Campaign tricks are enough to make one scream and laugh at the same time

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 22, 2011

I can’t decide whether to scream in outrage that local political campaigns are so quick to use sordid methods to try to trick the public or to laugh in disbelief that they think such cheesy tactics would make a difference on Election Day.

Wait, I just realized there’s no need to choose. I can be indignant and amused at the same time. That feels right.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Embarrassingly enough, our region now boasts two high-profile examples of 2010 campaign ploys so shabby that they have triggered serious criminal investigations.

I’ve written a lot about D.C. Mayor Vince Gray’s alleged secret cooperation with fringe candidate Sulaimon Brown last year, when both were challenging incumbent Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary. U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. is investigating.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the notorious Election Day robocalls by the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich Jr. have generated another consequential case.

The state prosecutor has obtained indictments against a couple of well-known Maryland political operatives, Julius Henson and Paul Schurick, for the automated calls to more than 110,000 homes in Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

The late-afternoon calls were clearly designed to dupe Democratic voters into staying home rather than bothering to go to the polls to vote for incumbent Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) — although Henson denies that.

The anonymous calls, to residents of heavily Democratic, African American communities, gave the false impression that they came from O’Malley’s campaign and that he was far ahead in the race. “Relax. Everything’s fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight,” the call said.

It didn’t work. O’Malley easily won reelection, with especially high margins, in both the targeted jurisdictions. Some politicians in Prince George’s are annoyed that the scam has gotten so much attention for fear that it portrays voters there as gullible.

“It could give a negative impression of my community, that somehow this sophomoric, transparent attempt to suppress voting could actually have a chance to succeed,” Del. Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s) said.

Henson and Schurick have denied wrongdoing and will have their day in court. Still, the indictment is important, just because it exists. In Maryland elections, underhanded maneuvers are regrettably frequent, yet rarely prosecuted. Compliments to State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt for trying to hold somebody accountable.

The case also highlights how crass and distasteful some parts of our political culture have become. Henson, a Baltimore-based political consultant, must set some kind of regional record for opportunism and excess.

First, he sells his services regardless of party. Whoever pays.

Last year, Henson received about $20,000 to help Prince George’s Democratic politician Marilynn Bland in her successful race to be clerk of the circuit court, said Bland’s chief deputy, David Billings III. That was the same election cycle in which Henson was working to help Republican Ehrlich in the governor’s contest.

Moreover, Henson worked for Ehrlich last year, despite having called him a “Nazi” when they were on different sides of a campaign in 2002.

“It’s not a nice business. Sometimes it’s offensive. The question is, is this criminal?” Henson’s attorney, Edward Smith Jr., said.

Henson has always acknowledged that the robocalls took place but claimed they’re safeguarded by the Constitution. The prosecutor’s view is that the First Amendment doesn’t protect fraudulent speech.

Schurick’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, suggested his side’s defense is to blame Henson. He said Schurick, a senior adviser of Ehrlich’s, only found out about the robocalls in late afternoon on Election Day and wasn’t able to vet them.

“Mr. Schurick and the campaign relied on Mr. Henson’s expertise,” Zeidenberg said. “They didn’t have an opportunity at 4:30 or 4:45 on Election Day to do test marketing.”

That still leaves the question of why Ehrlich and Schurick hired Henson in the first place. He has been a controversial, divisive figure in Maryland politics for years.

Then, I wonder, why would a professional campaign strategist expect any voter to believe a robocall saying it’s safe to stay home? It would seem a bit suspicious.

The same query has arisen in the District’s scandal. How could Gray’s campaign have purportedly thought it helpful to cooperate with a volatile individual like Sulaimon Brown?

Gray’s aides saw Brown’s outspoken attacks on Fenty as a plus, at least at first, but the screeching turned embarrassing as the campaign wore on. Brown received only 209 votes and didn’t affect the result.

Both scandals show that for a campaign strategist, being sleazy doesn’t preclude one from being foolish as well.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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