A group financed by a major Republican contributor has begun running radio ads in about a dozen cities, many in battleground states, attacking Sen. John F. Kerry as "rich, white and wishy-washy" and mocking his wife for boasting of her African roots.
The D.C.-based group, People of Color United, has substantial financial backing from J. Patrick Rooney, the former chairman of Golden Rule Insurance Co. and the founder of a new firm, Medical Savings Insurance Co. Both firms specialize in medical savings accounts, created by Republican-backed 1996 legislation, and health savings accounts, which were created by President Bush's 2003 Medicare prescription drug legislation.
One of the radio ads addresses Kerry's failure to vote on a bill to extend unemployment benefits for 13 weeks: "It needed 60 votes to pass. Ninety-nine out of 100 senators voted -- Kerry did not! It lost by one vote! Maybe Kerry thought the more of us who are unemployed and hurting, the more likely we would vote Democrat."
Another ad attacks Teresa Heinz Kerry, who, at the Democratic convention last month cited her birth and upbringing in Mozambique and who has described herself as African American. In the radio commercial, the announcer says: "His wife says she's an African American. While technically true, I don't believe a white woman, raised in Africa, surrounded by servants, qualifies."
The Kerry campaign denounced the ads, all of which are being aired on radio stations with largely black audiences. "It's disgusting that the president's political allies are now using race as a political weapon," said Bill Lynch, deputy manager of the Kerry campaign. "First a group of right-wing Swift boat veterans began smearing John Kerry's military service, and now another group has resorted to playing racial politics."
Kerry missed the May 11 vote on unemployment benefits while he was campaigning. Democrats charged that the Republican leadership engineered the vote to make sure the legislation would fail by one vote to embarrass Kerry, and that at least one of the 12 Republican senators who voted yes would have switched had Kerry arrived.
People of Color United is the latest in a rash of nonprofit, tax-exempt groups not affiliated with either party that are trying to influence the outcome of the presidential campaign by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into television and radio ads. Many of these groups, sanctioned by various sections of the federal tax code, have come from the political left. This new group has largely attracted Republican money.
Campaign watchdog organizations contend that some of these groups are violating the law and should register with the Federal Election Commission as political action committees.
Rooney, who is white, said in an e-mail response to an inquiry from The Washington Post: "I support [the] group because the genuine word from the black community should be heard, not white folks saying for them."
Rooney has put $65,000 of his own money and $475,000 of his company's money into Republican campaigns and causes over the past four years. He gave $30,000 for People of Color United's radio ads that are being aired in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and other urban areas with large minority populations.
In all, the group has spent $70,000 to buy air time on black radio stations for ads designed to undermine African American support for the Democratic presidential nominee, according to Virginia Walden-Ford, a Republican advocate of school vouchers who runs People of Color United. She described Rooney as the largest donor, adding that her group has received other "smaller contributions."
Walden-Ford said she was disturbed by conversations with people in the black community who said they plan to vote for the Democratic ticket "because we [African Americans] are Democrats. I think that is a bad way to vote. I want people to be informed."
Rooney, she said, has been an active supporter of her efforts to create a school voucher program in the nation's capital. "Pat is a good friend, an ally in the school choice effort," she said.
Rooney sold Golden Rule to UnitedHealth Group Inc. for a reported $893 million in September 2003, just as Congress moved toward passage of a tax break for health savings accounts that will cost the Treasury $16.5 billion in lost revenue over the first five years. Rooney established Medical Savings Insurance this year. The firm's Web site tells prospective customers: "We offer a low-cost, high deductible major medical insurance policy that pays for those big bills. You pay the small bills, and the insurance company pays the big bills. And, thanks to new federal legislation, you can pay the small bills with a new Health Savings Account tax-free!"
After the 2003 passage of the Medicare bill, the Democratic National Committee released a report headlined "Bush's Medicare Bill Provided Major Payoff to Golden Rule." It charged that "in their 10 year campaign to promote the accounts, Rooney's family, companies and employees have given $3.6 million to political candidates and committees, with 90 percent going to Republicans."
Rooney disputed that there is a financial motivation behind his support for the People of Color United radio ads.
"I have a long history of involvement with and support of the black community," Rooney said. "For 21 years I have gone to an all-black church. They finally elected me over other black people to their church board. I'm one of them. I don't know what it has to do with health savings accounts."