McCaskill's, Blunt's ads stretch facts

Monday, September 20, 2004

By David A. Lieb ~ The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Propose, rebut. Attack, counterattack.

In the coming weeks, voters are likely to become weary of this pattern of political campaigns. Yet, in all likelihood, many will end up basing their votes -- at least partially -- on the candidates' proposals and criticisms.

The challenge, then, becomes deciphering the truth from the rhetoric.

In that sense, the past week was quite a challenge in the Missouri governor's race.

Supporters of Republican Matt Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill accused their rivals of being soft on criminals, harmful to school children and in violation of election laws.

Can all this really be true?

The campaigns back up their accusations with facts -- federal Department of Justice statistics, legislative voting records, state laws. Yet they also leave out some facts.

Consider the accusation last week, on behalf of Blunt, that McCaskill failed to put criminals behind bars while serving as Jackson County prosecutor in the 1990s. The claim -- made by Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd during a Republican Party news conference -- was a rebuttal to McCaskill's television ads touting a tough-on-crime approach.

Blunt's campaign backed up the criticism by citing a Department of Justice report from 1998, McCaskill's final year as prosecutor. The incriminating statistic: Just 23 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison or jail in Jackson County, the lowest incarceration rate of 39 large counties surveyed from across the United States.

What Blunt's camp failed to note was another statistic in the same report: 82 percent of felony defendants were convicted in Jackson County, well above the study's 68 percent average.

Furthermore, the study included not only violent felonies (most likely to result in prison time), but also felonies such as drug offenses, burglaries, vehicle thefts and fraud. In Jackson County, the percentage of violent felonies was lower than average while the percentages of property and drug crimes were higher -- meaning more convicted felons were eligible for probation sentences. Plus, it is the judge -- not the prosecutor -- who sentences convicted criminals.

On the same day as Blunt's factually questionable attack, McCaskill's campaign launched its own partially factual accusation.

When Blunt proposed to increase funding for Parents as Teachers, an early childhood education program, McCaskill's campaign responded by claiming Blunt had voted against the program when he was in the Legislature.

As evidence, McCaskill's campaign pointed to Blunt's 1999 "no" vote on the budget for the Department of Elementary and Secondary and Education, which oversees the Parents as Teachers program.

The program comprised a tiny portion of the department's multi-billion-dollar budget. And what McCaskill's campaign didn't explain was that Blunt voted against every major budget bill that year.

So to follow that logic, Blunt could be portrayed as opposing every government function. In fact, McCaskill's campaign also has accused Blunt of opposing prison funding, the fight against methamphetamine and ethanol incentives -- each time citing those 1999 budget votes.

Blunt's campaign contends he voted against the budget that year because he thought the state was spending too much -- not because he specifically opposed each program in the budget.

Perhaps the best example of distorted facts last week came when the Missouri Democratic Party, backed by McCaskill's campaign, criticized Blunt for asking county clerks to send the names of people who had requested absentee ballots to the state Republican Party.

A Blunt spokesman acknowledged the party planned to campaign to these people. And the Democratic Party suggested Blunt was using a "potentially illegal scheme to violate Missouri election laws." As evidence, it cited a state law against coercing voters while assisting them in casting absentee ballots.

Yet that law refers to cases where disabled people literally need help casting a vote. And candidates -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have for decades asked clerks for the names of absentee voters so they could target them with campaign materials.

Longtime Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, a Democrat, said she even used the tactic in past campaigns. Noren didn't know why her party's leaders were making an issue out of it.

"This is one of the problems going on in election administration -- every piece of it has become a political issue," she said. "Suddenly, things that have gone on for years get turned into a political thing."

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