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Negative ads from outside groups lead candidates to stray from issues.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - With the primary election just days away, why would a candidate for Oregon governor go on the air with a radio ad pointing out a Nevada millionaire's "unusual pursuits" as an amateur sex therapist?

What would prompt an incumbent governor to shell out a quarter-million dollars for a last-minute TV ad campaign to defend his record, when his two challengers scarcely have money for media buys of their own?

The answer to both questions lies in the realm of "independent expenditures" - campaigns run by outside groups without the involvement of the candidates. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton and incumbent Democrat Ted Kulongoski have felt compelled to wage expensive media campaigns to defend themselves against ads by these new independent-expenditure groups.

Friday's round of campaign finance reports showed $1 million spent so far by two independent-expenditure campaigns in the governor's race. These ads, bankrolled by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and medical equipment manufacturer Loren Parks, have produced some of the hardest-hitting advertising messages in the governor's race.

"This seems to be a new level of aggression in Oregon politics," said Tim Gleason, dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. The most troubling reason for such aggression "is one person or one set of people having such an enormous influence on the media that we're all seeing," Gleason said.

The Grand Ronde, sole contributor of $820,000 to the "Oregonians Against Off Reservation Casinos" committee, has used its TV ad campaign to support the candidacies of Democrat Jim Hill and Republican Ron Saxton while lashing out at Democrat Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Republican candidate Kevin Mannix because of their positions on the Warm Springs tribes' proposed casino in the Columbia Gorge - which is likely to draw business away from the Grand Ronde's casino west of Salem.

The ads accuse Kulongoski of being a "do-nothing governor," blaming him for education cuts and accusing him of despoiling the environment while a Columbia Gorge waterfall appears on the screen.

Kulongoski had said earlier that he would not spend campaign money on advertising in the primary. But he reversed direction in response to the Grand Ronde ads. His ad zooms in on a copy of the committee's campaign finance report to show it's being bankrolled by what it refers to as casino owners who "want Jim Hill because he's good for them. But does Jim Hill want what's good for you?"

Campaign finance records released Friday show Kulongoski spent $210,402 for TV air time and to pay a California firm to produce the ad.

His campaign manager, Cameron Johnson, said the tribe's ads reflected the tribe's self-interest by diverting the debate from issues the public cares most about, such as health care, jobs and education.

But Justin Martin, a member and chief political strategist of the Grand Ronde tribe, said he was proud of his tribe's success in broadening the governor's race debate to include the governor's agreement to allow a casino in the gorge.

"Everybody has got a right to be involved in the political process, and that includes Native American tribes," Martin said. "To us, this has always been a defining issue. And we think Oregonians deserve to know how the candidates fall on this defining issue."

Hill's campaign manager, Jef Green, said Hill was hardly in the pocket of the Grand Ronde tribe. He said Hill has opposed the expansion of gambling, including to off-reservation casinos, since well before the tribe decided to run ads in support of his candidacy.

The other independent expenditure campaign in the Oregon governor's race centers on the Republican primary contest between Mannix and Saxton. The "Neil Goldschmidt's Real Good Friend, Ron Saxton" committee has received all of its $175,000 from Parks, a wealthy medical-equipment manufacturer who moved from Oregon to Nevada.

The group's first round of radio ads featured the voice of an "Oregon Story Lady" who comes unhinged as she describes Saxton and his law firm's contributions to Democrats and his business relationship with Goldschmidt. Ex-governor Goldschmidt, a once-powerful Democrat, became political kryptonite after the 2004 revelation that he had sex with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s.

The Saxton campaign has condemned the ads put out by Parks as dishonest and full of unfounded innuendo.

The independent-expenditure campaigns have succeeded in knocking the governor's race off the issues candidates originally intended to stick to. Saxton turned to ads focusing more on Parks than on Mannix. In return, the Parks-financed third-party campaign this week dropped the Story Lady ad and began airing an ad in which Parks defends himself.

Saxton's anti-Parks ad calls him an out-of-state millionaire who has spent $1.7 million in the last two gubernatorial elections "trying to buy the Oregon governorship for Mannix." It cites material from Parks' Web site in which he describes his past pursuits as an "amateur sex therapist." Among other things, the ad notes that despite Mannix's anti-abortion credentials, Parks has contributed money to Planned Parenthood, which the ad calls "a large abortion provider."

In response, the reclusive millionaire's radio ads feature Parks' tremulous voice saying, "I'm 80 years old. I'm being personally attacked by Ron Saxton just because I've given money to Kevin Mannix." He defends his record of giving - not just to candidates and political causes, but to Hurricane Katrina victims, Meals on Wheels, and breast-cancer diagnosis. Parks says he hasn't asked anything of Mannix except that he make criminals and government more accountable.

And he takes additional shots at Saxton for earlier statements that the Mannix-authored, Parks-bankrolled Measure 11 sentencing law was "too tough" and for "his record of giving money to Democrats and wheeling and dealing with guys like Neil Goldschmidt," among other things.

Gregg Clapper, who formed the Parks-funded independent committee and produced the ads, said Mannix and other Saxton campaign opponents haven't brought the Saxton-Goldschmidt connection up themselves, probably for fear of "being accused of going negative." But he said it was primarily the news media's failings that led him to build an ad campaign around the topic.

"My frustration, and the reason I did the independent expenditure, is because the press didn't do its work," he said.

Naomi Inman, Mannix's campaign spokeswoman, said Mannix is not close to Clapper, who "often has his own agenda. It may or may not have anything to do with benefiting Kevin as much as it does with a beef with Ron (Saxton) on his own."

Felix Schein, Saxton's campaign spokesman, said that while independent ads are legal and to be expected, they've forced the candidates off their game plans to some degree.

"We would have preferred that the candidates had been able to speak for themselves," he said. "Voters would have benefited from that dialogue more than they do from the jumble they're getting now."

Jim Moore, a political scientist, said that while the context of this spring's campaign has been set more by outside groups' ads than he's ever seen, third-party groups have been no more or less fast-and-loose with the facts than the candidates themselves.

Moore, who teaches at Pacific University, said independent-expenditure campaigns have been around for years, some of them more hard-hitting than this year's.

He recalled the union-sponsored ads of the U.S. Senate race in 1996 between Gordon Smith and eventual winner Ron Wyden. One ad suggested Smith was responsible in some way for an industrial accident that claimed the life of a teenage worker at his frozen food operation in Eastern Oregon. The ad's accuracy came under question and Wyden called on the union to pull it.

In this year's third-party ads, Moore said, "No one is accusing anybody of murder, like they were doing 10 years ago."
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Title Annotation:Politics; Even the governor dips into campaign defense funds as "independent-expenditure" commercials do their damage
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 14, 2006
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