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As voters, most of us are wise and media savvy enough to know that campaign literature circulated by candidates fall into two categories: positive messages that promote the agenda of the candidate, and negative ads, which disparages the candidate's opponent and distorts their positions.

Most of us recognize that positive ads often unduly glamorize the candidate, and many of us know that candidates demonize their opponents in negative ads and wildly distort their opponent's positions.

During the summer before the 1988 Presidential elections, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis ran 17% ahead of the Vice President, Republican George Bush (the first President Bush.) Yet Bush's team ran a vicious negative campaign, accusing Dukakis of being soft on crime, since a furlough program he authorized had released a prisoner named Willie Horton, who had committed a heinous act while on a weekend release. These negative ads resonated with the public, Willie Horton became a household name, and George Bush, won the election. (1)

That election proved that a well-orchestrated campaign using attack ads works. For years since, the American public has accepted attack ads as part of our “great" political system. (2) Most Americans don't blame or chastise candidates who adopt these practices. We know that the ads carry misstatements; yet, if the ad or literature is played and disseminated frequently enough, many of us start believing the message. The candidate who can afford to outdo his or her opponent with attack ads often prevails, regardless of how petty the ads are, or how wildly they pervert the truth.

An unfortunate consequence of all this is that the inevitable onslaught of attack ads often impact what a public official will say or do while in office. Often times, officials will avoid taking risky or controversial (but appropriate) steps out of fear that an opponent will use that against him or her in the next election.

I shouldn't be offended by the negative campaign literature being circulated by and amongst the candidates in the present election for Alderman of the 49th Ward.

But, I'll be truthful. As a landlord – and as someone who has devoted considerable time over the past dozen years trying to sensitize the public about the challenges landlords face – I've been a bit offended by the negative ads run by the campaign of Joe Moore against his challenger, Brian White, attacking Brian for the position he has maintained for the past year in support of his TIF/RIF proposal.

From the start, I have always been vehemently opposed to Brian's idea – and, yes, I do agree with the position that Joe finally adopted in this campaign against Brian's idea.

Yet, what I oppose is the way that Joe is expressing his opposition to Brian's plan. Joe's fallacious campaign literature distorts Brian's well intentioned plan, accusing Brian of offering “giveaways to landlords and developers who haven't kept their buildings up to code;" that Brian is offering a proposal to “bail out local landlords;" a program diverting funds “to make more money for landlords like himself." (3)

Contrary to what Joe implies, landlords have never sought “bail out" funds or “giveaways." Truth be told, Brian's proposal was never intended as a bail out – rather, landlords receiving the funds would have agreed to conform to some affordability guidelines in exchange for grants.

If Brian's program was so offensive to Joe, why didn't Joe voice his opposition months earlier? Instead, Joe sent emails such as the following, dated November 2009 – a time when this “innovative" program designed to promote affordable housing didn't look so bad to Joe – when he was floating the idea to the community:

“Learn About New Plan to Help Building Owners Improve Their Property and Preserve Affordable Housing
Dear Friend,
If you are an owner of rental housing, I would like to invite you to an informational breakfast meeting on a proposal that would provide owners of rental housing with grants to rehabilitate their buildings, while preserving affordable rental housing.
The breakfast will be held TOMORROW (Friday, November 20th) 8:00 a.m. at the Good News Community Kitchen administrative offices, 7659 N. Paulina.
I have been working closely with two community organizations--Northside POWER and the Lakeside Community Development Corporation--on an innovative proposal to establish a "Rogers Park Rental Improvement Fund" that would provide landlords with grants of up to $10,000 per unit to improve their property, provided the owners agree to maintain rents at an affordable level.
For more information on this proposal, CLICK HERE.
At my request, the City of Chicago's Department of Community Development is currently reviewing the proposal. Support of building owners is key to the success of this proposal, which is why this initial meeting will be geared toward building owners. As this proposal moves forward, additional community meetings will be held throughout the ward."

In addition, Joe came across as being supportive of the plan (though seeking community input) throughout 2010, including last Spring when Brian and Joe jointly presented the plan to the Rogers Park Builders Group.

Of course, being a landlord, I am more sensitive about Joe's campaign literature on this topic – for I sense that in his zeal to diminish Brian's proposal, he had no problem disparaging the local landlord community, inferring that we are the greedy landlord seeking to deprive the public of vital services for our own profit.

Of course, our political system being what it is, I shouldn't be surprised that a candidate circulated this kind of material. Rather, I am disappointed, for I figured that a candidate like Joe who has markedly improved his performance and his public image in the past four years wouldn't have felt compelled to engage in these unneeded cut throat tactics.

Footnotes and Sources:

  1. http://www.insidepolitics.org/ps111/independentads.html
  2. Of course, negative campaign ads started well before the 1988 campaign. Truly, negative campaigning must be as old as democracy itself. Check out Lyndon Johnson's 1964 television ad showing a nuclear explosion called “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)" (www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/284996.html ) Or, Bernard Epton's 1983 slogan used against Harold Washington: “Vote for Bernard Epton – Before its too late."
  3. http://www.whiteiswrong.com/p/cut-schools-parks-and-libraries.html