Suffolk Closeup: ‘Pushing’ the limits on campaigns

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

After last year’s election campaign in Suffolk, a negative advertising slugfest, you would think that campaigning couldn’t get lower.

Election 2014 saw six-term incumbent Tim Bishop being pummeled repeatedly for being “the most corrupt member of Congress” and, in turn, his opponent, Lee Zeldin, being accused of taking thousands of dollars “from corporate polluters who dumped toxic waste in parks and at veterans’ homes.”

Low, yes, but then, just a few evenings ago, I got my first “push poll” telephone call.

The caller ID said it was coming from “Adv Research.” The “Adv” was no doubt for “Advanced” with the word unable to fit into the caller ID space. In any case, it was “advanced,” as in advanced mudslinging.

A push poll is defined by the Center for Media and Democracy as “using the guise of opinion polling, disinformation about a candidate or issue is planted in the minds of those being ‘surveyed.’”

The Center is a watchdog organization out of Madison, Wisconsin that since 1983 has been investigating and exposing the involvement of “front groups,” sneaky lobbying and PR manipulation among other shady doings in U.S. politics.

That’s what this call involved — the use of dirt and baloney in the guise of a poll to hurt. It involved Suffolk County and was pegged to the far-off November election.

It started off innocently enough. I was asked what my political affiliation was. Independent, I responded. I was asked if I knew the name of my county legislator. Jay Schneiderman was the answer.

And then came the mudslinging in the form of “questions.” They were about Sarah Anker, a county legislator from Mount Sinai who represents a district in Brookhaven Town that also includes Rocky Point, Shoreham, Sound Beach and Miller Place — more than 30 miles from where I live in Sag Harbor.

I’m not even close to that legislative district and couldn’t vote for or against Sarah Anker if I wanted, which reflects that the call was not only devious but stupid. “Adv Research” doesn’t know Suffolk County geography.

The questions, one after another, went like this: “If you knew that Sarah Anker …” — a nasty claim about her — “would you be less inclined or more inclined to vote for her?”

Ms. Anker’s involvement in public issues began after her grandmother lost her battle to breast cancer. She founded the Community Health and Environmental Coalition, which pressed for greater public awareness of how the environment impacts human health.

Her work got the state health department to research what’s behind the documented “cancer clusters” in Suffolk County. Ms. Anker, a mother of three, has received the New York State Senate Woman of Distinction Award, Rotary Club Community Service Award and other citations for her work.

She ran successfully for the county legislature in a special election nearly four years ago and has been a strong voice for protecting children and preserving a green and livable environment.

The effort to demonize her via a “poll” is plain wrong.

But although it was the first push poll call I’ve received, it’s a phenomenon that’s been going on in U.S. politics for some time, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. On its Sourcewatch website, sourcewatch.org/index.php/Push_poll,the Center relates how during the 2000 Republican presidential primary contest, George W. Bush’s campaign strategists devised a push poll against John McCain.

South Carolina voters were asked, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

The claim was particularly vicious since McCain was campaigning with his adopted Bangladeshi daughter.

The sight of the little dark-skinned girl planted a seed and John McCain lost South Carolina, effectively ending his run for the presidency.

In New Hampshire, a law has been enacted requiring callers running push polls to accurately identify themselves, disclose who is paying for the call and making it clear it’s a “paid political advertisement” before asking any questions about a candidate. There are hefty fines for violations.

After the New Hampshire Republican Party filed a complaint, an Idaho company was fined $20,000 by violating the law for using a push poll to spread derogatory information about a GOP U.S. Senate candidate. This brand of underhanded campaigning is not exclusive to either major party.

Suffolk County and/or New York State should consider this kind of law or, even better, outlaw push polls as being yet more pollution of our political system.

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