Playing up candidates’ connections to the military is a common election strategy in the South Sound, particularly for those running for office near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Yet by including photos of candidates in uniform or spotlighting candidates’ military family members, some political ads — perhaps inadvertently — violate Department of Defense rules designed to avoid implying military endorsement of candidates.
The campaign of state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, recently pulled a TV ad featuring O’Ban’s active duty son, an Army lieutenant, after JBLM officials told the campaign that the son’s participation broke the rules.
Other local candidates with prior military experience have run afoul of federal policy by using photos of themselves in military uniform without a required disclaimer saying they are not endorsed by the Department of Defense.
Defense Department rules say active duty service members should avoid “any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security … with a partisan political activity.”
That means service members cannot appear in uniform at campaign rallies or events, nor can active duty members appear on radio or television — whether in uniform or not — to endorse a partisan political cause or candidate.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said the military’s election-year rules are in place to avoid the appearance that the Defense Department is backing any political candidate or campaign.
“These rules are in keeping with the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, and that members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement,” Christensen wrote in an email.
In the case of the O’Ban campaign, the offending TV ad included O’Ban’s two sons — one an active duty officer and the other a reservist — speaking about their military experience and how their father taught them about public service.
Army Lt. Landan O’Ban spoke of how he attended West Point and now serves at JBLM, while O’Ban’s other son, Thomas, spoke of attending law school at the University of Washington while serving in the Army Reserves. Both sons appeared in civilian clothing, although photos of them in military uniforms flashed on the screen during the ad.
After the ad began running, military officials at JBLM contacted Landan O’Ban and the O’Ban campaign to inform them “what was permissible for soldiers to participate in,” said Lt. Col. Bill Coppernoll, public affairs officer for the 7th Infantry Division.
The O’Ban campaign then pulled the ad off the air and debuted a new TV ad that featured only Thomas O’Ban, the reservist, and no photos of the sons in uniform.
Chad Minnick, O’Ban’s campaign consultant, said he wasn’t aware of any restrictions on active duty military personnel participating in political ads until he heard from JBLM that there was an issue. Minnick noted that the Defense Department restrictions apply only to the service members participating in campaigns — the campaign itself wasn’t violating any rules, he said.
“We acted immediately when we found out there was a problem,” Minnick said. “There was nothing intentionally ever done — these kids wanted to say something about their dad, and we wanted to give them an opportunity.”
After pulling the TV ad, the campaign also redesigned a printed ad that had featured a photo of O’Ban and his wife with their sons in uniform. The new campaign ad features a photo of O’Ban, his wife and their sons in civilian clothing instead.
Minnick said he doesn’t think there was an issue with the original flier, but the campaign wanted to show “an abundance of caution” by swapping the photos.
“The only move by the campaign was to help these kids abide by the rules,” Minnick said.
Coppernoll said violations of the military’s election-year policies are not uncommon.
“Every election season, this is something that chains of command, soldiers and their leaders will revisit,” Coppernoll said.
The military’s rules are less restrictive when dealing with members of the National Guard who support political candidates. Jeanette Lineberry, a candidate for Pierce County District Court judge, has circulated mailers in which her husband, a member of the Army National Guard, appears in a military dress uniform. A spokesman for the Washington National Guard said that nothing in Lineberry’s ad violates Department of Defense regulations.
Still, candidates can run into trouble when using photos of themselves in military uniforms in their own campaign ads.
According to Defense Department policy, former or inactive members of the military who use photos of themselves in uniform on their campaign fliers or websites must include “a prominent and clearly displayed disclaimer that neither the military information nor photographs imply endorsement by the Department of Defense or their particular Military Department.”
Candidates who didn’t include a disclaimer in political mailers this year include state Rep. Larry Seaquist, a Gig Harbor Democrat who served 32 years in the Navy, and Rob Freeby, a former Navy SEAL running to be a Tacoma Municipal Court judge.
State Rep. Graham Hunt, an Orting Republican who served 10 years in the Air Force, and Republican state Rep. Dick Muri, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Steilacoom, used military photos on their campaign websites without a disclaimer.
Freeby, the Tacoma judicial candidate, said he had never heard of the policy requiring a disclaimer. One of Freeby’s campaign mailers includes three photos of him in uniform.
“They’re not placed in there in an effort to say the Department of Defense or the Navy is endorsing me in the judicial race,” Freeby said. “That thought never crossed my mind.”
Seaquist, who was first elected to the state House in 2006, also said he knew nothing of the rules. He said he assumed such regulations applied only to active duty service members and not retirees.
Then there’s the case of Republican candidate Phil Fortunato, a former one-term legislator from Auburn who is looking to return to the state House.
On his campaign website, Fortunato is shown in a military-issued flight suit alongside his son, a Marine who served on the USS Dubuque.
Fortunato said he wore the flight suit while on a family visit to the ship, commonly known as a Tiger Cruise. He said he doesn’t think anyone looking at the photo would assume he had served in the military.
“I don’t know how they would, with the big bushy beard,” Fortunato said. “That would sort of be a little bit of a giveaway.”