McCaskill, Akin slam each other in television ads

October 12, 2012

It’s never a dull day in Missouri with the race for the U.S. Senate seat between incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Republican challenger Rep. Todd Akin.


Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, right, speaks as she points toward Republican challenger Rep. Todd Akin during the first debate in the Missouri Senate race Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. (Jeff Roberson — Associated Press)

So far this week McCaskill’s campaign has released a series of television commercials with real-life rape victims that slam Akin for wanting to “criminalize” the morning-after pill for women who’ve been sexually assaulted.

Meanwhile, Akin counter-attacked with a TV ad that calls McCaskill “corrupt Claire” and accuses her of lining her pockets with federal funds.

McCaskill’s ads feature real-life women Diana, Joanie and Rachel, who discuss their experiences as victims of sexual assault. They’re powerful ads, with the women speaking directly to the camera.

Two versions of an ad featuring Diana, a Republican, antiabortion mother and rape survivor, were made; a longer one can be viewed on the Internet. Diana declined to take the morning after pill because of her antiabortion beliefs but says, “I can’t imagine what it would be like for any survivor to go into a hospital, complete one of those rape kits and not have the Plan B pill as an option. For Todd Akin to take that option away from sexual assault survivors is to victimize them all over again.”

Joanie is an antiabortion mother and a survivor of an “extremely violent” sexual assault.  “As a woman of faith, I must forgive Todd Akin [for his "legitimate rape" comment],” she says. “But as a voter, it’s not something I can forget.”

Rachel, who was “brutally raped in a home invasion,” took emergency contraception afterward. “At the worst moment of her life, no woman should be denied that choice,” she says. “What Todd Akin said was troubling enough, but it’s what he believes that’s worse.”

Akin opposes the morning after pill, calling it the same thing as an abortion. In an August interview on KCMO, a Kansas City radio station, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, the morning after pill is a form of abortion. I think we just shouldn’t have abortion in this country.”

Sorry, Rep. Akin. You need to brush up on your science again. (Hard to believe he serves on the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology.)

The morning after pill, or Plan B, as it’s sometimes called, is a form of emergency contraception. That’s birth control. It works by changing hormone levels so that ovulation is either delayed or stopped so a woman won’t get pregnant. Sort of like “shutting that whole thing down.”

It’s not the same thing as the infamous RU-486, a medication which induces an abortion in a woman who’s already pregnant. 

Rather than mount a defense against the commercials featuring rape victims, Akin’s campaign went into attack mode Thursday with the release of an ad that claims McCaskill’s husband received $40 million in subsidies from the federal government, making it look like the couple has profited from the stimulus bill and other legislation she’s voted on.

I’ve listened to spokespersons from both sides explain this, and I don’t think Akin’s ad tells the whole story. Of course, Rick Tyler, an advisor to Akin’s campaign, defends it, telling me that it’s hard to explain complicated financial ventures in just 30 seconds.

The Associated Press reported earlier in the week that McCaskill’s husband, Joseph Shepard, is a businessman with ownership in some 300 different businesses that run “affordable housing” units — in other words, apartment buildings and housing developments. The $39 million of federal money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service or the Department of Housing and Urban Development between 2007 to the end of 2011.

McCaskill told the Associated Press that her husband had only “a passive, minor investment role in” in many of the projects. In some cases, Shepard’s share of ownership is 5 percent or less, all the way down to .0009 percent, McCaskill spokesperson Caitlin Legacki told me.

That $39 million did not go directly into the pockets of either McCaskill or her husband, although that’s the impression from Akin’s campaign ad. The money was paid to these businesses in lieu of rental income from renters. During that same time period, Shepard’s total income — for five years — was between $400,000 and $2.6 million.

What can be construed as a conflict of interest is the fact that McCaskill voted on the bills, including the stimulus bill, that provides funding for HUD and the USDA. But in some cases, she voted against legislation that would have provided funding to her husband’s business interests. Some of the contracts were even initiated before she became a U.S. senator.

Rick Tyler, an adviser to Akin’s campaign, is calling for McCaskill and her husband to release the last five years’ worth of their federal income tax returns. “It’s speculation on my part,” he told me, “but maybe tax records…could unravel this.”

McCaskill released her 2011 tax return earlier, which showed income of $193,384, mostly from her Senate salary and a state pension, according to the Associated Press. But she and Shepard file separate returns, and his has not been released.

Legacki called the ad and the accusations “a stunning act of desperation” for Akin’s campaign.

What struck me, though, is that these businesses that Shepard invests in are rental units – apartment buildings and housing developments – that have tenants who are able to live there only because of government subsidies for their rent.

In other words, these folks might very well be homeless if they didn’t have help from either HUD or the USDA to help pay their rent. Maybe the rent is set at $600, and the renter can only pay $200, so HUD or the USDA pays the remainder. How can anyone who’s unemployed or scraping by on minimum wage (oh wait, Akin wants to get rid of that, too) afford rent of $600 or more a month? 

As Tyler said, it will be up to Missouri voters to decide in November.

Missourians like to say “Show me,” and I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say that McCaskill has profited from her votes on certain pieces of legislation. Business investments can be tricky to understand, but it looks to me like Shepard is engaged in good old-fashioned American capitalism and not “the Ponzi scheme” that Tyler calls it.

Calling McCaskill “corrupt” is a great smokescreen to divert attention from the moving stories told by three rape victims. Those three women who’ve suffered sexual assaults believe that the morning after pill should be a choice for other women, and they fear that Akin will support legislation that will deny women that option.

Yet Akin believes, erroneously, that this medication is just another form of abortion, and he’s opposed to abortion for any reason whatsoever.

Life isn’t that black and white. Neither are the issues.

But the decision for Missouri voters? It’s pretty clear to me.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City and a former editor of Missouri Life magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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