As majority leader, part of Jim Wright's job is to help his fellow House Democrats get reelected.
But Wright's latest "campaign idea," detailed in a "Dear Colleague" letter, is raising some eyebrows.
The technique, recorded testimonials from constituents to use as radio spots, is not new. But some of the "how-to-do-it" instructions in the letter's backup sheet were labeled "exploitive" by one member.
The technique "costs very little. And it is something only an incumbent can do," Wright says in the letter. "They'll give your Republican opponent an itch that he simply has no way to scratch."
The "how-to-do-it" backup sheet was more explicit. "From your case files, select a person the congressman has really been able to help. Try to choose a case that has at least some element of drama or human interest. Did you help get a soldier home on emergency leave from Afghanistan just in time for his mother's surgery? Is there a family you helped reunite through an immigration case . . . ?"
"After choosing your subject get him on the telephone. Tell him several people have agreed to tape brief radio statements telling how the congressman helped them and you wonder if he would like to make one.
"Chances are he will eagerly volunteer, but will express doubts about his ability to talk effectively on the radio. Reassure him. Tell him you will work closely with him to make sure he does well.
"Putting yourself in the role of your subject, sit down and write a script of him. Wherever possible use his own words and phrases."
However, the sheet says, "Some people, no matter how hard they try, will always sound as if they are reading a script. If this happens, sit down at the recorder with your subject and you take the script. Read it to him, one line at a time and get him to repeat your exact words. Then, back at the studio, get a technician to edit out your voice and string his sentences together. That way he won't sound as if he is reading.
"Get about 20 of these little testimonials, schedule them for saturation broadcast in the days immediately prior to the election and it will sound as if the congressman has personally helped virtually everybody in town."
"I don't think that's anything we would do. We would avoid that sort of thing at all costs," Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa.) said.
Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.), said the advice was "questionable." "I don't contact constituents I helped to help in my campaign. Unless they initiate it. I don't use them."
But Rep. Wes Watkins (D-Okla.) called it a "great way to show the broad areas of responsibility in the work a congressman does."
Wright said the method was not exploitive because constituents "volunteered" and "use their own words." The script is necessary to fit it into the one-minute time, Wright said. He sent the letter because of a fellow Democrat who was worried about counteracting the "oodies and scads" of money Republicans "are going to throw at him" in the last days of the campaign. "This is just one way and a darn cheap one of campaigning," Wright said.