"Whatever happened to the Republican for lieutenant governor?" the letter begins. "After your stories about his conflict of interest while a member of the State Senate, I didn't see anything else. Was he arrested or something?"
The letter, or one like it, could well appear on the editorial page of one of Virginia's newspapers. If it does, you'll know where it came from -- right out of the Virginia Democratic Party headquarters in Richmond.
This week the state Democratic Party's new executive director, Russell Rosen, sent this and nearly a dozen other sample letters to the state's 136 city and county Democratic organizations to urge them to begin letter-writing campaigns to the editors of the state's newspapers.
The Democratic letter-writing kit, disclosed yesterday by angry Republicans, was accompanied by a cover letter from Rosen. In it Rosen told party workers: "The enclosed are suggested letters for use by you and your committee. They are intended to establish certain ideas in the minds of readers as they weigh the pros and cons of candidates and parties . . . Make no mistake: papers will print your letters!"
"Rotten, dirty tricks," fumed Joe Loyacono, campaign manager for Republican Nathan H. Miller, the GOP's nominee for lieutenant governor. "It's the lowest piece of campaign trash I've ever seen."
"I take responsibility for them. I wrote them," said Rosen in an interview yesterday. "On second thought, I probably would not have written one or two that are too strong or too harsh."
"We are absolutely shocked," said GOP strategist Neil Cotieaux, "that the Democratic Party of Virginia would engage in this kind of scurrilous activity two weeks before the election."
"But people have requested samples," said Rosen defensively. "People say there have been a lot of letters against Democrats. They wanted samples they could use."
Many of Rosen's suggestions in the kit centered on allegations that Miller, a state senator from Harrisonburg and a lawyer, had violated the state's conflict-of-interest law by drafting legislation that benefited his legal clients and then voted for the measures on the Senate floor. "I was shocked to see that Nathan Miller is closing in on Dick Davis' the Democratic candidate lead in most polls around the state," said one of the proposed letters. "The only thing I can think is that people just haven't read or read about Miller's awful conflict-of-interest scheme. Isn't it the duty of the press to inform the public?"
Perhaps it is the job of the press to inform. But as the Rosen letters illustrate, part of the job of a political campaign is to use the press. While the Republicans publicly growsed about the suggested letters yesterday, they acknowledge privately that it's standard practice to attempt filling editorial pages with opinions favorable to their own candidates, just as they often plant questions at news conferences in hopes of securing favorable news stories.
"I'm sure this isn't the first time this kind of thing has been pulled," said one GOP insider yesterday. "But in every campaign people hope this kind of practice dissipates. It's sad to say that that's not the case this year."
Writing letters isn't the only way politicians get their message across through the "free" use of newspapers, and television and radio news.
Two or three times each week, for instance, a staffer in the office of Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Marshall Coleman sits down at the telephone to call more than 60 of the state's radio stations. What he has to offer is a recording of the candidate designed to be aired as if the station's own reporter was interviewing the candidate.
"Beepers," is what they're called. And many radio stations gobble them up.
"A lot are operating on shoestring budgets," says Coleman press aide David Blee. "You can certainly help your cause with them ."
"I've heard some stations running tapes and not even telling people this was canned stuff from Coleman's office," said Joe Staniunas, news director at WKEX, a Blacksburg radio station. "It's no better than a handout and they're just getting the image the candidate wants to put forth. It probably has much more impact because it sounds like something the reporter has dug up himself."
"I guess people get used everywhere," says reporter Nancy Winter at WTVR-TV in Richmond. Earlier in the campaign Winter produced a news story on how the candidates were attempting to use television to sling unchallenged charges at their opponents.
"Maybe if it's a slow day, that kind of crap will get on," Winter says. "People should know how we operate in order to form their judgments. It's part of the campaign."