News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 4, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: I’m a candidate and it doesn’t matter if I approved this message

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It’s too early to know how much money both parties spent on the campaign for state representative District 43, which incumbent Democrat Clyde Kersey won by a nose over Republican challenger Alan Morrison. Suffice to say, it topped $100,000. What the money bought — mostly public propaganda — is symptomatic of the contradictory, dehumanizing, out-of-control pathology of U.S. politics today.

Exhibit A: The marked contrast between two types of mailers sent by the Committee to Elect Alan Morrison.

The first type is standard for both parties in most elections these days: 8-by-11-inch cards with goofy photos of Morrison’s opponent, staged photos illustrating a campaign issue, and lots of bold headlines drubbing the opponent (Kersey) for his stand on everything from education to taxes to immigration. One example featured a rotting apple flanked by two pristine apples with the headline, “Don’t let one bad apple at the State House ruin it for our teachers!”

That card, like five of the seven anti-Kersey cards that made it to my mailbox the final week of the campaign, mentioned Morrison only in small print that identified the mailer’s sponsor: “Committee to Elect Alan Morrison.” The immigration-themed card was the one mailer that actually touted Morrison in prominent lettering.

The seventh card was not paid for by Morrison’s election committee, but by the House Republican Campaign Committee. More about that in a minute.

The second type of mailer from Morrison’s official election committee was totally different. Nothing about it screamed in bold headlines. Nothing mentioned Clyde Kersey. In fact, given its hand-addressed, sunny yellow envelope and hand-written letter inside, I mistook the ad for a personal letter from someone whose name I couldn’t place.

So realistic looking was the letter, written on both sides of one sheet of paper, I overlooked the “Dear Friend” greeting and began reading about how a woman named Cinda Morrison met her future husband at their workplace and how they became best friends: “I just couldn’t get that smile out of my mind!”

Why was Cinda telling me about her courtship, her children, Alan’s “kindness, tenderness, responsibility, discipline, and honesty to our children”? At the bottom of the first page, in small type, the answer appeared: “Paid for by the Committee to Elect Alan Morrison.”

The letter continued on the other side, extolling Alan’s many virtues, such as honesty: “I have learned not to ask him if he has gotten me a birthday present and what it is, because he will tell me!” Only in the final paragraph did Cinda bring up the term “state representative,” saying she believes her husband would make a great one.

I believe Cinda Morrison believes that. I believe she means every word she wrote in her personal letter, which was copied and mailed to thousands of voters in the 43rd. (I believe that Danise Baird, who hand-wrote the story of her love for her husband, Jim, also believes everything she wrote, which the Committee to Elect Jim Baird copied and sent to thousands of 44th District voters.)

I’m also betting the Morrisons have a good marriage and the Morrison kids “will do just fine in life,” as Cinda predicted in her letter. And I’m guessing that, if it were up to her, the Committee to Elect Alan Morrison would have spent a lot more time and money on 8-by-11-inch mailers that sang his qualities more than they ripped his opponent.

But it wasn’t up to Mrs. Morrison or, for the most part, even her candidate husband. And there you have a nasty dilemma inherent in contemporary politics.

Every candidate begins his or her first campaign as a regular person with a real life, surrounded by loved ones, old school chums and loyal friends who believe their guy or gal has what it takes to be a great public servant. As soon as the regular person steps into the ring, though, the process of being a “viable candidate” takes over.

You want money from your party’s state or national honchos? Of course you do. You can’t win an election for dog catcher anymore without gobs of money. The price? You accept the content and tone of the party’s campaign ads, even if they make you queasy. Hesitate and seasoned political experts will warn you that the other side will do it to you. Forget the high road; beat them to the punch. You want to win, don’t you?

The seventh anti-Kersey card was the worst, downright creepy. A soiled, wet teddy bear lies in a street, accompanied by the accusation, “Clyde Kersey failed to protect our children.” Kersey’s name is written in blood red. The flipside says Kersey “voted to put sex offenders back on the street” and “against a law that would have protected our children from dangerous predators.”

Sounds awful — and odd, given that Kersey is a favorite of child protection activists and the author of a bill that closed Indiana’s gaping hole in background checks for school teachers and other school employees.

What Kersey voted against was Senate Bill 415, legislation that addressed prison overcrowding by offering early release to some inmates. Suspecting political manipulation, Kersey was against the bill from the get-go, and remained against it when an exclusion for sex offenders was tacked on near the end of the bill’s journey through the House. He and 18 other representatives voted against it.

About half of the 19 no votes came from Republicans, including Bruce Borders, Edward Clare, Sean Eberhart, Michael Murphy, Tim Neese and David Yarde.

Needless to say, that information was nowhere to be found on the wet teddy bear mailer. But what difference does it make if it was grossly misleading? Alan Morrison came within a few hundred votes of unseating a 14-year veteran of the Statehouse. That’s all that matters in the game of politics.

The teddy bear mailer did not mention Morrison’s name because it was paid for by the House Republican Central Committee. In ant-sized print, the card even stated, “Not approved by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” On the other hand, in all the mailings I received from Morrison’s committee, not one denounced the HRCC’s attack ads.

Why would they? Morrison was a viable candidate who wanted to win.

That great smile, that kindness, that work ethic and honesty about birthday presents, they’ll always matter to Morrison’s family and friends, the folks who still know who he is. Politics, however, doesn’t care.

It’s Chinatown, Jake. Just shut your eyes and leave the scene.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or