Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case permits corporations to fund unlimited attack ads in campaigns. As a result, transparency and accountability have become more important than ever. So who can we hold accountable for the slanted PAC mailer which anonymously attacked council candidates Voisin, Haxton and Ayars, mostly for their views on homelessness?
Nominally, these negative ads were put out by a PAC called Ashland Residents for a Great City Council (hereafter "the PAC"). But who sponsored the PAC which engaged in these attacks? Their names were not revealed in the ads, but the list includes some well-known businesses in town, including Sidney DeBoer, CEO of Lithia Motors; Chuck Butler, CEO of Butler Ford; Coming Attractions Theaters, owner of the Varsity and Ashland Street cinemas; Gold and Gems, a Plaza jeweler; Adroit Construction Co., a local general contractor, and Dunagan Engineering and the Ashland Wine Cellar.
All the sponsors of the PAC — none of whom were identified in the mailer — are listed in the records of the Oregon Secretary of State as having contributed to the PAC in the last 60 days. In fact, a substantial percentage of the total revenue raised by the PAC in this election cycle came from those listed above, plus William B. Heimann, the PAC director.
The PAC was well aware that if the public knew who its supporters included, the PAC would have an image problem. Thus, the PAC's website requests that even small supporters (contributors of under $100) identify themselves because "this lets us rebut charges that we are just a small number of rich citizens."
On Oct. 15, Heimann, director of the PAC, appeared at a rally of dozens on the Plaza who were protesting the mailer. Heimann admitted that the mailer had a "heavy-duty slant" and promised to use a more positive tone in future advertisements. (Daily Tidings, 10/16/12).
But can Heimann be trusted to become objective? In the council election of 2010, when the same PAC (but under a different name) also issued slanted anonymous material against certain candidates, Heimann said that his PAC would not reappear at the next election unless there was a PAC on the other side. But here he is again—even though there is no PAC on the "other side."
Although PACs are permitted by law, and sponsors of them are entitled to express their points of view, the disproportionate influence of pro-business and development money in Ashland politics is undeniable. It makes a big difference if the public at least knows who is sponsoring campaign ads and circulars. (Consider the many outraged letters to the editor of the Daily Tidings complaining about the anonymity of these attack ads.) Disclosure of PAC sponsors' names in the ads would require them to take responsibility for what they say.
Regardless of how we feel about these candidates, or about the various homeless proposals they advocate, we should demand transparency and accountability in all ads and circulars. Specifically, we should work to change Oregon election laws to require that PAC sponsors contributing more than $100 should be named — not just in obscure documents buried in the files of the Secretary of State, but in the campaign material itself — together with a statement that the sponsors approve the message.
Robert Staal is a retired attorney who lives in Ashland.