Beware those election mailers (and no, we didn’t endorse Meredith Neal)

The good news: This independent expenditure mailer for Tacoma City Council candidate Meredith Neal is not a hatchet job on her opponent. The bad news: It falsely claims The News Tribune endorses Neal.
The good news: This independent expenditure mailer for Tacoma City Council candidate Meredith Neal is not a hatchet job on her opponent. The bad news: It falsely claims The News Tribune endorses Neal. Courtesy image

You know it must be late October when election fliers haunt local mailboxes, and recipients are expected to suspend disbelief as if they were reading a Halloween ghost story.

Sometimes the dubious campaign mailers are hit pieces, other times puff pieces. But nearly all the time they’re the handiwork of nebulous political action committees, or PACs, which are free to make unlimited independent expenditures while vowing to keep an arm’s length from the candidate who benefits.

Our advice for voters these last few weeks, as a witches’ brew of PAC-funded political ads are mailed in synch with Pierce County ballots: Be very skeptical.

This Editorial Board certainly won’t stay silent when a PAC promulgates a bogus News Tribune endorsement.

We were none too pleased last weekend when fliers arrived in thousands of Tacoma mailboxes, funded by a shell group called the Committee to Move Tacoma Forward, that falsely listed the TNT as the top-line endorsement for City Council candidate Meredith Neal.

For the record, we endorsed Neal’s opponent, Lillian Hunter, for Tacoma’s at-large Position 6. While Neal shared our endorsement before the Aug. 1 primary election (our custom is to endorse two in the primary), there can be no mistake that we went with Hunter alone in the Nov. 7 general election.

PAC officials claim their flier was already printed and mailed when our endorsement published early last week. “There was no intent to deceive,” a PAC spokesman said. But they’re smart enough to know our primary endorsement was not the final word; at a minimum they should have used clear language saying Neal was endorsed in the primary.

The trouble is, there’s no effective way to expunge a falsehood disseminated in a $14,268 direct-mail blitz; you’d better believe the PAC won’t spend another $14K to send out a retraction or go door to door asking for its misleading fliers back.

The Move Tacoma Forward group is funded by the Master Builders Association Affordable Housing Council and the Washington Realtors PAC. Neal isn’t affiliated with either, but she’s employed by MRF Construction, whose owner, Mike Fast, is chair of the Builders PAC.

A spokesman for the PAC says Fast recused himself from any decisions on spending in Neal’s race. That might be true, but, oh, what a tangled web they weave in the world of independent expenditures.

In Gig Harbor, meanwhile, voters received a PAC-funded mailer last week filled with half truths and cheap shots aiming to derail the reelection of Mayor Jill Guernsey. It even accused her of being (gasp) “anti-holiday.”

The front group for the mailer is listed as Working Families of King County. Oddly, five of its nine donors have Gig Harbor addresses, according to a report filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

The group’s mission, its website says, is to “win the majority in the city councils in South King County for the conservatives.” Next time, they might want to plug in the GPS coordinates for Gig Harbor.

Sadly, all this shadowy fundraising, targeted electioneering and deceptive messaging qualifies as constitutionally protected speech. Moreover, as the PDC notes on its website, “the person making it is free to spend as much or as little as she likes.”

For political candidates, the beauty of the independent expenditure game is that they keep their hands off the sludge, and they don’t have to pick up the tab.

The burden, then, falls on voters to guard against being manipulated in these latter days of election season.

Read the fine print on mailers listing the PAC name and top 5 contributors. Follow the money using the PDC’s campaign finance databases. Ask yourself: What’s the ulterior motive of donors when they support or smear a candidate?

At the very least, take everything you read with a hefty grain of salt. Because without vigilant voters, our democracy doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.