Mudslinging begins in race for Senate

07/12/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

The mud has been slung.

Now two state Senate candidates in Wichita say they want it to stop, although they don’t appear to be communicating directly or entirely backing away from the third-party advertisements that upset them.

Wichita Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf is calling on her Republican primary opponent, Michael O’Donnell, and other candidates to sign an ethics pledge that says candidates shouldn’t attack each other or mislead voters.

Schodorf also called on third-party groups to stick to facts – not the half-truths that have been flowing back and forth as the groups try to wield influence on the race for a Senate seat that represents much of west Wichita.

“I am calling on third party PACs to convey their information in a truthful fashion without twisting the truth to scam voters,” she said.

O’Donnell said he’d be happy to sign on. But he said he hasn’t heard directly from Schodorf or seen the pledge.

“I think the senator has a lot of rhetoric that she’s not willing to back up when it comes to that offer,” he said. “But I’d absolutely sign that and be involved in it.”

The candidates’ outrage has roots in a few postcards and a phone survey.

One batch of mailers came from Kansans for Kansas Inc., whose treasurer is an acquaintance of Schodorf. It has a cartoon of O’Donnell in a diaper with a lollipop, ridicules his Wichita City Council voting record and questions his residency in southwest Wichita.

Another comes from Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates limited government and was founded by David and Charles Koch. It says Schodorf refused to help stop President Obama’s health care reform.

Although there are grains of truth in both ads, it’s also clear why the candidates feel attacked and how the ads could be misleading to voters who don’t have hours to spend looking up esoteric votes and examining property records.

Political punches

It started with the phone calls.

No big surprise in election season. But this one caught Sheila Crabtree’s attention. It asked whether she would support Senate candidate O’Donnell if she knew that he really lived with his mother in Bel Aire – not in the house where he says he lives in southwest Wichita, which is his official address on campaign filings and for his position as a Wichita City Council member.

“I wondered about that,” said Crabtree, a 42-year-old who says she follows national politics more closely than local. “If it was true, that would bother me a bit.”

About a day later, O’Donnell came to her door during a neighborhood door-to-door canvass. She told him about the call, and he said he was flabbergasted.

It’s unclear who was behind the phone calls.

Then came a mail attack from Kansans for Kansas, a not-for-profit corporation formed in March whose treasurer is Mary Knecht, an acquaintance of Schodorf who is listed on the League of Women Voters website as its special events chair.

O’Donnell did have residency issues in 2007, when he was disqualified from a council race because he was a registered voter in Bel Aire when he filed for Wichita City Council, and he generally spent nights in Bel Aire while he fixed up the house in Wichita.

But O’Donnell, who said he lived at the house at that time, said he has since been staying and sleeping at the house behind Grace Baptist Church where his father is a pastor in southwest Wichita. He said he rents it from the church. That is his voter registration address, and it has been since 2007.

O’Donnell promises that he lives where he says he lives on West Haskell. He said he hasn’t stayed at his mom’s place since his furnace went out last winter – and that was only a few nights.

The Kansans for Kansas ad also says O’Donnell voted against revoking a license of Moonwalks for Fun, an inflatable ride company where a 5-year-old died after falling off a ride in 2010.

Moonwalks for Fun had its license suspended for 90 days because of concerns over equipment inspections. That was before O’Donnell was sworn in as a council member in April 2011.

The city found the company had a gap in its insurance policy and revoked its license on April 29, 2011. The business appealed it, saying it had an agreement with another company that had insurance and proper licensing.

O’Donnell and council members Jeff Longwell and James Clendenin, voted against upholding the city staff’s move to revoke the license and called the insurance squabble a paperwork issue. But the majority of the council voted to revoke it.

The Kansans for Kansas ad also says O’Donnell voted against more trash disposal options. It’s a complicated issue, and O’Donnell says he didn’t vote against options. But he was the lone vote against the plan that mandates curbside recycling and provides more options.

The real rub for O’Donnell is where the ad says he is a “kid with no family, no house payment, no utilities, no trash bills – no worries”

O’Donnell said he’s offended. He has family – his parents, for example. “I think that’s insulting to single people who have extended family,” he said.

He said he rents a house, pays utilities and has worries like everyone else.

“It’s patently insulting,” he said.

Schodorf, meanwhile, finds herself targeted on one of the hottest topics of this summer – Obama’s health care plan.

“Senator Jean Schodorf Refused to Help STOP ObamaCare,” the ad from Americans for Prosperity says in large font.

The ad says she voted “to restrict Kansans’ right to opt-out of ObamaCare if the law was upheld.”

That refers to a resolution that would have let Kansans vote on a constitutional amendment in November that would have opposed the Affordable Care Act by saying no law can force a person or employer to buy health insurance.

An amendment was offered that said Kansans wouldn’t vote on the matter if the Supreme Court upheld the health care act, which it did a few weeks ago. Schodorf voted in favor of that successful amendment. She said she didn’t want to spend money to put the matter on the ballot because the Supreme Court decision would make it moot anyway.

She also voted in favor of the resolution for a constitutional amendment. But the bill failed to get the needed two-thirds majority.

Schodorf voted in favor of the state’s Healthcare Freedom Act of 2011, which, among other things, says Kansas residents have the right to choose to buy or refuse health insurance.

This year, she voted for a constitutional amendment to preserve the right to choose health care services and participate in a health insurance plan.

But in 2010, she voted against pulling a similar resolution out of a committee so the Senate could debate and vote on it.

In a 2010 Eagle article, she said she would rather fix Obama’s health care plan than repeal it. She said she opposed the law’s coverage mandate because it could be a burden to business.

Third party free-for-all

The political spin machines are free to spin away in Kansas. In some cases, voters will never know whose hands are doing the spinning.

Voters can give up to $1,000 to a Senate candidate during the primary and another $1,000 during the general election cycle – or up to $500 to candidates in other races. They can give unlimited amounts to political action committees, and those contributions are made public a couple times a year when the PACs file paperwork with the state ethics commission.

Corporations, nonprofits and individuals can spend however much they want on attack ads as long as they don’t directly tell voters who to vote for or against. And they don’t have to identify who paid for the ad, although they often identify themselves.

Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Ethics Commission, said Kansas law has always allowed corporations to produce political ads as long as they don’t expressly advocate for a candidate. Often, the ads will urge a voter to call a candidate and thank them for something or ask them why they voted for or against something, rather than tell voters who to vote for.

But elections are drawing more money. More third-party groups continue to exert influence through issue ads while more and more people find ways to amplify their message without the public knowing where the money comes from, Williams said.

“It just keeps growing and growing every year,” she said.

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