It never fails: today's scandals are revived as tomorrow's attack ads. Here's
the mud we can expect to see flying during next year's race for governor
The advertising wizards for Paul Cellucci and Joe Malone are going to need a
delicate touch if they intend to make use of the May 20 Boston Herald
and its banner headline, GRAND OLD PARTY TIME. There's plenty of good dirt in
that paper, but it's about both Republican gubernatorial candidates.
If you're working for Lieutenant Governor Cellucci, you'll want to pan
lovingly over the subhead AUDIT SHOWS LOTTERY HID $145G IN ENTERTAINMENT, then
down to the photo of a smiling State Treasurer Malone. And don't forget to zoom
in on the caption: "The Lottery, run by Joseph D. Malone, hid money for
tickets, parties and golf tournaments, an audit reveals."
But don't let that lens wander too far over to the left. Otherwise, it'll
catch the other subhead, CELLUCCI SPENT BUNDLE ON LAVISH H'WOOD TRIP,
accompanied by a smiling Cellucci and the news that a four-day "trade mission
to Hollywood" cost taxpayers $41,000 -- "more than twice what a state official
told reporters at a press conference two weeks ago."
The Herald's double hit on Malone and Cellucci was the most striking
moment of a fascinating few weeks in Massachusetts political coverage. Nearly a
year and a half before voters cast their ballots in the 1998 gubernatorial
primary, the mud is already piling onto the four major-party candidates:
Cellucci, Malone, and the Democratic hopefuls, US Representative Joe Kennedy
and Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. (Granted, so far it's been heaped onto
Kennedy with a backhoe and dribbled onto Harshbarger with a teaspoon.)
And though anyone with a life will have forgotten about this month's
skirmishing long before Primary Day, the current spate of negative news is
valuable raw material for the campaign to come: these stories will be the
bricks and mortar of next year's negative political ads. Pointless as it all
may look right now, the winners of Pre-Primary 1997 will have an important
advantage when the campaign begins for real approximately a year from now.
The dirt-gathering ritual now under way is a venerable tradition, but it is
hardly to be applauded. Attack ads are, to a considerable extent, responsible
for the public's deepening cynicism about politics. MIT political scientist
Stephen Ansolabehere, co-author of Going Negative (Free Press, 1996),
says that a heavy dose of negative advertising can depress voter turnout by
five or six percent. And the voters most disaffected are independents, who now
make up nearly half the Massachusetts electorate. "They just don't buy it
anymore," says Ansolabehere.
Still candidates and consultants persist in negative advertising because it
works. After all, if your attack ads convince some voters to stay home and
not vote for your opponent, that's as good as having those votes in your
Which is why, in Pre-Primary 1997, there are no winners -- only losers, with
the biggest losers generating the most dirt that can be used against them in
What follows is a preliminary assessment of the action thus far, in order of
who's been damaged the most.
All this presupposes, of course, that 1998 will turn out be as dirty a campaign
as most of its recent predecessors. Perhaps the most significant force for
changing that is Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, which is asking TV
and radio stations to provide free airtime for candidates who want to broadcast
positive messages. The aim, says staff director George Pillsbury, is not to
eliminate negative advertising, but rather to dilute its impact.
- Joe Kennedy. Without question the biggest loser, a would-be
champ who's in danger of becoming a chump if he doesn't turn things around in a
The sexiest story -- literally -- has been his brother Michael's alleged
affair with a teenage babysitter, and Joe's bumbling, contradictory accounts of
what he knew and when he knew it. Joe and Michael's cousin John F. Kennedy Jr.,
the editor of George magazine, may have taken some of the pressure off
last week when he gracefully finessed the controversy during an appearance on
Imus in the Morning, quipping, "Kennedys sell magazines or
newspapers. . . . Regrettably, maybe we keep providing them
But Michael's problems ultimately aren't Joe's responsibility, and they're
certainly not going to make their way into any attack ads. Potentially more
troublesome are stories such as Andrew Miga's May 8 Herald piece on
Joe's fearsome temper (illustrated with a made-for-TV front-page shot of a
fist-waving "Smokin' Joe"), which can be used as a subtle reminder to viewers
of ex-wife Sheila's claim that he verbally abused her.
The Kennedys' overweening sense of entitlement was on display in Frank
Phillips's May 1 Boston Globe story on the family's efforts to entice
Harshbarger out of the race with a plum federal job -- much as they allegedly
helped pave the way for Governor Bill Weld's pending exit. Those efforts,
though denied by Kennedy insiders, were denounced in editorials in both the
Globe (which lamented "[t]he sense that the fix is in") and the
Herald ("It's beginning to stink").
The best news Kennedy has had in quite a while passed virtually unnoticed: a
story by Chris Black in the May 22 Globe reporting that eight of the
state's 10 congressmen spurned Bill Clinton, Trent Lott, and Newt Gingrich's
so-called balanced budget in favor of an alternative offered by Kennedy. That
could find its way into a positive ad, and help fend off the criticism that
Kennedy lacks substance.
- Joe Malone. The treasurer's partisans may argue that Cellucci
has had an even worse time of it, but Cellucci is going to have an enormous
advantage in erasing his negatives: a full year as acting governor before
primary voters have to pass judgment on him.
All Malone's got is his record as treasurer. And though he has done much to
professionalize that office, State Auditor Joe DeNucci's report that the state
lottery spent nearly $150,000 on entertainment through a secret "doughnut fund"
could be devastating. "That story has legs," says Mark Leccese, editor of the
new political weekly Beacon Hill.
Malone didn't help his cause by accusing DeNucci of political motivations, a
charge that looked ludicrous given that a Globe Spotlight investigation
had already raised questions about Malone's management of the lottery.
(Malone's outburst did allow the Herald to tweak DeNucci political
adviser George Regan, whose status as a public-relations consultant to
Herald publisher Pat Purcell is widely resented in the newsroom.)
Malone can win only by casting himself as a populist outsider, and that's
going to be much more difficult to do now.
- Paul Cellucci. The last few weeks have not been kind to the
lieutenant governor, whose principal liability until recently had been his
$700,000 in personal debt, $70,000 of which he carries on his credit cards.
Now, in addition to the $41,000 Hollywood junket (a bit of fluff that
nevertheless would look mighty sleazy in an attack ad), comes the news that
Cellucci intends to hang on to his $30,000 part-time teaching job at Boston
College -- even after Weld departs for Mexico City this fall and Cellucci moves
into the corner office. "Governor Moonlight," a Globe editorial called
Cellucci on May 22.
Cellucci no doubt needs the money. His opponents, meanwhile, will be all too
happy to remind voters that the last governor to hold an outside job was the
notorious James Michael Curley.
- Scott Harshbarger. The past month has been smooth sailing for
the attorney general, who has accepted kudos for taking on the tobacco
companies and for hanging in against the Kennedys while his formerly
invincible-seeming opponent fell to earth.
Frankly, it's a stretch to find much negative in Harshbarger's recent press
clippings, but there are a few potentially nettlesome tidbits: his initiative
to limit the number of hours high-school students can work at part-time jobs,
which Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief warned on May 22 could remind
voters of former governor Michael Dukakis's sanctimonious side; a zing from
State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston), co-chair of the legislature's
Insurance Committee, questioning Harshbarger's cooperation with embattled
insurance commissioner Linda Ruthardt; and suggestions that Harshbarger may
have dabbled with the idea of taking a federal job in the days before Joe
Kennedy suddenly began to look vulnerable.
Nothing devastating, to be sure, but they could represent the seeds of
negative ads to come.
But Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz, a part-time
political consultant, says modern technology such as Nexis -- a massive news
database -- make researching attack ads so easy that they will continue to
dominate the political landscape into the foreseeable future.
"Everything's always going to be negative from now on," Berkovitz says.
Berkovitz may be overly pessimistic. After all, last year's US Senate race
between Weld and incumbent John Kerry was reasonably positive, and when Weld
finally turned negative, he only fell further behind.
But that race featured two popular, gentlemanly candidates with few negatives
that attack ads could credibly exploit. By contrast, next year's gubernatorial
candidates are both more combative and more vulnerable.
In other words, look for Campaign 1998 to be a mudbath. Pre-Primary 1997