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INSIGHTS: A clean campaign is an empty promise

Author: Joey Bunch - June 11, 2018 - Updated: June 15, 2018

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All four Democrats on Colorado’s primary ballot for governor signed a clean-campaign pledge last year, promising a mud-free zone on the trail and on the airwaves. That’s the spirit that can bind a party together.

But with about two weeks to go before June 26 primary and a race perceived to be taking shape, the pinky swear came undone.

I didn’t believe it when I heard it the first time. Everybody says they want honorable campaigns, but none dares spend political capital on calling off their attack dogs. More likely, they wink and nod.

As the crowded race tightens, operatives with money don’t really give a toot about their candidate’s promise, if they weigh it against tearing down an opponent. Going negative happens because it works.

My colleague Ernest Luning reported in his Trail Mix column last week on Teachers for Kennedy, a “Super PAC” backing the candidate, spending $1.4 million recently to air a 30-second ad taking shots at her chief competitors in the Democratic primary, Jared Polis and Mike Johnston. Kennedy is endorsed by the teacher’s union. Fact-checkers in the media have labeled the ad misleading.

That set off a crazy week of debate of who was being negative and who was playing defense. The teachers ad landed the same day as I was quizzing Polis’ people — or trying to — about emerging word that his PAC planned to take aim at Kennedy in its own ad.

Mike Littwin of the Colorado Independent heard the same gossip and was the first to report it. Rick Palacio, who is running Polis’ independent expenditure (IE) support group, Bold Colorado, didn’t return Littwin’s call or mine on the matter.

Ultimately the ads Camp Polis dropped last week were aimed at making Kennedy look bad — by pointing out she and her allies were trying to make Polis look bad. Exhausted yet? Both campaigns filed complaints with the state party about the other on the same day. Don’t try to keep up. Just hold on.

And as long as that fight lasts, it’s great for Johnston, perceived to be the third-place finisher, who standing clear of the fray so far. It would be worth reminding Polis and Kennedy that this is how John Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver in 2003.  Heavyweights Ari Zavaras and Don Mares went negative and voters went to the guy whose TV ads showed him riding around Denver on a scooter dropping coins in expiring parking meters and promising, what else, “change.”

I asked Mara Sheldon, Polis’ campaign spokeswoman, what he thought of the forthcoming pro-Polis ads, thinking the campaign might launch a pre-emptive strike to defend his pledge by saying negativity toward Kennedy is not what he wants.

“Sorry, Joey,” she replied in an email. “I cannot comment on the PAC. There is no coordination and an IE is completely separate from the campaign.”

That’s true. Independent expenditure committees, by law, don’t coordinate with candidates, at least not so as anyone can go to the trouble to prove for a law that’s virtually never enforced. Campaigns and PACs have the same relationship as itching and scratching.

That same day, however, Kennedy’s classroom friends released the attack ad on Polis, and then Team Jared found its voice on Kennedy.

“Cary Kennedy is turning to desperate and false negative attacks instead of putting forward a positive vision for the future of Colorado,” Sheldon said in a press release. And so it began.

Hickenlooper shook his head at the mud-slinging in the race to take his seat. “I’m really disappointed,” he said about the Teachers for Kennedy ad.

Hickenlooper famously eschewed negative ads as a candidate. “Every time I see one I feel like I need to take a shower,” he said in a 2010 gubernatorial campaign ad, as he showered in his clothes.

But by the end of the race, his hands weren’t totally clean, either. In October 2014, the Democratic PAC Making Colorado Great accused Republican nominee Bob Beauprez, Hickenlooper’s re-election opponent that year, of waging a war on women over reproductive rights.

“Sorry, Bob Beauprez, these decisions belong to us, and we won’t give you the power to take them away from Colorado women,” a female narrator said in the 30-second spot.

The governor has the power to “ban abortion”? No, not at all, but it doesn’t have to be true if it gets the job done on Election Day — and the mud splashes away from the preferred candidate.

Hickenlooper was unable or unwilling to snap the leash on her attack dogs.

I covered the 2014 governor’s race for The Denver Post, and I don’t recall Hickenlooper spanking his PAC, which spent $2.4 million to get him elected.

“The law says I’m not allowed to know or talk to or even shout out to the press what any independent expenditures should or shouldn’t do,” Hickenlooper told the newspaper.

That Clean Campaign Promise was an edict that came from the top, authored by the state Democratic Party.  That speaks to the party, as well, so it should mean something, or it means nothing at all.

Among its commandments: “I will encourage my supporters or volunteers to refrain from personal attacks or smears against other Democrats in this primary race.”

The Democrats left the definitions of attacks and smears open to interpretation, a thin shade for cover in the hot summertime campaigns.

In a Colorado Public Television/CBS4 debate two days after Teachers for Kennedy got an F on fairness, Kennedy was asked to respond, a prime slot to say those kinds of tactics were not what she’s about, and the pledge means something — the same opportunity the Polis campaign had when I asked his opinion about friends who might or might not keep it clean.

“It’s important that teachers have the ability to express their opinion in a race that matters to them,” Kennedy said.

My close friend and CBS4 political ace Shaun Boyd pushed back on the pledge versus the attack.

“I don’t like negative campaigning, but this was the teachers’ ad, not mine,” Kennedy replied, nodding as if she gave an adequate answer.

Republicans are no better about tearing each other down, but at least they didn’t make campaign promises their supporters don’t respect.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.