Citizens Say No to Negative Campaigning

In Rochester, N.Y., voters were getting sick and tired of the negative campaigning that seems to go with the political territory these days."We were frustrated by the personal attacks, one candidate calling the other one a liar," said local resident Nancy Koch. "People were feeling angry and cynical."So representatives from the League of Women Voters of Rochester Metro sat down last year with civic groups, campaign workers, former public officials and members of the media to brainstorm about the problem.They came up with a nonpartisan strategy called Project Positive Campaign that's now sending candidates a strong message: Indulge in negative campaign tactics and you will suffer at the polls.The Rochester campaign echoes sentiments expressed in numerous exit polls in which large percentages of Americans report frustration with what they perceive to be the growing nastiness of political campaigning, particularly in television and radio ads. That frustration has spurred some voters to try to take matters into their own hands."We are seeing the American people say 'no thank you' to negative campaigning," said Becky Cain, national president of the League of Women Voters in Washington, D.C.The League's Rochester chapter in western New York is coordinating a broad coalition behind Project Positive Campaign. Through fliers, brochures and public service announcements, organizations including the Junior League are encouraging voters to "let your candidates know you will vote, financially support and work only for those who run positive, informative campaigns."First implemented during last November's elections, the project urged voters to evaluate all political materials and then call or write candidates, party leaders and the media to express their views about the tone and content of campaigns.The effort had some limited impact. Several campaign commercials were withdrawn after project members complained. And during one political debate, a candidate admitted that his campaign had received complaints about an ad."We know the message was getting through -- but it takes time," Koch acknowledged.In other parts of the country, other communities are banding together to convince candidates that political mudslinging will no longer be tolerated.In Nashville, Tenn., a consortium of 40 churches and synagogues -- known as TNT for Tying Nashville Together -- was dismayed during last year's county elections. The congregations realized that the issues they cared most about were "getting crowded out by negative campaigns," said TNT organizer Tom Murphy.Concern quickly turned to action: dozens of meetings held in the homes of local residents to hammer out a strategy. The result was TNT Metro Candidates' Compact '95, a no-negative-campaigning pledge that all local candidates were urged to sign.In signing, politicians pledge to "not run negative advertisements in the electronic media" and "not run advertisements in any medium whatsoever discussing my opponent's family, children, race, national origin, religion or sex."Thirty-three of the 40 candidates elected to the county council signed on.As a result, "The community -- not the politicians -- owned the electoral process," said TNT founder Forrest E. Harris, pastor of the Pleasant Green Baptist Church.Circulated along with the pledge was a 10-point platform ranging from neighborhood safety to public school improvement to better nursing home care. Not everyone who liked the pledge thought the same of the platform.John Boone, an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, chose not to become an active supporter of TNT because he found some of its positions too liberal. But he thinks the whole effort had an impact, nonetheless."While I didn't support the entire agenda of TNT, I did feel the tone of the last election was a little better than the previous elections, and I would have to give TNT some of the credit," he said.In yet another strategy, civic groups in southern Virginia decided in late March to develop a set of six "voters' expectations for candidates" in the five cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth. The expectations include rejection of advertisements "that misrepresent, distort, or otherwise falsify the facts."Local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, Parent Teacher Association, and Council of Civic Organizations joined together to draft the document, which will be read before all candidate debates.In Minnesota, grassroots groups are calling on candidates in races for the U.S. House and Senate to engage in a similar process and have asked news media to emphasize issues rather than just who's racing ahead or falling behind. In Oregon, the local League of Women Voters has urged candidates to sign what it calls the Standards for Oregon Campaign Conduct.In this and other efforts, citizen action is the key, said Cain of the national League. "As long as we the citizens let [negative campaigning] be effective, it will continue," she said. "We are the only ones who have the power to stop it."


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