How to Accentuate the Negative Right

COMMENT

October 16, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Negative campaigning is one thing. Dirty, personal, nasty, name-calling campaigning is another.

Negative campaigning occurs whenever a candidate says something harshly unflattering about his opponent.

It's John Gary, Republican candidate for county executive, criticizing Democrat Ted Sophocleus for voting to increase his county pension. It's Ted Sophocleus saying John Gary would politicize the school board by picking its members himself.

It's state Sen. Michael J. Wagner attacking GOP challenger Ed Middlebrooks' County Council record. It's Ed Middlebrooks accusing Mike Wagner of not appearing at enough community meetings.

Does anybody have a problem with this? I don't, not unless the criticism is a lie -- and especially not if the candidates are explaining how they would do a better job.

If you're competing against someone for public office, it stands to reason that you aren't going to run around saying positive things about him. You're going to point out his weaknesses. You're going to capitalize on his mistakes. You're going to criticize his ideas. You're going to do everything you can to show voters why he's not the right person for the job and you are.

That's what Messrs. Gary, Sophocleus, Wagner and Middlebrooks are doing. That's negative campaigning.

But it is not dirty, personal, nasty, name-calling campaigning.

Sad to say, Anne Arundel County voters currently are witness to a textbook example of the latter: the state's attorney's race featuring incumbent Democrat Frank Weathersbee and Republican John Greiber, two men who seem to be competing to see who can level the meanest insults at the other.

Mr. Greiber started attacking the state's attorney's record as soon as he announced. No problem there; that's perfectly acceptable negative campaigning. But Mr. Weathersbee then called Mr. Greiber "the kind of guy who looks like he would shoot a sick puppy," and it has been all downhill from there.

Mr. Greiber complains that "Frank started it" and protests that he's criticizing Mr. Weathersbee's performance, not making personal smears. I'm sorry, but comments like, "I'm everything Frank wants to be and failed at," have a nasty, personal edge that drag a campaign down to worm-level.

So do press releases peppered with labels that would be amusing if they weren't coming from a man who wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for office. A graduate of "The Joe Isuzu College of Hoodwinking" and "Set 'Em Free Weathersbee" -- these are the kind of names Mr. Greiber's calling the state's attorney.

Mr. Weathersbee is giving as good as he's getting. He told The Capital that Mr. Greiber has "the intelligence of Forrest Gump and the conscience of Hannibal Lecter." He jumped into the War of the Press Releases, firing off one missive accusing his opponent of preying on citizens' fear of crime the way Joe McCarthy preyed on people's fear of communism.

At an Oct. 6 debate in Annapolis and another here at The Sun's Anne Arundel bureau four days later, the candidates' body language reeked of hostility. Instead of addressing the audience in Annapolis, Mr. Greiber faced Mr. Weathersbee, looking like he was ready to go after him. Mr. Weathersbee turned his back to Mr. Greiber.

The two did shake hands before our Sun debate (Mr. Greiber, to his credit, initiated that move). But when a photographer asked them to move closer, Mr. Weathersbee asked, "This is just for the picture, right?" He moved away as soon as the picture was shot, and he and Mr. Greiber barely looked at each other again.

Other politicians, even those who support either Mr. Greiber or Mr. Weathersbee, have become disgusted by their behavior.

Make no mistake, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Middlebrooks do not like one another either. They exchanged some pretty strong words at their Sun debate, as you can see by the transcript which appears in this section today. But they were big enough to approach each other on their own, to talk pleasantly, even to share a few jokes about their much-ballyhooed feud. Afterward, Mr. Wagner complimented his well-prepared opponent on a job well done.

They also agreed there shouldn't be room in any campaign for overt bitterness -- that even candidates with no love lost between them should act like civilized adults.

Alas, that seems too much to ask of Messrs. Greiber and `D Weathersbee.

*

This will be my last column for awhile. I am expecting a baby Nov. 1 and will be taking a six-month maternity leave.

Liz Atwood, who has been working as a Sun reporter covering Annapolis, will be filling this space during my absence, as well as writing editorials out of Anne Arundel County. Liz has been with the paper since 1988. She's been assigned to Anne Arundel since 1992; before that she was a business and metro reporter with The Evening Sun.

You can call her with ideas, comments and complaints at 315-8948.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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