This election season, Ashland voters are experiencing, in microcosm, what the national electorate is seeing in the wake of Citizens United — the Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.
The Ashland experience is not exactly the same, of course. The ad campaign mounted by Ashland Residents for a Great City Council would be perfectly legal even without the Supreme Court's blessing because Oregon law does not limit political donations or expenditures.
We're not talking boatloads of cash, either. The political action committee has spent less than $6,000 in an attempt to influence the outcome of three City Council races.
Beyond that, the names of all contributors to the PAC are public record under Oregon law, instantly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection at bit.ly/VzMQog. That's not the case for some donors on the national scene, who can remain anonymous under some circumstances.
So why all the fuss? Outraged Ashlanders have bombarded the Daily Tidings and the Mail Tribune with letters to the editor blasting the PAC's tactics as "negative," "distorted," "scurrilous" and "sleazy innuendo."
"Scurrilous" and "sleazy" may be a bit much, but the effort is out of place in small-town politics.
The ads in question list votes by Councilwoman Carol Voisin, taken from City Council records, and recommend voters instead elect Voisin's challenger, Jackie Agee, along with incumbent Greg Lemhouse and Rich Rosenthal, who is running for an open seat. It's worth noting that mayoral candidate Alan DeBoer asked to be left out of the group's list of endorsements, to his credit, although PAC organizers say they never intended to endorse a candidate for mayor.
Voisin responds to the criticism on her campaign website, saying the votes were taken out of context, distorting her actual positions on the issues in question.
On one level, the hyperventilation over the PAC's tactics seems out of proportion to what amounts to fairly routine campaigning. Ashland residents concerned about how their city is governed are entitled to form a political committee if they wish, as long as they abide by public disclosure laws, which they have done.
On the other hand, Ashland has a long-standing city ordinance setting voluntary spending limits for city campaigns. This year the limit is $3,352, and all candidates except council hopefuls Keith Haxton and Regina Ayars have agreed to comply.
The three candidates endorsed by the PAC are observing the cap — but the PAC has spent nearly $6,000 on their behalf, or about $2,000 each if divided equally. Legal or not, the tactic leaves a bad taste.
PAC organizers apparently concluded that the benefits of a negative campaign outweighed the risk of voter backlash. The Ashland Residents for a Great City Council may win its gamble and elect its slate of candidates, or it may have overestimated Ashland's tolerance for negative campaigning.
The residents behind this effort are not bad people, and we think they sincerely want to improve the city. But this is not the way to go about it.