiage about public policy, but also of allusions to favorite earlier line of attack, focusing on Ms Gillibrand’s work during 2000-01 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. On this occasion, however, the Congressman voiced new accusations: that Ms Gillibrand refuses to talk about her husband’s occupation, and that she “has refused to talk about the fact that she is being sued for insurance fraud.” Actually, she had not refused to talk about those matters, because they had not previously been brought up. According to Tim O’Brien of The TimesUnion, the insurance case is one in which Ms Gillibrand incurred losses of personal effects from a fire in a storage facility (Green Line) in Mt Vernon. Her $26,700 claim was accepted by the insurance company (Hanover), which paid her and then sought compensation from the storage company, whose lawyer says the goods weren’t worth that much.
>Nil Response? So far, in GreeneLand at any rate, Mr Sweeney’s appeal for epistolary and talk-in support evidently has not been heeded. On the other hand, a letter in the Daily Mail last Monday (10/9) from a Peggy Tompkins characterized Ms Gillibrand as “the candidate who is offering thoughtful proposals,” whereas Mr Sweeney traffics in “smears and jeers.” That assessment is at least half true. Ms Gillibrand has indeed expatiated on contemporary issues and policy proposals (see, again, www.Gillibrand2006.com ) while Mr Sweeney has not. But Ms Gillibrand and her allies have not been shy about hurling smears and jeers.
>Sweeney on Gillibrand’s campaign. In the past two weeks, Mr Sweeney has distributed two campaign mailers, each consisting of an 8-by-11-inch cards printed in color. The first attacks Ms Gillibrand’s “record”; the second attacks her “campaign.” According to the latter (and its televised companion) the Gillibrand campaign is rife with “slander,” with “lies” (“repeatedly,” “consciously,” “deliberately”), and with “negative personal attacks.” Two features of this attack ad (apart from the suggested concept of a positive personal attack) deserve special attention.
***One is tacit rejection of the notion that electoral combatants should deal with current controversies.
Rejection is implicit in the terms of what precedes the sentence saying “Instead, she [Gillibrand] is running a personal smear campaign against John Sweeney.” The charge, as it turns out, is not that Gillibrand is waging a slander campaign instead of addressing the issues of the day. It is that she conducts a smear campaign instead of divulging aspects of her personal history.
***The other oddity in the latest Sweeney mailer is lack of specifics about Gillibrand’s “lies.” Recipients are offered subject-matter categories (“his record,” “his patriotism,” “his family”) without contents. They are given clues, however, in the way of what Mr Sweeney chooses to affirm about himself, namely, that he has shown independence from the President, has never voted to give himself a pay raise, has “always voted for our troops, for their well-being, their health care and increased salaries,” and that he has “always voted 100% for the people of Upstate New York.” Readers could plausibly infer from this selection that Ms Gillibrand has voiced contrary versions of Mr Sweeney’s record. That inference would be correct. It applies also to the anti-Sweeney ad, “Stay the Course?” that was sponsored by the independent group MoveOn.org.
>Sweeney on Gillibrand’s HUD record. Last week’s glossy mailer from the Sweeney camp took aim, as did its complementary television advertisement, at the challenger’s past career. Paramount attention was given to Ms Gillibrand’s performance as special counsel to the head of the U.S.Department of Housing & Urban Development. Ms G allegedly “drove HUD projects right into the mud”; she “presided over” and “mismanaged” an organization that “wasted BILLIONS of taxpayer dollars and was rampant with corruption.”
In support of that indictment, the Sweeney ad cites four articles that were published in 2000-01. From these sources, or ostensible sources, the ad draws putative quotations: “$59 Billion Missing From HUD”; “overwhelming evidence of corruption”, rampant with fraud”; “’reckless, borrow-and-spend binge’”. We checked out those citations. Some findings:
---Two of the quotations are from articles in a “magazine” called Insight. The magazine is not a TIME or Newsweek or Wall Street Journal. It is an on-line-only, polemical, organ of the unabashedly “conservative” Washington Times. The cited articles are not products of investigation; they offer interpretations of matters reported elsewhere. The "publication" dates are in October and November of 2000—that is to say, in the heat of the Bush-Gore presidential election contest.
---One of the cited Insight articles is either mis-dated (“Oct. 14, 2000”) or spurious.
---One of the quotations comes from an article in the New York Post (5/11/01). It offers interpretation of putative evidence reported elsewhere.
---The fourth quotation is from a TimesUnion story (7/3/01) and is billed as a quotation from the Executive Committee of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages. The cited story actually is about what Republican supervisors said about a project (Canal Corridor Initative) formerly operated by HUD.
---While the cited sources do impute waste, fraud and/or corruption to HUD programs and managers, the alleged failures date from times long before Ms Gillibrand’s nine-month employment at HUD.
---None of the cited articles makes mention of, or even refers indirectly to, Kirsten Gillibrand.
In short, none of the evidence cited by Mr Sweeney supports, much less sustaining, his claim that his challenger “mismanaged” HUD and drove its projects “into the mud.” The evidence accordingly lends credibility to what Ms Gillibrand has said about her HUD days, namely, that they came after the messes cited by the sources cited by the Sweeney camp, and that, as special counsel working mostly on legislative proposals, she had no managerial role.
Reporter O’Brien of The TimesUnion asked Mr Sweeney’s staff for substantiation. In his words (9/30/06), “Asked to provide supporting documents to back up the ad’s assertion, [Maureen] Donovan did not return calls and sent an e-mail saying only that Gillibrand ‘either exaggerated her role at HUD or she is now trying to run for cover from her role in the massive corruption and mismanagement scandals at HUD’.”