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Don't reward campaigns that 'go negative'

Bill Cotterell Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:44 PM

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Independent legislative candidate Nancy Argenziano sued the Florida Republican Party last week, claiming it tried to torpedo her comeback campaign with leaflets that falsely told 21,000 voters she violated Florida election law by filing to run for Congress as a Democrat.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Palm Beach County GOP has filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics against state Sen. Maria Sachs, alleging she didn't properly disclose some financial assets.

Democrat Sachs is locked in a struggle with Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale for a newly configured Florida Senate seat — the only Senate race pitting two incumbents on Nov. 6.

Separately, Bogdanoff's supporters have been running advertisements claiming Sachs billed the state for expensive limo rides. Sachs calls that a pack of lies.

Argenziano, a former Republican legislator now running as an independent against state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith in Citrus and Hernando counties, knows politics is a contact sport. But she said claiming she broke the law — in a mailer that coincided with absentee ballots going out — was personal.

Argenziano said she didn't violate the election code, just challenged part of it in court and lost. And she didn't officially file for Congress as a Democrat, only announced her intention to do so, if the court allowed it.

As insults go, these are fairly routine late hits in hotly contested political races. At this point, what's most important about the mud flung in the Sachs-Bogdanoff or Smith-Argenziano campaigns is not truth, but timing and potential shock value.

If a campaign has enough money to keep an ugly accusation flying, that's all that counts.

Take Dr. Date Rape, for instance. Several years ago, a physician serving in the Florida House found a flaw in a bill to ban rohypnol, the knockout drug known as "roofies." He voted to amend the bill to limit its use to proper medical purposes, while keeping it out of the hands of rapists.

But that's not how the story was told in a campaign mailing. A GOP flier labeled the lawmaker "Dr. Date Rape" and said only that he'd voted against a total ban.

Then there was the guy who was supposedly soft on child predators. In truth, like everyone else in the Legislature, he voted to make judges throw probationers back in prison in child-abuse cases — and then he voted to table a few identical bills that weren't needed after the first one passed.

That didn't stop his opponent from flooding Tampa Bay airwaves with a TV spot showing two aghast mothers on a playground, talking about how he had voted two or three times to shelve bills aimed at jailing predators. Meanwhile, notations from the House journal appeared onscreen, documenting his votes to table the bills — never mentioning he'd voted for the one that had already passed.

It should be noted that legislators targeted by both the "date rape" and "child predator" advertisements survived their elections.

That's strange because we voters usually reward such tactics.

Consultants have a mild name for it — "going negative" — that hardly describes the viciousness of such deliberately selective discussion or distortion of an opponent's record.

Not wanting to stifle a robust political debate, the courts have made it all but impossible to police political speech with libel or slander laws. It's up to us, the voters, to check out anything that sounds too bad to be true — and not to accept from our candidates a degree of honesty we would never accept from our children.

Bill Cotterell can be contacted at

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