Independent ads appear to benefit Townsend

Groups opposing Ehrlich carry hard-line message

Election 2002

October 08, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend doesn't need to spend her own campaign money to launch every attack on Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The Democratic nominee for governor is benefiting from the well-timed advertisements of friendly independent groups that are essentially delivering much of Townsend's hard line for her.

There's the state teachers union airing radio ads telling voters that Townsend has "the right vision" on education. Then there's the largest union of state employees criticizing Ehrlich for hurting working families.

Attack ads on Ehrlich's gun control positions are being funded by a national organization and a Baltimore-based group of African-American ministers.

And environmentalists and health care advocates are paying for radio ads telling voters the Republican gubernatorial nominee is "hazardous to your health."

"What the Maryland State Teachers Association is doing is basically making sure that voters know who the best choice is for education," said Debra Williams-Garner of the MSTA, the voice behind the ad that began airing last week on Washington radio stations. "Good things have happened over the last eight years ... and this race is going to have such a tremendous impact on the quality of public education in Maryland."

Such ads are perfectly legal, as long as they're created and paid for by independent groups who work without any input from the campaigns. Such groups can launch tough - and often effective - attacks at arm's length from the candidates they're supporting.

"What they do is appear to legitimize the attack by giving the appearance of being neutral and impartial as opposed to being partisan," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The League of Conservation Voters or some other groups step out and say this candidate has voted the wrong way on all of the issues we think are important, and they're not doing it as the opposition campaign."

In many state and national races, candidates from both political parties tend to benefit from such ads. Unions, environmentalists and gun control groups tend to back Democratic campaigns, while gun rights and pro-business groups often throw their support behind Republicans.

But no groups have stepped forward to pay for independent ads on behalf of Ehrlich - something anticipated by the GOP. Such conservative-leaning organizations as the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee would probably hurt Ehrlich more than help him among Maryland's majority Democratic electorate, according to Republican consultants.

"We don't anticipate groups coming in for Bob, and that's a fundamental difference between the two parties," said Ehrlich campaign spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "The Democratic Party has some natural constituencies built into it that have the ability to raise money and attack on her behalf.

"Each of these groups intends to portray Bob as a monster, that Bob hates the environment, that Bob hates poor people, that Bob hates working people, that Bob hates black people. That's the despicable nature of these ads."

A spokesman for Townsend said the help is welcomed - though all of it is done without the knowledge or assistance of the campaign.

"It's reassuring to know that we have a great deal of support from a lot of different groups, from a lot of different Maryland organizations," said Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm. "That's part of winning as a Democrat, having support from the traditional grass-roots democracy organizations that care about working families just like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend cares about working families."

The groups also emphasize they work independently of the campaigns. For example, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence started radio ads attacking Ehrlich's record on gun control in the early summer, long before the Townsend campaign was saying anything negative about the GOP candidate.

"We are a single issue advocacy group. This is what we do," said Amy Stilwell, the Brady Campaign's communications director. "We're not here to carry anybody else's water."

The Brady Campaign has spent about $100,000 so far on radio and cable television ads - including one that tied Ehrlich's votes on assault weapons to the 1999 killings at Columbine High School. While such a link may make Townsend campaign aides uncomfortable, they're able to say it's done by an independent group beyond their control.

During Maryland's primary election, the most prominent form of third-party advertising actually wasn't from any organization, but was paid for by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Glendening's campaign committee spent $50,000 in leftover funds on radio ads attacking Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - an effort to boost the failed primary challenge of the governor's long-time ally, Secretary of State John T. Willis.

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