Insider Edition

Attack fliers are polluting voters’ mailboxes

A mailer sent out by an independent expenditure committee attacks state Assembly candidate Steve Cohn for the discretionary fund he has as a Sacramento City Council member.
A mailer sent out by an independent expenditure committee attacks state Assembly candidate Steve Cohn for the discretionary fund he has as a Sacramento City Council member.

Like other regular voters, I get swamped every election season with campaign mailers and door hangers. To do my civic duty – OK, it’s part of my job – I look at every one and don’t just toss them in the recycling bin.

A couple of mailers in particular caught my eye because they’re especially cynical and because they prove that in politics, as in life, what goes around comes around.

One that arrived in my mailbox Thursday goes after state Assembly candidate Steve Cohn for spending part of his discretionary fund as a Sacramento City Council member on an international data plan.

“Steve Cohn – Using Our Tax Dollars Overseas Instead of in Sacramento,” the mailer blares, accusing him of voting to shift money from the city’s general fund to “his own discretionary slush fund.” A similar one from the same group landed last weekend, featuring an image of an iPad’s Wi-Fi page listing Paris landmarks – the Louvre, Champs-Élysées and others.

As you might imagine, Cohn is pretty peeved.

Sure, it’s fair game to question whether Cohn and other City Council members should have dipped into the general fund last year to pad their discretionary accounts by $43,500 each, boosting them to nearly $100,000 each. But every council member – not just Cohn – gets to dole out this taxpayer cash to their favorite causes.

Cohn notes that he has given the vast majority of his discretionary money to support schools, charities and community events such as Pops in the Park. While the fliers target the $6,055 he spent on “electronics and service contracts,” he told me that’s the total his office spent in four years on computers and office equipment. And of that sum, the international data plan was only $120. The pièce de résistance, as they might say in Paris – it was for official city business when he visited Sacramento’s sister city in Japan, not France.

When I saw the mailers, my first thought was: Those trying to defeat Cohn must think voters really, really don’t like France. My second thought was that I’d seen this before.

It turns out that four years ago, Cohn’s opponent on Nov. 4 – fellow City Councilman Kevin McCarty – cried foul over a nearly identical flier when he was running for the same Assembly seat.

That one bashed him for using his “slush fund” to buy electronics and furniture. It was sent by the California Faculty Association, whose political director was running against McCarty in the Democratic primary. The association, which represents California State University faculty, also happens to be a funder of the coalition behind the new anti-Cohn mailers – Opportunity PAC, which also includes groups representing teachers, health care workers and other public employee unions.

So what does McCarty say now?

He told me he disavows the new mailers, but he also points out that two fliers attacking his discretionary spending came from a business group supporting Cohn before the June primary.

McCarty has another defense. He stresses that he voted against the city budget in 2013, partly over the increase in the discretionary fund, and gave his additional cash to the Police Department for a gang prevention officer. In this year’s budget debate, he again urged his colleagues to return the additional discretionary money to the general fund. He was unsuccessful, so put his money to helping spruce up neighborhood parks.

I’ve followed both Cohn and McCarty for more than four years now. They’re both sincere and well-intentioned. Either would do well in the Assembly.

Their campaign should be on a higher plane than these mailers that play fast and loose with the facts on penny-ante stuff. Because they are often sent out by independent expenditure committees, the candidates keep their hands clean, sort of. Instead, candidates put out positive mailers that tout endorsements, or feature warm and fuzzy photos of their smiling families.

It’s bad enough that these negative fliers are filling up our mailboxes. What’s more annoying is to know that some voters could be swayed – or a close race even decided – by these hit pieces.

Both Cohn and McCarty seem resigned to these attack mailers. They’re just part of the political game, they told me.

Is it naive to expect better? In today’s politics, apparently so.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.