‘Push polls’ muddy District 22

When northeast Salem’s Nomi Pearce received a nasty campaign mailer Saturday depicting Democrat Betty Komp with a Pinocchio nose, she thought nothing of it and tossed it into the recycling bin.

But a recent phone “poll” on the House District 22 race between Komp and Republican Al Shannon angered Pearce. The caller cited negative things about Komp and accused her of pushing a homosexual agenda in Oregon.

“I expect to get information in print or on TV that is very biased,” Pearce said. “This felt very different.”

Welcome to the tightest legislative race in the Salem area and, not coincidentally, the one with the most mudslinging.

“I think it is the nature of political campaigns today, particularly in close races,” said Geoff Sugerman, a Silverton political consultant. “It’s one of those things that you’re going to see in the waning days of the race.”

Komp’s campaign accuses Shannon of violating his pledge not to engage in “push polling” — political smears disguised to look like legitimate, scientific polls.

Shannon, who disavows any connection to those calls, said it is Komp’s side that has engaged in push polling, making calls accusing him of favoring “cop-killer bullets.”

The two sides’ campaign mailings are equally aggressive and of dubious accuracy.

House Democrats’ combined campaign sent mailings implying that Shannon favors a national sales tax and privatizing Social Security.

Mailings from the centralized House Republican campaign portray Komp as wanting to increase taxes and favoring a sales tax, and giving her a stretched Pinocchio nose for denying it.

The mailings illustrate how local candidates in Oregon are losing control of their own campaigns.

“It used to be, you gave the money to the candidate and the candidate decides how it’s used,” Sugerman said. But more and more campaign money is going straight from political action committees to party-controlled centralized campaigns.

“The funders are taking more and more control over the message,” Sugerman said.

House District 22, which includes North Salem, Woodburn and Gervais, is one of about a dozen close races that will determine the balance of power in the 2005 House of Representatives. Democrats hope to narrow the Republicans’ 35-25 majority and gain more clout in the 2005 legislative session.

In 2002, Republicans used a taped Komp comment ostensibly favoring a sales tax to eke out a 92-vote victory by candidate Cliff Zauner.

Democrats, who argue that Komp’s comments were taken out of context, went on the offensive this time.

They mailed fliers implying that Shannon supports a sales tax because he’s an “active member of the group that supports imposing a national sales tax on Oregon,” referring to the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy.

That blunts the impact of GOP fliers reviving Komp’s disputed 2002 sales-tax remarks.

“It does confuse the voter,” said Russ Walker, Northwest director of Freedom Works/ Citizens for a Sound Economy. “There’s no way you can reverse that confusion.”

Another flier accuses Shannon of wanting to “gamble with our retirement,” because he is “active in a group trying to privatize Social Security.”

That could be potent given Woodburn’s large number of retirees.

“They’re making stuff up,” Shannon said of the Democrats’ mailers. “I have no idea where they’re getting that.”

Walker said Monday that his group doesn’t support a sales tax, and its proposal for private Social Security accounts shouldn’t be called privatization.

“I’m not a member of that group; never have been,” Shannon said of Citizens for a Sound Economy.

However, Walker said Shannon is a member.

Democrats produced a May 21, 2004, press release from his group labeling Shannon as one of its “reliable CSE activists.”

“When you’re a member or an activist, generally you agree with the positions of the organization,” said Jon Isaacs, campaign director for House Democrats. “Russ Walker and Citizens for a Sound Economy, they’re the masters of the guilt-by-association argument.”

slaw@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6615