Dirty politics in Florida And elsewhere: It should be exposed and its practitioners punished.

November 18, 1995

FLORIDA HAS a long history of tolerance for dirty political campaigning. A U.S. senator was once defeated for re-election by a candidate who repeatedly told backwoods audiences that the senator was an "extrovert" who practiced "celibacy" before marriage and whose sister was a "thespian in New York." Lately things have gotten worse.

Three years ago a candidate for Congress in a largely Cuban-American district was defeated by charges in a newspaper to the effect that she and her husband were pro-Castro. In such a district that is the kiss of death, figuratively speaking, and almost literally so, according to the federal district judge who later heard the candidate's claim of libel against the newspaper. (The accused candidate received death threats.) The judge sided with the newspaper, however, because the charge was "political. . . opinion" and thus protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court recently refused to review the decision.

Properly so, we believe. There are better forums than courts to punish journalistic mudslingers. Readers of a newspaper that stoops to falsehoods about public figures should demand it change its ways -- or abandon it.

When candidates stoop so low, there can be retribution in the political forum. That seems about to happen in Florida now. A state Senate committee plans hearings on recent revelations that the campaign staff of Gov. Lawton Chiles made dishonest scare calls to voters in the last hours of the 1994 contest between the governor and his opponent, Jeb Bush. Campaign staffers mis-identifying themselves as representatives of impartial organizations told several hundred thousand senior citizens falsely that Mr. Bush was a tax evader who might abolish Social Security and cut Medicare.

Governor Chiles' cherished reputation for integrity could be heavily damaged by these hearings. That may be small consolation to Mr. Bush, who lost by 65,000 votes out of 4.2 million cast (though it may help him if he runs again).

A better outcome would be the adoption by Florida of a fair campaign practices law with real teeth in it. Maybe that would spur states (like Maryland) to close loopholes in their fair campaign laws that would allow Florida-style situations.

The American public is disenchanted enough with clean politics.

Dirty politics just makes it worse.

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