Life of the party
Trapped by spending limits and voters' short attention spans, politicians
dissolve into shtick amidst a clamor for substance. The campaign, it seems, has
become more important than the candidate
by Jody Ericson
In the dim yellow light of a Providence streetlamp, the reality of the
elections last Tuesday became all too clear. Pulling up in front of City Hall
was the Cool Moose van, and as its doors slid open to emit gubernatorial
candidate Bob Healey, who was on his way to Haven Bros for some fries, those of
us waiting inside the diner could barely contain our glee.
"There he is!" someone shouted.
"Who's he again?" asked a stout, blond-haired woman waiting for the bus.
The fact that the diner, the size of a walk-in freezer, was the Cool Moose
Party's choice for campaign headquarters was vintage Healey. Having garnered
only about 6 percent of the vote this night, the bearded, long-haired candidate
picked through fries and ordered coffee -- cream and sugar -- while he waxed
poetic about politics. His shtick was as clear as it had always been: Healey is
an everyday guy who can't be bought by special interests and eschews the more
glamorous aspects of politics, such as fancy campaign headquarters on election
But to say that Healey's campaign was any more real than the others would be a
mistake. His style just didn't play well enough with voters. In Democratic
gubernatorial candidate Myrth York's case, the same held true. Most political
observers say she was too polished, too programmed by her handlers, while
Republican incumbent Lincoln Almond seemed to suffer from the opposite of this.
In the end, of course, Almond won, garnering 51 percent of the vote on his "I
yam what I yam" platform of running on his record rather than campaign
promises. More interesting, all those candidates who went negative this year --
attorney general wannabe Nancy Mayer, general treasurer hopeful James Bennett,
etc. -- lost.
These results can be interpreted two ways. According to Joseph Cammarano,
assistant professor of political science at Providence College, "we've seen an
increase in independent voters," in recent years -- people who have an
understanding of political professionalism and believe in good government.
Hammered by the partisan politics of the Monica Lewinsky case in Washington,
they gravitate toward what John Della Volpe, a pollster for Lieutenant
Governor-Elect Charles Fogarty and General Treasurer-Elect Paul Tavares, calls
On the downside of this, elections still boil down to who does "real" best.
And one miscalculation can bring the whole thing tumbling down, as people are
likely to equate how someone runs their campaign with how they'd run
government. Even worse, observers like former Democratic consultant David
Preston say that many campaigns went negative this year because of a "vicious,
three-ring circle" between the press, voters, and candidates, with the latter
the least responsible.
"Candidates react to the environment they're thrown into," he said Tuesday, as
the band played an upbeat tune at Democratic headquarters at the Biltmore and
exit poll numbers indicated that Myrth York had lost. Because of short
attention spans, shoddy reporting, and, believe it or not, campaign spending
caps, Preston says, politicians have been backed into a terrible Catch-22 --
they have only a few 30-second sound bites to get across their message, despite
what voters say about wanting more substance. In desperation, many politicians
go for the throat and attack their opponent, because it's easier and, they
think, more immediately effective.
Out of all the candidates, outgoing General Treasurer Nancy Mayer
represents this dilemma best. Asked why he won by such huge margins on Tuesday,
AG Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, surrounded by well-wishers, said,
"We kept it clean. We had a good campaign operation and a good message."
But according to many political insiders, Mayer's loss is much more
complicated. They say that her campaign for attorney general was hers to lose,
as initial polls indicated that Mayer would beat the pants off Whitehouse, who
wound up winning by 66.6 percent on November 3.
Mayer had high approval ratings for her job as treasurer. She was a feisty,
courageous leader, just what the AG's office needed. But she committed the
cardinal sin of campaigns -- she didn't poll first to see how voters would
react to her attack on Whitehouse for using drugs in college. If she had, she
would've known that most people don't care and that, even worse, her verbal
assaults actually made Whitehouse more sympathetic -- and, yes, more "real" --
Cammarano says that Mayer, 61, fundamentally misunderstood the drug issue. "It
might be a generational thing, it might be something else," he says. "Anyone
under 50 years old understands the moral vagaries involved in being in college
during the '60s and '70s. He was a kid. So what?"
According to Cammarano, Mayer "basically threw it away," because what she had
going for her was her "strength of being above the fray." By "going negative,"
she didn't capitalize on the public's perception that she had integrity.
But by the time Mayer and her campaign staff realized this, it was too late,
says Preston. "When you're subjected to spending limits, you have access to one
good punch," says Preston. Mayer had used hers up, and it was too late to go
back and try something else. She had to press forward with the negative.
As director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, Phil West was the main force
behind the state's Comprehensive Campaign Finance Law of 1992, whose purpose
was to curb the practice of buying influence in government with measures such
as a spending ceiling for candidates for statewide office and a $1000 limit on
When asked about this year's elections, he sees only positives in terms of
campaign financing. In 1990, says West, "we had become the second-most
expensive state in the nation in terms of spending on the governor's race,
second only to Alaska -- ironic, considering our size."
This year, though, York and Almond abided by the $1.5 million spending cap,
which forced them to do more hand-to-hand, versus televised, contact. "We want
to force candidates into the public arena to face the voters," says West, which
allows people more opportunities to discuss the issues. Indeed, says West, he
saw more debates and public forums this year. "That can happen in Rhode Island
much more than in bigger states."
But others see campaign-finance laws as a delicate balance that can be crushed
the minute a candidate goes negative -- a likely scenario considering that
about two-thirds of the money raised in political campaigns is spent on
advertising and half of this goes toward negative issues.
According to Sue Pegden, a consultant for York and Fogarty, when Bernard
Jackvony, the Republican incumbent in the lieutenant governor's race, launched
an assault against Fogarty this year, the Democrat had to abandon a planned
issues-oriented ad in favor of one that responded to the charges and threw some
mud against Jackvony in the process.
"We had an education ad we were ready to put up, but we didn't have a choice,"
says Pegden. They had to shift their limited funds to create a new commercial,
because "we couldn't let a negative ad go unanswered."
In the lieutenant governor's race in particular, says Pegden, press coverage
was almost nonexistent -- no one took the office seriously enough to really
take a look at the candidates. As a result, the ads became more important than
And with so little time and patience among voters, candidates like York,
who had to define herself above and beyond incumbent Almond, had little
recourse but to put together a package wrapped so tightly that there was no
room for error. She went for what the polls described as the Democratic Party's
strong points -- education and the environment. No doubt, every stand she took
had been researched thoroughly.
In this respect, York perhaps suffered the most from the political Catch-22.
She worked feverishly on her campaign and pounded away at her message. She
lost, some say, because she was too good. And this is what we've created -- a
call for humanness in a system that's all too inhuman.
"The American myth of Mr. Smith goes to Washington is gone," says Preston.
"Hopefully, voters will wake up one day and say, `This is broken badly and we
need to fix it.' "
With reports from Ana Cabrera.