Opinion

Voters are the true judges of sleazy campaigning - and it’s important work

This crudely assembled election mailer from 2014 was at the heart of a libel lawsuit that former state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, pursued against the opponent who defeated him that year, current Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard. The suit recently reached the end of the line when the Washington Supreme Court declined to review Seaquist’s appeal.
This crudely assembled election mailer from 2014 was at the heart of a libel lawsuit that former state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, pursued against the opponent who defeated him that year, current Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard. The suit recently reached the end of the line when the Washington Supreme Court declined to review Seaquist’s appeal.

Underhanded, no-holds-barred political campaigning will be the name of the game during the 2020 election season, and not just in the race for president.

A few negative campaigns have come to light during this year’s local elections, such as a messy fight for the mayor’s post in DuPont. But overall there’s been a modest amount of mudslinging — mere fistfuls compared to the bucket loads that will surely fly next year when races for Congress, Legislature, governor and other statewide offices are on the ballot.

It doesn’t help that Washington judges have given implicit permission to offensive campaign tactics. The Supreme Court, for example, decided this month not to review the case of a sleazy attack ad in a Pierce County legislative contest.

The case goes back to 2014, when state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, was portrayed as a stalker. His Republican challenger, Michelle Caldier, spread the slime via printed mailers, a video and a campaign website. The ads said the incumbent was “caught secretly taking photos of Caldier;” it also noted Caldier filed a police report, contending her privacy was violated.

Seaquist later filed a libel suit against Caldier. It’s easy to see why.

At least one ad included a computer-manipulated picture of Seaquist, bent over and holding a camera, a pair of phony hands crudely added to the image.

What wasn’t included is the fact that Caldier is the one who “caught” Seaquist on a Bremerton street shortly after the two did an interview at the Kitsap Sun newspaper.

And that Seaquist’s “secretly” taken photos showed the back of Caldier’s car in a wide-angle frame while she sat in the front seat. (Seaquist says he took two pictures on his cellphone because he liked the roof design on her Lexus convertible.)

And that after Caldier filed the police report, the cops told her Seaquist had committed no crime.

And that Caldier’s additional claims of people snooping around her property and tampering with her mailbox had nothing to do with Seaquist. She included them in her ads to enhance a sense of vulnerability and menace. And if some people assumed Seaquist was responsible? All the better for her.

The ads, so outrageous they’re almost comical, still damaged the reputation of a four-term incumbent. Seaquist, who led Caldier in the primary election, ended up losing to her in the general election, after the mailers circulated around the Peninsula.

Seaquist’s lawsuit has bounced around for five years. Last spring, the state Court of Appeals ruled against him, and this month the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal for review.

From a strict free-speech perspective, we respect what the Appeals Court said: “The First Amendment applies to the fullest extent during a political campaign.” And proving defamation is a high bar for any public official to reach.

But Caldier, now in her third term, should be embarrassed that she launched her legislative career using claims the court acknowledged were “unquestionably misleading and ignoble.”

It’s also instructive that the judges turned the mirror back on Washington voters. “Political mudslinging is expected by audiences during contentious elections, and the race between Caldier and Seaquist for the 26th District state representative position was no exception.”

Woe to us if we no longer believe dishonest election discourse is bad for civil society. Woe to us if we no longer believe what a 10-year-old state campaign law says: that dirty ads “lead or add to voter alienation by fostering voter cynicism and distrust of the political process.”

What’s the lesson as we near the end of the 2019 election and prepare for worse shenanigans in 2020?

Be very skeptical of campaign hit pieces, because almost anything goes in Washington.

Remember the old Latin expression: Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware.

And don’t reward the most flagrant offenders with your vote.

If the courts won’t judge the sleaze, it’s up to the rest of us.

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