Oakland Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Jane Brunner and the Oakland police union have unleashed a series of vicious attack ads this week in their attempt to unseat Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and City Attorney Barbara Parker. The flurry of glossy hit-piece mailers also contained numerous false and misleading statements that grossly distort Kaplan and Parker’s positions and their records in office. Kaplan told the Express that her campaign is preparing a mailer to fight back against the false attacks, but Parker’s campaign said it likely would not, and plans instead to continue to point to Parker’s accomplishments in office. Such positives ads can be effective, but not responding to attacks could prove to be a mistake.
In the first presidential debate, Republican Mitt Romney aggressively went after President Obama, and Obama didn’t respond effectively. Within days, Obama’s lead in the polls evaporated. In fact, if Romney wins, the first debate will be main the reason why.
Likewise, this week, the Express published an election story about how Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi might win the race for Alameda County supervisor, because she’s been extremely critical of her opponents, and they have not only not responded, but also have failed to mention publicly that she was convicted just last year of shoplifting.
Finally, there’s the 2010 example of then-Councilwoman Jean Quan who relentlessly attacked the perceived frontrunner in the mayor’s race — ex-state Senator Don Perata. Quan’s campaign produced numerous mailers that went after Perata aggressively. His campaign didn’t respond. Quan then pulled out an unlikely victory.
Typically, political campaigns go negative when they’re behind. According to a poll commissioned by the Oakland Jobs and Housing Coalition, Brunner was trailing Parker 49 percent to 31 percent as of September 30. De La Fuente was losing 39 percent to 23 percent to Kaplan.
De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops’ union, which strongly supports the two candidates, responded to the losing poll numbers with a barrage of hit-piece mailers this week against Kaplan and Parker. The mailers also contain numerous falsehoods.
For example, a mailer from the cops’ union falsely claims that the Oakland City Attorney Office under Parker’s command spent “$10 million” on outside attorneys in 2011/2012. In truth, Parker’s office spent $3.86 million on outside attorneys in 2011/2012, city records show. The mailers from the cops' union and Brunner also fail to disclose that the Oakland City Attorney’s Office has been forced to hire outside attorneys to represent the city in lawsuits because Brunner and the city council have repeatedly slashed the number of city staff attorneys in so-called “cost-cutting” moves. The mailers also fail to disclose that much of the outside attorneys’ costs stem from the city being sued for police officer misconduct. Doug Linney, Parker’s campaign manager, called the mailers “bogus.”
The hit-pieces from De La Fuente and the cops’ union against Kaplan are also extremely misleading. They essentially blame Kaplan for the city’s crime spike in the past two years, contending that she was preoccupied with other issues. The mailers fail to disclose, however, that De La Fuente was the primary backer of the police layoffs, which occurred before the crime spike, and resulted in the department being understaffed. The mailers also don’t mention that Kaplan voted against the police layoffs, nor do they disclose that De La Fuente helped torpedo a plan last year by Kaplan and other councilmembers to rehire all of the cops who had been laid off in 2010 who were still looking for jobs.
It’s clear that De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops’ union decided to go negative because they were behind, but why tell lies about their opponents and grossly distort their records? The answer is simple: Because it works. Romney and Paul Ryan are living proof of how lies and distortions can be a path to victory. And recent research shows that if campaigns tell lies often enough people will believe them, especially in the absence of any information that counters the lies.
This is especially true for so-called low-information voters — voters who don’t pay close attention to politics and don’t read newspapers regularly. Oftentimes, the only political information these voters receive during the course of a campaign is political advertisements. In local elections, that means mailers. And if they get a barrage of mailers that say nasty things about certain candidates, then those voters are more likely to believe those nasty things — especially if the candidates being attacked don’t respond with mailers of their own.
Kaplan said her campaign is preparing a response mailer. She’s also urging more volunteers to help with phone banking and door-to-door campaigning to help offset the false and negative attacks. “A lot of people are outraged,” she said. “And we’re encouraging people to get involved.”
These types of positive campaign mailers are important, but candidates that depend on them solely are taking a risk. In fact, the campaigns that are usually most vulnerable to negative and false attacks are the ones that decide to take the “high road.” Again, President Obama in the first debate is the perfect example of what can happen when a candidate decides to remain positive and doesn’t respond to an aggressive attack.
Correction: The original version of this post mistakenly stated that the Oakland Jobs and Housing Coalition was backing both De La Fuente and Brunner. The coalition has not endorsed anyone in the campaigns.