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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Kasten and Mudslinging

Milwaukee, WI — “What do you think of the Kasten-Garvey race for the U.S. Senate,” I asked an air traveler at the airport. She replied: “Lots of mudslinging there.” Milwaukee Common Council president, John R. Kalwitz called the campaign “the lowest level gutter campaign I’ve ever seen — on both sides.” He is quite mistaken when he says “both sides”.
Press reports about “gutter campaigning” or “mudslinging” or “negative campaigning” are not discriminating between accurate and inaccurate charges or between what is personal and what is public. As a result both candidates are tarnished with the same brush when one is clearly the culprit.

Here in Wisconsin, Ed Garvey, former deputy state attorney general, describes his opponent as having been an admitted drunk driver, having failed to file federal tax returns for 1977 and having sided repeatedly with oil, chemical, auto, insurance and other lobbies against consumer rights. All are true and none are personal. Public drinking by public officials while the Senate is in session, including police nabbing Kasten inebriated behind the wheel, is a public matter. He has been a menace on the highway as well as in the Senate.

Kasten, on the other hand, accused Garvey of being responsible for the absence of $750,000 from the football players association while he was its executive director. The desperate Senator beamed these ads all over Wisconsin television funded by his very ample campaign treasury of special interest contributions. His source for this charge was an innuendo by a disgruntled former employee reported in a recent book. The same book noted that the Department of Labor found no evidence of such monies disappearing. Kasten did not include that information in his ad. Garvey did the best he could, given limited funds, to rebut the libel and so did the present head of the Players’ Association. Kasten later withdrew his ad and admitted that his campaign staff did not check the charge before going with it. But Garvey’s momentum that was catching up with Kasten was blunted for over a week. And many people got the impression that both candidates were engaged in mudslinging. So, score one dirty trick for Kasten.

Different campaigners have different styles. Senator Abraham Ribicoff used to campaign in Connecticut without ever criticizing or referring to his opponent. He just stressed his positions and what he wanted to do if re-elected. That is a luxury most often associated with a front-runner.

In Colorado there is presently a very close Senate race between Democratic Congressman Timothy Wirth and Republican Congressman Ken Kramer. Kramer recently accused Wirth of being responsible for the breakup of the telephone system and higher local telephone prices. In fact, the opposite is true. It was Ronald Reagan’s government who cut the deal with AT&T in an antitrust settlement agreement that was destined to raise local telephone prices sharply. Another kind of agreement could have respected the needs of residential ratepayers and facilitated their organized representation. Those goals were in legislation which Rep. Wirth filed in 1984 and got through the House of Representatives. Senate Republicans, with several Democrats, blocked this-bill.

The charge against Garvey by Kasten was a smear and the charge against Wirth by Kramer was false and malicious. It is likely that the public saw the charges and rebuttals as “mudslinging” or “negative”, because there are no outside groups participating on the campaigns to enhance their quality or accuracy. While candidates are involved in campaigns, there needs to be more engagement by existing citizen, consumer and environmental groups on campaigns to expose the smears and falsehoods and make their perpetrators pay a penalty among the voters for such unfair practices. These groups would also broaden the basis for the campaigns into other issues often ignored by both candidates.

In some states the League of Women Voters has induced candidates to debate more often than one or both of them wanted. We need many more outside impressions on the candidates to make elections more profound, more interesting and more involving of the voters before Election Day.