Negative Campaigning and Partisan Politics

I received a memorable sample book when I was working in an elementary school program for emotionally disturbed children. The book dealing with behavior problems had the catchy and descriptive title, He Hit Me Back First. This book and title come back to me whenever I hear the complaint that so and so is indulging in ‘negative campaigning’ or ‘partisan politics.’ Both at the federal and local levels, whenever I hear the complaint, I am concerned that what is really being done is a discounting or discrediting of criticism, and a denial of the purpose and legitimate issues raised by the loyal opposition. Republicans in particular are very skilled at utilizing this ploy to deflect criticism from their policies and plans and in turn going negative attacking Democrats for being negative. Democrats just aren’t very good at it, and instead they fall prey to the baiting. What’s worse, the public appears go right along with it. What is behind this elementary playground tactic is the desire on the part of the accuser to be able to advance their agenda without any public scrutiny. Take, for example, the following verbatim plea:

“Sometimes people try too hard to interject partisan politics into an issue when there are none there. Over the Legislative break I was at my lake cabin relaxing a bit. When I’m there I usually pick up the Duluth Tribune. A letter writer was taking Rep. Tom Rukavina to task for his criticism of Governor Pawlenty’s state website having photographs of the Governor as a child on the site. I thought it was silly of Rep. Rukavina to call a press conference and make a big deal out of it. A Duluth resident agreed and said:

“‘Rukavina is clearly playing bad politics and wasting the taxpayers’ time coming up with crazy laws. Rukavina said it should be illegal to have links about the Governor on the state Web site. Is that the best Democrats can pump out? Local Democrats have been using taxpayer-paid newsletters to defame the Governor for a while now. Just a few months ago, Rukavina pleaded guilty to drunken driving. Perhaps he should do something productive, such as making laws that keep drunks off the streets. Or better yet, resign.’

“This letter writer was pretty blunt and hard on Rep. Rukavina. It points out that trying too hard to interject partisan politics into issues generally is a poor idea. Rep. Rukavina took some pretty ‘cheap’ shots at the Governor about the website. He deserved to be called up short on it as the letter writer did.”

Who hit back first? The blogger, in this case my former opponent, is appalled that Tom Rukavina took exception with the Governor’s use of his taxpayer provided Governors website for personal promotion. Bringing it to the public’s attention does not mean Rukavina’s approach is right, the public will decide on that, but is Rukavina right in bringing the concern of public funds for personal promotion to the public? – absolutely. Does Ray have a right to question Rukavina’s method, that he “took some pretty ‘cheap’ shots at the Governor” . . . ? Yes, he has the right to question the method, but Rukavina’s right to question and bring it forward is fundamental. Does the letter writer Ray quotes, or Ray in quoting him, have the right to suggest that Rukavina should not be listened to or be given a fair hearing of a legitimate concern about use of taxpayer funds because of past behavior? No, questioning public expenditures, is basic democratic discourse. Improper use of taxpayer money should always be a concern it is a serious matter. Elected officials should not be using their office for personal gain. That is not why they are elected. Politicians, when elected, do gain in their individual and even business influence and power, which is the reason abuse of that power and influence is important to question.

My former opponent began his blog though as cover and deflection for criticism he received, criticism he wanted to paint as being ‘partisan politics.’ The subtext here is “the people have no right to question what I do.” We live in a democracy, and activist citizens have a right and a responsibility to question when something looks suspicious. They may or may not be right, but they have the right to ask, otherwise our government is one of dictators. If elected officials can’t operate in the light of day and be willing to justify what they do, then we have a serious problem. Ray has every right to be involved with bringing forth an initiative that he believes is for the public good, but it is wrong to dismiss the concerns of a citizen by claiming they are partisan, suggesting therefore the questions have no merit, and failing to answer the primary question – is this bill he sponsored premature? Here is how the blog begins:

“The campaign manager for my opponent in the last election had a letter in the Northfield News last week criticizing me for carrying a bill to protect the retirement benefits of local hospital workers. Interjecting partisan politics in this issue was uncalled for. The City of Northfield and the Northfield Hospital asked me to introduce this legislation. They continue to work at deciding what ownership should be used to continue operating the city hospital.”

The point is not ‘partisan politics.’ Even though the person in question was my campaign manager, she is not now. Long before becoming my manager she has been an activist and has spoken out about issues of concern to her in the community. More importantly, as a professional she represents members of the public and groups raising issues, questioning is what she does, in this case representing a group about hospital issues. Her letter is not ‘partisan politics,’ it asks the question, “What is going on here that we’re not aware of? Why isn’t this being talked about publicly?” Her letter reads as follows:

To the editor:
Before Northfield’s new hospital was built, I represented some residents who were concerned about improprieties in the process and all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to make the new hospital happen.

Now I see that Rep. Ray Cox has authored H.F. 920 specifically for the Northfield Hospital. This is a bill which secures pensions of hospital workers when the hospital is privatized.

As I recall, the hospital is the city’s greatest economic asset, back before the hospital was built, I believe it was worth about $22 million. Since when is the hospital on the auction block? Wasn’t that idea dropped again last fall when challenged? Is this in the public interest or just Allina’s interest? And why is Ray Cox greasing the skids to make it happen when it’s not even on the public agenda? Whose interest is he representing? Isn’t this a bit premature? Or is the decision already made and the public just doesn’t know it?

Carol A. Overland

My former opponents response to the letter on his

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