The Maryland Democratic Party began airing advertisements this week praising congressional candidate C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's record on senior citizen issues and urging viewers to tell him to keep it up - by calling his county office number.
The Baltimore County executive's opponent, Republican Helen Delich Bentley, said that means a county government worker - paid by taxpayers - is responding to what is clearly a political ad.
"You've got a county employee - one of Dutch's county employees - sitting here taking calls on how wonderful Dutch is on senior issues?" asked Michael S. Kosmas, Bentley's campaign coordinator. "This is sleaze of the highest order."
David Paulson, the state party spokesman, said the ad is not meant to benefit Ruppersberger's bid for the 2nd District congressional seat but to increase awareness of the Democratic Party's positions on issues such as Social Security and Medicare.
"It explains that this is a man who exemplifies the Democratic Party's principles as they relate to those issues, and [urges voters to] call him and thank him," Paulson said. "I think that's appropriate. These are issues discussed in the public every day, and that's his office number in the office in which he works."
County spokeswoman Elise Armacost said the number in the ad is for the county executive's receptionist. Those working in the county executive's office were not aware of the ad before it began appearing, but they have not been overrun with responses. As of yesterday afternoon, one person had called, Armacost said.
Ruppersberger's campaign spokesman, Rick Binetti, said the campaign would not comment on issue advertisements. Because it was produced by another group, commenting on it would be inappropriate, he said.
The ad discusses some of Ruppersberger's accomplishments as county executive in improving the quality of life for seniors. It says he is now trying to fight for Social Security and prescription drug benefits under Medicare - not items in the county executive's purview - but the ad never mentions Congress.
Paulson said Ruppersberger's congressional campaign was "absolutely not" involved in the creation or airing of the ad.
"The fact that we are in the midst of a campaign is, of course, material, but it is not central to this issue," he said.
Bentley said she doesn't buy the Democrats' explanation.
"I think it's outrageous, frankly," Bentley said. "How stupid and blind do they think people are?"
Kosmas said the Bentley campaign has gotten several calls from voters who were angry because they assumed the county had paid for the ads.
"Issue ads," which do not explicitly advocate voting for or against a candidate, have become prevalent in the past 10 years, and their legal status is a matter of debate, said Ian Stirton, a spokesman for the Federal Elections Commission.
Some courts have held that advertisements that do not include words such as "vote for" "vote against," "support" or "oppose" do not count as electioneering in campaign finance law, Stirton said. Thus, political parties or interest groups could pay for the advertisements with unlimited, unregulated contributions known as "soft money."
Many issue ads do contain some sort of call to action - such as giving a phone number in the Ruppersberger ad. But no law requires a call to action in the ad, Stirton said.
A federal campaign finance reform law passed this year makes issue ads that mention a candidate illegal if they are aired less than 60 days before a general election or less than 30 days before a primary, but that law doesn't take effect until after the November election, said Steve Weiss, a spokesman for the Center on Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
"More and more of the money being spent to influence federal elections was not money raised under the prohibitions and limitations of the law and was not reported," Stirton said. "This [law] is something of an attempt to address those kinds of ads."