Ads featuring Attorney General Rob McKenna have been all over the radio and TV airwaves recently – but they weren’t paid for out of his re-election campaign coffers.
They’re public service announcements – PSAs – on identity theft, Internet fraud and drunk driving, just the kind of topics one might expect the state’s top law enforcement official to talk about.
But to Democrats hoping to unseat the first-term Republican incumbent, the PSAs feel a lot like stealth election ads that enhance McKenna’s name recognition and law-enforcement credentials at no cost to him or his party. The state Democratic Party has complained about the ads to the Public Disclosure Commission, stating that they should be subject to $1,600 contribution limits and reporting requirements.
Sponsors of the disputed ads are Comcast, Boeing Employees Credit Union, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the Century Council, a liquor industry coalition that enlists attorneys general nationwide to appear in ads against underage drinking.
Although they all seem like legitimate sponsors – not ones that would be accomplices to fudging election laws – there’s still value in having the PDC look into whether the PSAs are legal. Specifically, do the ads use McKenna’s office to further his re-election? Were arrangements for the ads made too close to the election?
State election law only allows a candidate to appear in a PSA if arrangements were made at least six months before announcing a campaign. McKenna says he agreed to the ads long before launching his campaign in November 2007.
It’s easy to understand why Democrats are upset by the ads, but McKenna is hardly alone in trying to keep his name before voters. Members of Congress and state legislators of both parties regularly send out glossy mailings, notices of town hall appearances and questionnaires seeking voter input. A recorded message by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire gives ferry riders a safety message. Like it or not, that kind of publicity is virtually a perk of office.
McKenna’s Democratic opponent, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, has said that if he’s elected, he will seek a ban on state elected officials doing PSAs during the year they’re up for re-election. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for McKenna to agree.