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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

It's simple: Campaigns get nasty because dirt works

Two neighbors at my Seward Park polling place were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at the tone of the primary campaign. Like many of us, they felt slimed by Election 2004.

We can lament the nastiness of the election all day, but the answer to the question "Do vicious attack ads work with mellow Northwest voters?" has been delivered. Dirt works.

Attack ads alienate independents, create question marks in voters' minds, change momentum in a campaign and, in some cases, send a warning to candidates in future races.

Take the Helen Sommers 36th District legislative race, one of the most expensive in recent years and one of the most mean-spirited.

Sommers was leading narrowly and probably will hold onto her seat. But the union launching the assault on her via air and land and sea won a victory of its own. The Service Employees International Union sent a message to every legislator in the state. When the tough guys at SEIU come and ask you to jump, the correct response is not "I will think about it" or "I have a budget to balance." If you would rather not be ground to a pulp next election, the right answer is "How high, sir?"

SEIU and a group called MoveOnHelen.org attacked Sommers relentlessly all summer. The union represents home health-care workers who reached agreement in 2002 for a $2.07 hourly raise. In 2003, lawmakers, facing a stunning budget shortfall, rejected the contract and approved a 75 cents an hour increase, followed by 50 cents this year.

Home health-care workers deserve decent pay. And there is nothing wrong with a union fighting for better wages for its members. But, boy, are these people overbearing and unfair in how they go about it.

Voters from Queen Anne to Magnolia and parts of Ballard were bombarded with so many fliers and phone calls I began to feel sorry for regular telephone solicitors calling into the district unaware. Ditto for mail carriers who had to carry back-breaking tons of stuff every day.

Here is a small example of the dishonest gibberish that went down in this race.

"And she voted against the environment. ... Helen Sommers voted to gut our clean water laws ... " says one of a zillion brochures.

Washington Conservation Voters, a political arm of the environmental community, gave Sommers 89 percent on its latest scorecard and endorsed her.

"As chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Helen has fought hard successfully to preserve the budgets of our natural-resource agencies," said Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters. "Also this year she deserves credit for finding new funds for stream-flow protection for water and fish."

Cynical SEIU and its pals figured most people wouldn't check.

Comparing and contrasting factual details about candidates is one thing. For example, in the governor's race, it is OK to tell people Ron Sims supported the education trust fund initiative, I-884, and Christine Gregoire did not. Or that Democrat Gregoire is pro-choice, and Republican Dino Rossi is not.

Campaigns cross the line when they lie about the other person's record or try to hide the source of money behind an ad. The latter act may have backfired in the Democratic primary for attorney general. Some voters supported victorious Deborah Senn because they were so miffed a national organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which largely backs Republican candidates, hid its status as the source of more than $1 million in attack-ad funding until the 11th hour.

The other Democrat in the race, Mark Sidran, paid a heavy price. In recent weeks, few people listened to what he had to say about the issues because everyone fixated on the whodunit of the ads. Sidran lost any momentum he might have had.

The U.S. Chamber shamed itself and embarrassed local chambers throughout the state. The state Public Disclosure Commission should level the full blast of fines against this group.

The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce had nothing to do with the ads. Chamber President Steve Leahy could not get the word out fast enough that he disapproved of the sneaky politics.

In general, attacks serve to reinforce the views of strong partisans and push them into their respective camps, says Shanto Iyengar, co-author of the book "Going Negative" and chairman of Stanford University's Department of Communication. "Independents, however, are turned off and tend to drop out entirely."

The biggest single predictor of campaign tone is the closeness of the race, according to the book. "The tighter the contest, the meaner the campaign."

So if you thought the primary was nasty, wait until the general-election campaign for governor between Gregoire and Rossi. It is expected to be close, and, by this analysis, full of vicious ads.

Because they work.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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