Attack or hold back? Candidates hedge when asked if they’ll go personal

Attack or hold back? Candidates hedge when asked if they’ll go personal

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It’s early. The primary elections are almost six months away. There is a lot of time left for candidates to wave around their resumes in front of voters. There’s also lots of time for candidates to wave around their opponents’ garbage: corruption allegations, DUIs, sex scandals, you name it.

No one likes to be associated with these kinds of attacks. They can work really well, but they can also backfire. And they’re messy.

I asked a few candidates if they plan to go personal on some choice nugget in their opponents’ pasts. They each hedged, leaving the door at least a little bit open.

Halvorson on Jackson

(Chicago Tribune website)

A couple weeks ago, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson was mulling a challenge to a fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. In a phone interview then, I asked Halvorson if she believed Jackson was more vulnerable as a result of questions surrounding his bid to be named to the U.S. Senate by ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich.

HALVORSON: Well, you know, that’s for the voters to decide. You know, like I tell people, maybe he’s had a few distractions lately, you know what, and that’s up to the voters. I’m not here to talk about what’s happened in the past. I’m here to talk about giving the people a choice. […]

HUDZIK: So, so I mean would you not bring up some of that Blagojevich stuff should you run?

HALVORSON: You know, we’re dealing in hypotheticals at this point. You know, that’s for the pundits, and all I know is what the people want to talk about. So, you know what, I’m just going to talk about what the people want to talk about, and you know what, let’s just move ahead. You know what, we don’t have a whole lot of differences with regards to the issues in Washington. We have differences in how hard we work in our districts. […]

But last Thursday, when Halvorson made her formal campaign kick-off in front of Bloom High School in Chicago Heights (her alma mater), she went a bit farther. Here’s part of her opening statement to reporters.

HALVORSON: We need an airport [in Peotone]. The current congressman has not made it happen. This has been his pet project for 15 years. Where is it? I want to make it happen, too, but we’ve got to do it right. And we need a congressman who doesn’t have ethical distractions. Maybe that’s why he can’t get anything done anymore.

Halvorson was asked by Charles Thomas from ABC-7 to clarify what she meant by “ethical distractions.”

HALVORSON: Well, I’m going to leave that up to you guys, because I’m going to…

THOMAS: No, no, no. You said it. I didn’t say it. You said it.

HALVORSON: Okay, here’s the thing. He’s got distractions. He’s up before the House Committee of Ethics. He’s been listed as one of the most corrupt members of Congress [by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in 2009]. And the House Ethics Committee has him under investigation. It’s up to them to take then take that under consideration.

Do Jackson’s problems from the Blagojevich probe even fit in the “personal attacks” category? It’s not as though Halvorson is hitting the congressman on infidelity issues (see Sun-Times).

Jackson’s office did not make him available for an interview with us after Halvorson’s announcement, so I couldn’t ask him whether he expected such attacks. But a statement sent by his office included this line: “People today want more jobs and less political infighting.”

Pankau on Ramey

(Chicago Sun-Times website)

Last month, DuPage County Republican Party Chair Randy Ramey, a state representative, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence (see Sun-Times). Ramey is challenging state Sen. Carole Pankau, a fellow DuPage Republican, in the primary election next March. When I talked to Ramey the week before his plea (but well after the DUI arrest had been made public), he called for a positive race.

RAMEY: Far too many people are tired of the personal attacks. Unfortunately, they always seem to come out, because to a certain extent, they still work. But – obviously – I have issues, she has issues. There’s no need to go there. The idea is here to present your case to the people why you would be the best person to represent them in Springfield.

Later that day, I asked Pankau if she would bring up Ramey’s DUI in the campaign.

PANKAU: I think other people are more than capable of evaluating that. You have, I know there are newspapers and other things that are covering that. We’ll just let them do that. […]

HUDZIK: That’s not something you’re going to bring up at all during the campaign?

PANKAU: Well, I feel sorry for Randy, and, um, we’ll see how that campaign advances. But, um, he basically did that to himself.

HUDZIK: So, so I guess, you’re leaving the door open to possibly using that.

PANKAU: I don’t know. We’ll see how the campaign unfolds.

Hultgren on Walsh

(Chicago Sun-Times website)

U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, currently of Illinois’ 8th District, announced a few weeks ago that he would run in Illinois’ new 14th Congressional District, unless the courts overturn the Democratic-drawn political boundaries. That pits him against the GOP incumbent from the 14th, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren.

Walsh can’t seem to get through a public appearance these days without being asked about his ex-wife’s claim that he’s more than $100,000 arrears in child support payments (see Sun-Times). Walsh denies the charge, and called the paper’s story a “hit piece.”

After his speech to TeaCon 2011 a little more than a week ago, I asked Walsh how much he thought personal issues like the child support allegations would play into the race.

WALSH: It’s all part of any kind of campaign. When you’ve got two guys like this running against each, my God I hope we can focus on the issues. That’s what we need to focus on.

Last week, I chatted with Hultgren about the expected primary. I asked him if he would bring up the child support issue.

HULTGREN: You know, we’re going to talk about what we’ve been doing. I don’t, I really don’t know, what all is going to happen in this. I hope it doesn’t happen. I’m still hopeful that the courts are going to do the right thing and change these districts. So, what we’re going to do is focus on what we’ve been doing, and the good work that we’ve done for the people. […] In this district, particularly, I know that people are sick and tired of negative campaigns. I know in the media that, that people – they like that. But in this, there’s so much positive, that I feel like I can talk about, of what we’ve been doing and what we’ve done and what we’re going to do, that that’s going to be the focus.

I pointed out to Hultgren that his statement left the door open to using personal issues. He replied that his “focus is going to be on a positive race,” but added…

HULTGREN: There’s so many other things that play into it, of what people on the radio will say or what people in newspapers will say, but our focus is going to be positive. I think that’s absolutely what the 14th Congressional District wants.

Noting negative races in the past, Hultgren said, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

So does that mean he’s personally pledging to run a positive race?

HULTGREN: Well, my focus is going to be on talking about positive things. We’re, I’ve, I’m careful on pledges, other than my pledges to serve the people that I represent as best as I possibly can, and to tell the truth, and to follow through on what I said I was going to do. Those are the pledges I’ve made and those are the pledges I’m going to keep.

That, my friends, is a careful answer.