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A cheap lie in the voters pamphlet prompts an expensive campaign to defend OSPI chief
Maia Espinoza's whopper on the taxpayer's dime draws in $650K from WEA, other unions to defend Reykdahl
This is a story about how a cheaply told lie can be really expensive to fight. First, the lie: Maia Espinoza, a challenger to Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdahl, included this line in her statement in the voters pamphlet for the Aug. 4 primary: “The incumbent ignored parents and educators by championing a policy that teaches sexual positions to 4th graders!”
So that statement is a whopper. I’ll refer you to Dahlia Bazzaz’s takeout on the race in The Seattle Times for the details. Short version: it’s flat-out false, crafted to distill the purest essence of conservative opposition to the state’s new sex education law, which Reykdahl supported, and which is also on the ballot next week. What isn’t in the Times’ story is all the money Reykdahl’s union backers are now spending to try to save him.
Espinoza was allowed to tell the lie on the taxpayers dime. It landed in the mailbox of every registered voter in the state not once, but twice, with the state seal and the words “official publication” on the cover. Reykdahl went to court to try to get the line taken out of the voter guide, arguing that he was being defamed, and won in the lower courts. But ultimately the Washington Supreme Court bought the underlying premise of this particular species of political lie: If there’s some argument to be made, however flimsy or implausible, that the lie isn’t a lie, then it’s OK.
Exactly what effect Espinoza’s lie had in the primary is hard to measure. Reykdahl got just 40 percent of the vote in a six-way primary, an alarmingly poor showing for an incumbent. It’s a nonpartisan office, so there were no handy party labels to guide voters. Espinoza, the only woman and the only person of color in the field, got 25 percent of the vote.
The court didn’t fully articulate its reasoning until Chief Justice Debra Stephens ruling was released this week, but it basically boils down to this: “Whether Espinoza’s critique is fair—and whether Reykdal’s policy is sound—is for the voters to decide. Espinoza’s statement is inflammatory, but it does not defame Reykdal.” The six-member majority applied the standards of defamation law, which require the Reykdahl, as a public figure, would have to show that the statement was both false and maliciously intended.
Shorter version: “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
The court wasn’t unanimous. Three justices, led by Steven Gonzalez, found that the neutral platform of the voters guide should be held to a higher standard, and pointed out that Espinoza herself had described the justification for her statement as a “trail of bread crumbs.”
“The allegation that a public official would champion a policy teaching sexual positions to fourth graders, based on a faint trail of bread crumbs reaches the level of improbability to establish actual malice,” Gonzalez wrote. “The citizens of Washington have expressed a strong public interest in not allowing the voters’ pamphlet be a forum for false or misleading statements about a candidate’s opponent.”
Policing this kind of political lie is obviously very tricky, and most states are content to wash their hands entirely of it and let politicians and political committees fight it out in the mud. In fact, advertisers have sought and received protections from defamation laws for political content so they can’t be held accountable for the avalanche of half-truths, distortions and outright falsehoods that get thrown around in politics. Checked out Facebook or Twitter lately?
All this gives the advantage to the dirtiest street-fighters in the business. There’s a legend about this kind of hardball from one of Lyndon Johnson’s early Texas campaigns that the great Hunter S. Thompson tells best in “Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail:”
The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumor campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows.
“Christ, we can’t get a way with calling him a pig-fucker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”
“I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”
Here’s where we get to the money. The result apparently got the attention of the Washington Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers’ union, Reykdal’s biggest backer. On September 15, the union’s political action committee spent $39,900 on a poll on the race, according to its filings with the Public Disclosure Commission. That’s a large enough poll to yield detailed strategic information about the race, including potential messages and tactics for influencing the outcome.
A few days later, a new PAC, Strong Public Schools, was created and seeded with $500,000 from the WEA and another $150,000 from several other union-backed PACS. That’s 10 times what the WEA spent on an independent campaign supporting Reykdahl in 2016. The WEA declined to discuss the specifics of all this with The Washington Observer.
In the past few days, Strong Public Schools has spent nearly $400,000 defending Reykdahl via mailers and digital advertising, along with more than $70,000 from other pro-Reykdahl players. More is sure to come. That’s on top of the $230,000 Reykdahl has for his own campaign and the $186,00 Espinoza has for hers.*
We’ll see which proves most effective: The lie distributed at the taxpayers’ expense, or the avalanche of political advertising late in the game.
*The Observer hasn’t seen much of the advertising from either side. Feel free to drop a photo or screenshot in the comments or, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, text at 206.334.1483 or Signal to Paul Queary.
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