Columns » Ernest Dumas

Trash in the mail



Something about an 8½x12-inch mailer, which is the preferred political communication this season, makes the spirit sink. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and their surrogates have bombarded households with them for two months, and if even one of them didn't badly distort the facts I overlooked it.

But maybe the worst one, or at least the most shocking, arrived last week from the campaign of state Rep. Robbie Wills, who is in a runoff with state Sen. Joyce Elliott for U. S. representative from the Second District. You know it is from Robbie Wills because in small letters, the tiniest on either side of the flyer, it says "Paid for by Robbie Wills for Congress." Otherwise Wills is not mentioned. It's almost as if he didn't want you to know.

It is shocking for several reasons. Wills had said he was not going to engage in negative advertising. It doesn't sound like Wills, who has been a pretty progressive lawmaker. It is the sort of right-wing Republican literature that you can expect to see assailing Wills or Elliott in the fall when Tim Griffin cranks up his sleaze machine. And it is a terribly risky calculation. The flyer turns off tens of thousands of Democratic voters, including many who voted for Wills because they thought that he was more electable. It put a surge into Elliott's fundraising.

In short, it looks like desperation. Wills trailed Elliott in the first primary and the demographics of the runoff voting do not look particularly favorable. But the flyer was supposed to energize conservative voters, who might otherwise stay at home, and it may work.

The mailer was intended for conservative urban voters and rural voters in the outlying counties — and men. The flyer was usually addressed to men. Elliott's photograph appears not once but three times on the front and back, which a cynic might suspect was a subtle way to remind voters that she is an African-American.

"Joyce Elliott's Values. . . Are They Yours?" it asks. Then it says she has fought to stop hunting and outlaw prayer in the schools and that she holds "extreme abortion views."

It is a variation of the reliable Republican theme in this decade, God, Guns and Gays, except that it leaves off gays.

Guns are a proven vote getter, although Rep. Vic Snyder kept getting re-elected with a poor rating by the National Rifle Association.

"Joyce Elliott has opposed and fought against our Arkansas tradition of hunting and 2nd Amendment rights," the flyer says. The National Rifle Association gave her a low rating. Elliott, of course, says she does not oppose hunting and has never favored impinging on a person's right to own a firearm. She even told the Arkansas Family Council what it wanted to hear, that she favored Second Amendment rights.

It is true that she voted against a couple of the Family Council's abortion bills, which were aimed at testing the limits of a woman's constitutionally protected right to have an abortion. The bills had no practical, little legal but big political effects. One bill dealt with so-called "partial-birth abortions," which are performed when the woman's health is endangered and which are virtually nonexistent.

The flyer says Elliott wanted to outlaw school prayer. Officially sponsored prayer in school has been outlawed by the Supreme Court for 40 years and by the Bible for 20 centuries. The bill sought to expand the permitted religious activities in schools beyond those recognized by the courts as constitutionally permissible. That is beyond the legislature's ability. It is a good legislator who recognizes that and chooses not to join the demagoguery.

Finally, Wills said Elliott, who had been an ally in the House of Representatives, was rated one of the least effective senators in Arkansas. She went to the Senate last year after three terms in the House of Representatives, where she was remarkably effective and recognized even by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette as one of the most effective legislators. In her first session in the Senate last year she passed 40 percent of the bills she sponsored, a ratio that ranked her 25th of the 35 senators. But the proper measure is not the percentage of bills passed but the quality and importance. Some legislators sponsor three or four bills of local relevance and pass them. As a freshman, she was the Democratic leader of the Senate, which is some recognition of the esteem of her colleagues.

Wills, the speaker of the House of Representatives, can legitimately claim that he was even more effective. That would make a nice flyer. Even as speaker, he managed some of the biggest bills, including the lottery-implementing legislation. He was a key lawmaker in pushing through worthy tax increases. If he wins the nomination he will see himself savaged in ways as unfair as his attacks on Joyce Elliott.

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