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Why the Aleshire robocall case still matters

September 02, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

When seemingly everyone in Washington County had their trousers in a wad two years ago over a dirty campaign trick that perhaps cost Kristin Aleshire his seat as a County Commissioner, Aleshire himself remained calm.

Today it is Aleshire who is agitated, long past the point that everyone else in the county has moved on. This lends his mission a quixotic aspect that seems a bit peevish given the amount of time elapsed since the original infraction.

But Aleshire seldom does anything without careful thought, so a case can be made that his recent actions serve both a strategic and tactical function that goes beyond one election cycle.

To refresh the memory, Aleshire, the commission’s lone Democrat at the time, was victimized by an 11th hour GOP robocall based on nonsense made to sound sinister, lacking only brooding organ music and bats flying out of the telephone handset.

But history shows that voters are easily duped by nonsense, which is why it’s such a significant player in high-level politics.

But the overbearing hardball tactics played by the pros at the national level can come off looking ham-handed and a bit ridiculous when they are applied to local politics. It’s like bringing a Corvette to a go-kart track; you might win the race, but everyone watches you take home the trophy with a fair degree of disgust.

So naturally, no Republican wanted to take “credit” for such boorish behavior, and that’s where the trouble arose. By law, someone has to take the credit, in that the robocall was a campaign expense that should have shown up on someone’s financial statement. And if a group of people collude to produce such material, they must be registered as a political committee.

It goes without saying that none of this happened, giving Aleshire a legitimate gripe, depending on how far he was prepared to take the matter.

Aleshire is running for City Council this fall, so tactically, bringing the issue back to the surface now serves as a pre-emptive strike against any similar shots Republicans might have had in store. If this seems far-fetched, remember that one of the political operatives fingered by Aleshire as being behind the robocall was also the strategist for the failed “team” — a slate of GOP candidates that tried to wrest control of the council from Aleshire and his fellow Democrats in 2005.

But this is Aleshire’s business. The voters’ business is the strategic impact of Aleshire’s case, which is to put those who would resort to dirty tricks on the defensive, as they try to add even more stench to an already fetid political swamp.

Aleshire has provided us with four names — Commissioners John Barr and Ruth Anne Callaham, State Sen. Chris Shank and GOP consultant Corey Stottlemyer — as being the prime suspects connected with the robocall.

With apologies to Barr and Callaham, they might be decent enough commissioners, but they’re no Gordon Liddy. They might indeed have had knowledge of what was going on, but the ringleaders? Please.

Yet they are left twisting in the wind because they had the most to gain, and thus appear to be prime suspects. And this is why Aleshire’s quest matters: Political masterminds should not be permitted to pull the strings behind the scenes and then slink back off into the shadows when things get hot.

If an elected official owes his or her seat to someone’s cash or expertise, we have a right to know. This has nothing to do with right or wrong (the robocall itself might have been distasteful and misleading, but it was not a wrongful activity), it has to do with transparency.

If A helps B gain public office, and then B uses that office to grant all sorts of favors to A, we need to know. Because then, if we find this behavior disagreeable, we can go to the polls next time around and vote for C.

If the state (which was more than happy to jump in with both feet when a misleading robocall threatened the campaign of Gov. Martin O’Malley) continues to reject Aleshire’s call for an investigation, it only gives further liberties to those who wish to influence elections without accountability.

The vague Delta House defense (“mistakes were made, wink”) expressed by Shank and Stottlemyer  serves a dual purpose: It tells Republican candidates, “If you want to win, see us, and we’ll collect from you later.” And it tells all candidates that they might very well get cold-cocked from behind without the opportunity to confront their accusers.

It’s perfectly legal to do both. But the state needs to step in and reaffirm that those who resort to slime must do so with the spotlight showing clearly on their faces.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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