Gainesville Times: The Race to go Negative

July 30, 2006
One candidate says his opponent is a habitual tax-raiser. The other responds that his opponent is a Democrat pretending to be a Republican.

Both Lee Hawkins and Mark Musselwhite spent thousands of dollars telling you what is bad about the other and what is good about themselves.

The campaign had taken a more civil tone during the runoff, until Saturday when Hawkins issued a direct-mail piece regarding Musselwhite’s real estate holdings, including an apartment complex on Summit Street where a slaying took place on May 29. The document includes a copy of a May 30 story from The Times reproduced by the campaign.

Musselwhite was clearly angered by the action of his opponent and said that his planned mailouts this week originally were going to be positive and issue-oriented.

The Republican race for Senate District 49 will be the most expensive political race in Hall County history. Campaign disclosure reports due this week will likely show that both Musselwhite and Hawkins have topped the $100,000 mark in spending for each of their campaigns.

But what precipitates a candidate’s decision to go negative, and does it work?

Hawkins and Musselwhite each hired professional political consultants to direct their campaigns. Consultants advise their clients on the need for mailouts, radio and newspaper ads, and the direction of their message.

Hawkins’ consultant is Mark Rountree, a veteran of a number of Georgia Republican campaigns.

Musselwhite hired Clinton Austin of Cobb County, who also has a number of winning GOP campaigns under his belt.

Austin and Rountree have faced off before in party primary battles. Both consultants play a finger-pointing game as to who was the first to fire a negative salvo. Whoever did, it became a testy primary duel.

“This race has been fairly high on the negative scale,” Austin said. “It started out that way, but the runoff has been very positive. It’s been more issue focused.”

Rountree said that during the primary, Musselwhite initially was caught off guard by Hawkins’ proposal to freeze property tax assessments.

“I don’t think Mark expected Lee to run a campaign that could actually win,” Rountree said. “I think when Mark got into the race, he was shocked by the number of people who stayed with Lee.”

But at least one of Hawkins’ property tax mailouts included a bold headline reading, “The Tax Chart Mark Musselwhite Doesn’t Want You To See.”

The chart contains a six-year history of the city of Gainesville’s tax digest and shows that taxable property values grew from $2.3 billion to $3.3 billion while Musselwhite was in office. At the same time, the taxes levied grew from $5.4 million to $9.4 million.

The only increase while Musselwhite was in office came in 2002, when the city council voted a .45 mil increase to fund staffing for a new fire station and additional police and code enforcement personnel. The next year, the taxes were reduced by .13 mil and remained the same for two years. An increase of .29 mils was approved after Musselwhite resigned from the council to run for the senate seat.

The piece goes on to suggest that Musselwhite was using “fuzzy math” to pretend there were no tax increases.

Musselwhite has defended his vote to fund the public safety expenditures in the year following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Austin, Musselwhite’s consultant, admits the tax message apparently resonated with city voters as his candidate lost the two largest precincts in the city of Gainesville on July 18.

But Musselwhite fired back with two pieces calling Hawkins a “Democrat” and a “lobbyist.”

Hawkins, a dentist, has been involved for many years with the Georgia Dental Association, serving as its president in 2004. He contends that the association has hired lobbyists who work in the state Capitol, yet he participated as an advocate for his profession.

He acknowledges that he has made contributions to Democrats in the past, but also has contributed thousands of dollars to Republicans, including fellow dentist and U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican from the Augusta area.

The mail piece highlights a contribution to Greg Hecht, one of two Democrats remaining in contention for lieutenant governor. Records show the contribution was made when Hecht was running for Congress in the 13th District. The mailer leaves the impression that Hawkins gave money to Hecht in opposition to Casey Cagle of Chestnut Mountain, the Republican nominee for the post.

Hecht faces Jim Martin in the runoff for the Democratic bid to face Cagle in November.

“To claim that Lee Hawkins is a Democrat and to claim that he is a lobbyist is grounded in fact,” said Austin, with a caveat. “Of course, Georgia doesn’t have party registration, so you have to infer a person’s party registration by their primary voting data.”

Election records do show Hawkins voted in Democratic primaries in the past, but in recent years has voted in Republican primaries.

But while the race between Musselwhite and Hawkins is the most expensive, is it the most negative? Two longtime Hall County observers say no.

“The race between Tom Oliver and Gary Gibbs (for county commission chairman in 2004) was much worse than Musselwhite and Hawkins,” said Ted Oglesby, retired editorial page editor of The Times and a regular columnist. “To me, when there are facts that standing alone are correct and may be pertinent, the untold portion, which is also factual can leave a false impression.”

Oglesby said that both Musselwhite and Hawkins have used portions of true statements without presenting all the facts.

“It is negative campaigning, if you don’t tell the whole story,” Oglesby said.

Johnny Vardeman, retired editor of The Times, said Republicans haven’t cornered the market on negative campaigning.

“If you look back 20 or 30 years, when you had only Democrats running, some of them got pretty mean,” Vardeman said. “They were a little more civil than what you have now.”

The negative campaigning continues despite the words of the man who is most-often credited with the Republican renaissance of the 1980s. Late President Ronald Reagan referred jokingly to his 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.”

Austin said going negative is not required and points to the 2002 GOP race for lieutenant governor between Mike Beatty and Steve Stancil as an example of a positive campaign.

“They never said a thing about each other. Imagine that,” Austin said.

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