Legislative incumbents assailed by mailersDemocrat says party is just fighting back.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
State Sen. Mike Vehle has been through some political wars, but he admits campaign mailers attacking him this year have been difficult to take.
“It’s much, much worse than I’ve seen in the past,” Vehle said Friday.
Some of the large, colorful postcards sent to District 20 voters this fall claim Vehle has supported the illegal sale of 85-octane gasoline, voted to take away local control of schools and cut education funding, and is part of a corrupt system in Pierre with “no transparency, no accountability and no ethics.”
“I look at some of these postcards, and I’m amazed. I’m amazed,” Vehle said. “No one has ever called me corrupt or unethical.”
This is his fifth campaign for the Legislature after winning two terms in the House and two in the Senate. This third bid for the state Senate has Vehle surprised, hurt and angry.
“I think it’s the most negative politics I’ve seen,” he said.
Vehle said he wants to focus on keeping young people in the state, promoting education and encouraging economic development.
“Those are the issues,” he said.
Ben Nesselhuf, executive director and party chairman, South Dakota Democratic Party, said the statements on the postcards are based on facts.
Nesselhuf said Vehle and other legislative Republicans have a “terrible record” that needs to be exposed.
“Mike Vehle’s been there a long time,” he said. “This has been on his watch, and he’s part of a caucus that has not taken any steps to clean this up. I don’t think this is inappropriate to bring this up.”
Nesselhuf said Vehle did support allowing the sale of 85-octane in the state this year, even after it was determined it was illegal.
Vehle said the fuel has been used in the Black Hills for decades, since it works in higher elevations without causing knocking in engines.
The Legislature voted to allow it to be sold during the tourist season from Wall west to the state line through June 2013. Then, the matter would be sorted out in Pierre.
Vehle said he was and remains opposed to labeling 85-octane gasoline as 87-octane fuel. The postcard distorts his view, he said, and it’s difficult to explain it in a radio or newspaper ad.
Nesselhuf said Vehle needs to be held responsible for his actions in Pierre.
“Despite objection from Republicans and Democrats, Mike Vehle moved in the summer Rules Committee meetings to permit the sale of 85 octane gas across the state, even though the attorney general declared its sale illegal — as cited on the postcard,” he said.
Nesselhuf said the postcard that claimed a corrupt culture exists in Pierre also has a basis in fact.
“That’s based on the report that was compiled by the Center for Public Integrity,” he said.
That study ranked South Dakota 49th in transparency, ethics and clean government. New Jersey was ranked as the most ethical state.
Nesselhuf said the criticism on education was also well-deserved.
“Mike Vehle voted for HB 1251 in 2011, slashing tens of millions of dollars in education funding,” he said. “In 2012, he voted for Governor Daugaard’s disastrous education reform bill that imposes state mandates on education at the expense of local control for schools.”
Vehle said his Democratic opponent, Quentin Burg, told him he was not responsible for the mailers and said the state party sent them.
While Vehle is taking a lot of the heat, postcards assailing Reps. Lance Carson and Tona Rozum have also landed in mailboxes.
The Republican incumbents were accused of not supporting veterans’ services, and Nesselhuf said both voted to eliminate county veterans’ services officer positions in 2011 and voted against reinstating that money in 2012.
“That is a legitimate issue,” he said.
The postcards are outsized, 6 inches by 11 inches. They’re bright and packed with large capital letters.
Nesselhuf said they’re part of a statewide campaign to get more Democrats elected to the Legislature. The state party created and mailed them, he said, and placed its title on them.
The Democrats spent at least $100,000 on the postcards and other mailers, Nesselhuf said.
“We’ve worked very closely with our candidates. We have essentially set ourselves up to be the campaign consulting team for our candidates,” he said. “We’ve been able, by using a more centralized strategy, to bring costs down.”
The state GOP does more direct donations to races, he said, while the Democrats use money as incentives to assist its candidates, including direct mail.
Nesselhuf said the decision was made to work together as a way to offset the GOP advantage in money.
“It is very usual for us to be outspent,” he said. “The Republicans put just a ton into their candidates.”
Vehle said he was surprised by the deluge of negative mailers.
“I have always run a positive campaign,” he said. “I believe that candidates should tell what their positions are, what their visions for the future of South Dakota are, and not negative campaign, because negative campaigning gives the whole area of politics a bad name, a bad connotation.”
Vehle is also taking heat from the political right.
The National Organization of Gun Owners sent out a bright orange mailer claiming he is anti-gun rights.
“That’s just preposterous,” Vehle said. “I own land. I don’t farm. I buy it to hunt. I’ve been hunting since I was a kid.”
He said the first gun he owned was a break-action .22 rifle his dad gave to him when he was a kid, and he still owns it.
One of the bills that the flyer uses to attack him was rejected by a cumulative vote of 103-0 in the House and Senate, Vehle said, with two legislators absent.
Another bill he opposed would have allowed college students to bring loaded weapons in the classroom. The third citation attacks him because he refused to fill out a questionnaire from the gun group, he said.
The flyers are bipartisan attacks. A virtually identical mailer was sent to voters in Sioux Falls, criticizing a Democratic legislative candidate, with the name and photo of the candidate switched.
Nesselhuf said the South Dakota Republican Party and conservative activists have mailed attack pieces out as well. His staff emailed copies of them to The Daily Republic, and they have the same tone.
The mailers criticize Democratic — and some moderate Republican — candidates for a variety of things, including not keeping students safe from bullies, favoring “Secret Contracts, increased Taxes and Cadillac Compensation” in schools, and opposing efforts to allow religious leaders to speak out against “deviant sexual behavior” while accepting the support of “radical prohomosexual activists.”
Vehle said he does not want such tactics used here, and he has told the state GOP that.
“I sent an email and by phone asked, do not do any negative campaigning in my district,” he said. “Do not do it against my opponent.”
Nesselhuf said Democratic candidates are not just relying on the mailers.
“These guys are out there knocking on doors, talking to voters, pointing out differences from the incumbents,” Nesselhuf said. “That’s how you win elections.”
Nesselhuf said the Democrats, who have 19 representatives and five senators in the Legislature, which has 105 total members, will gain ground Tuesday.
“We’re going to pick up some seats,” he said. “There’s only one way to go.”
Vehle said he will know Wednesday if the negative ads hurt him, but he has no intention of responding.
“I’m going to take that risk,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. I hope people will say, ‘We don’t like it, and we won’t listen to it.’ ”
Vehle said there is another cost to such bare-knuckle tactics. People who are asked to run for office look at this and decide politics is not for them.
“They say, ‘Well, when you have the negative campaigning, I don’t want to get involved in that. I don’t want to be a recipient,’ ” he said.