Money for Nothing

(SANITY FAIR) Campaign ads are not free speech; they are graffiti

Central New York is about to become the Crimean peninsula of congressional politics, a strategic morsel of territory significant only for its role in someone else’s larger geopolitical game.

It has been my practice for years to abstain from writing about political races until after Labor Day. This year, however, with the last echoes of the St. Patrick’s Day parade still reverberating through a frosty downtown, the upcoming race for the 24th Congressional District seat, for the person who will represent Central New York in Congress, is already heating up.

Barring a primary challenge, it appears that the two names at the top of the ballot will be the incumbent Democrat, Dan Maffei of Syracuse, and the Republican challenger, John Katko, of Camillus, who until recently was a federal prosecutor.

And here’s my prediction: Seven months from now, most of us will be bombarded with ads aiming to render these two people unrecognizable even to themselves. These ads will be paid for by people who wouldn’t know a Heid’s hot dog from a salt potato. Millions will be spent to buy our votes by convincing us that Maffei is really Nancy Pelosi in loafers and that Katko is Ann Marie Buerkle in drag.

The Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees (the “triple Cs,” in Washington speak) are already gearing up to make this a national race. Last week, Katko traveled to Washington and met with the RCCC folks to see what they might do to boost his chances against Maffei. Days earlier, the DCCC sent an email blast tying Katko to Ann Marie Buerkle. The DCCC calls Buerkle a Tea Party radical and attaches a 37-second clip of an interview between Buerkle and Katko, which they allege proves that Katko was inspired to run by Buerkle.

The 37 seconds were skillfully edited from a 30-minute interview, which is like watching a clip of Jim Boeheim tearing off his jacket and screaming without having viewed the previous 40 minutes of the Feb. 22 game against Duke. It’s ridiculous.

I asked John Katko two questions:

1. Do you think Roe vs. Wade is settled law?

2. Do you think Obamacare should be repealed?

His answers?

1. Yes.

2. No.

These are not the answers Buerkle would give.

The caricature won’t hold. The saddest part of the farce is that Maffei, an undeniably intelligent man who is devoted to seeking the truth, must know that in his heart. And Katko surely knows that if he met Maffei on neutral ground, Maffei would not resemble the character that the RCCC would have him sketch.

Neither candidate will reject money from their national parties. Both will maintain that they can’t do anything about the ads that special interest PACs will bombard us with in October.

That’s a First Amendment issue, says Katko, and in that view he is joined by most members of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has ruled that campaign money is the same as campaign speech, a decision that has led to our system of purchased elections, a system that Maffei’s predecessor and Katko’s chaperone in Washington, Jim Walsh, has described for the record as “stupid.”

The campaign ads purchased with outside millions are not free speech. They are graffiti. They are the equivalent of someone standing up at church or at your kid’s choir concert and blowing a vuvuzela.

And this hated noise, which illuminates nothing, is inevitable. Katko and Maffei have both forsworn unilateral disarmament. Candidates view campaign money like the Pentagon views a new weapons system: They have no reason to say no. Both candidates correctly point out that they cannot legally coordinate in any manner their efforts with these allegedly independent committees.

So we will become the stomping ground for two giants who would rob us of our democracy in the name of freedom of speech. It is not too much to say that, like the people of the Crimean peninsula, we will be going to the polls in occupied territory. It won’t be Russian tanks in the streets, but it will be an extensive propaganda machine occupying our airwaves, our bandwidth and our inboxes.

This will not be a campaign of a Democrat vs. a Republican. It will be a struggle for the people of the 24th District to learn, in spite of all the noise from the outside, who will actually represent us.

And our only weapons in this struggle: “Mute” and “Delete.” Use both liberally.

Ed Griffin-Nolan


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