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Plagiarism By Politicians:  Experts Weigh In

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Can candidates recover after they are caught plagiarizing?

Earlier this week, GoLocalProv revealed that Democratic mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza's admission that he had been arrested for shoplifting was taken word for word from a letter Central Falls Mayor James Diossa issued to constituents explaining his arrest on the same charge.

“It's a mixed bag really when it comes to politicians and candidates who go on to win elections after they are caught plagiarizing and those who are forced to drop out of the race – it has a lot to do with the timing of the revelation, the circumstances surrounding the act of plagiarism, and it also has a lot to do with the candidate,” said Pat Caddell, a political pollster who worked on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 1988 as well as for democratic presidential candidates George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, and Jerry Brown in 1992.

Plagiarism can define candidates before they can define themselves

During the 1988 presidential election campaign, Joe Biden was forced to abandon his campaign for the Democratic nomination after it was reported in the press that he had been using lines from Neil Kinnock of the British Labor party in his campaign stump speeches.

“In Biden’s case, when it came out that he had lifted some lines from Kinnock in some of his speeches, and some of those were my fault, I think he could have weathered it, but it got so blown out of proportion by [New York Times reporter] Maureen Dowd who was basically Michael Dukakis campaign manager John Sasso’s lapdog,” said Caddell. 

In a September 12, 1987 New York Times article titled "Biden's Debate Finale: An Echo From Abroad" Dowd reported: 

"The Neil Kinnock commercial did not lead to electoral success last May in Britain, but the 10-minute spot of the Labor Party leader's passionate speeches, against a cool soundtrack of Brahms, raised his approval rating by 19 points and became an instant classic.

On this side of the Atlantic, many Presidential campaign strategists of both parties greatly admired the way it portrayed Mr. Kinnock, who subsequently lost to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a man of character. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democratic hopeful, was particularly taken with it.

So taken, in fact, that he lifted Mr. Kinnock's closing speech with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact for his own closing speech at a debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23 - without crediting Mr. Kinnock..."

Sasso was forced to resign from the Dukakis campaign a month after Dowd's article ran when his role in leaking the story to reporters was confirmed by Dukakis.   

Joe Biden dropped out of the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race after he was caught plagiarizing

If the only thing voters know about a candidate is that he plagiarized it is going to resonate, according to Democratic pollster Doug Schoen who has served as an advisor to President Bill Clinton, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"In Biden's case, the story came to light before anyone knew who Joe Biden was. It was happening right when he was being defined,” said Schoen.  

By contrast, candidates who have already established a strong narrative with voters and the media can survive a plagiarism revelation.   

"In Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) case, if you look back to last summer when the story came out, he had been among the most omnipresent politicians of the summer, and was making headlines for so many different things that the story didn’t resonate,” said  GOVERNING Magazine Editor Daniel Luzer, referring to revelations made by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that Senator Paul had plagiarized a Wikipedia article on the film Gattaca in a speech.

“Ultimately, it has a lot to do with the candidate -- if it had come out that Richard Nixon had plagiarized [during the 1968 presidential election] it wouldn't have mattered because people weren't voting for him because of his credibility but rather because they perceived him to be competent,” said Caddell.

Black, white and gray areas of plagiarizing

When it comes to plagiarizing, voters care about how and how often, according to Democratic media strategist Peter Fenn.

“It generally depends on the situation and the severity of the offense and if there is repeated incidence of such a thing and when you get a repeat offender you are in real trouble,” said Fenn.

Earlier this summer, Senator John Walsh (D-MT) announced that he was dropping out of the November election following a New York Times report that he had plagiarized a significant portion of his Masters paper at the Army War College.

“The severity of the Montana business was pretty great – Walsh pretty much lifted everything in his paper.  Moreover, when it is the military and you are getting a masters degree from the army war college and you are touting your morality,” said Fenn.

“In Montana it is a different order of sin because it was black and white wrongdoing.   Walsh was granted a master's degree based on a plagiarized paper, and it was in a military context.  The plagiarism was clear cut,” said Schoen.

Sen. John Walsh (D-MT) plagiarized his 2007 graduate paper

That being said, Fenn raised two questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the Walsh revelation.

“First, did this story deserve front page New York Times coverage?  And secondly, where did [New York Times reporter] Jonathan Martin get the story?   Did he dig this up?  No!  Joe Trippi dug it up,” said Fenn.

Can Elorza recover?

“Charges of plagiarism can be so damaging to candidates because it marks them as deceitful,” said former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief, Steve Roberts.

“It's a question of character. And most voters base their choice of a candidate far more on personal qualities than on policies. After all once a candidate assumes office he or she will often confront questions that were barely discussed during the campaign. But character never changes. Character is never outdated by events,” said Roberts.

“Voters today are very concerned about transparency and very concerned about genuineness and if they sense that someone is a phony they come down hard on them. I think its best when you do something like this you admit it outright -- blaming it on the aide, like blaming it on the spouse doesn’t normally work,” said Fenn.  “That being said, in this [Elorza's] instance, I don’t think the plagiarized letter is a disqualifier because the substance was true and his life has been a comeback success story.  It seems like the candidate may have been genuinely badly served by a staffer who was too lazy to rewrite a letter."

Luzer offered a different vantage point.

"Elorza was caught plagiarizing a letter apologizing for an earlier transgression.  If your atonement is questionable, that is really not good.  It is hard to move past that," said Luzer.


Related Slideshow: Questions Jorge Elorza Must Answer to be Providence’s Next Mayor

Prev Next

Experience Necessary?

Elorza's the quintessential Providence kid-made-good -- and clearly has the education success story of CCRI to Harvard Law going for him.  He's toiled in the legal trenches, and risen through academic ranks. 

But does that translate to a business acumen and know-how to turn the city around?  Brett Smiley counts starting a successful consulting company.  Although a double-edged sword, Michael Solomon's got the city council experience. 

Elorza's managed cases, and students.  Can he oversee a staff of hundreds -- go toe to toe with the unions?

Prev Next

Money for Plans?

Opponent Brett Smiley might have dubbed himself the man with the plan, but Elorza's right up there with a litany of proposals for the capital city.  Schools, jobs, public safety, neighborhoods, transportation, diversity, arts and culture, ethics -- Elorza's got plans for it all.

And like Smiley's grand amibtions, the burning question is how will these be funded?  Elorza has a plan to double the city's exports in the next five years, with mentoring opportunities and trade missions as part of the strategy.  Those cost money.   Where will it come from?

Prev Next

Fundraising prowess?

At the end of the first quarter of 2014, Elorza posted a small lead over Smiley in the cash balance department, with $217,082 in his campaign coffers as compared to Smiley's $191,000 and change.  Both, however, were a distant second and third to Solomon's war chest over over $600,000

As the Democratic candidates duke it out, second quarter filings due at the end of the month will show were the money race stands with less than eight weeks to the primary. 

Of course, whoever wins will have to face a Buddy Cianci waiting in the wings, who told GoLocal he raised over $200,000K in one week -- and expects to have $1 million by the time the primary arrives. 

Prev Next

Primary Factor?

For the Democrats in the race, the primary is, in fact, the primary concern of the campaigns at the moment, with Harrop and Cianci waiting in the wings for the winner. 

Will Elorza's campaign, based strongly on his Cranston-street upbringing and focus on ethics, differentiate him from political operatives Smiley and Solomon? 

The first test on the path to the Mayor's office will be to best his two top adversaries in September.  Will Elorza's deep city ties and campaign aparatus translate into a get-out-the-vote effort enough to take the Democratic title?

Prev Next

Final Hurdle?

All of the Providence Mayoral candidates, whether they like it or not, have to address to Buddy card. 

So far, Brett Smiley's been the most vocal -- publicly, at least -- in criticizing former Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, attacking him on his corruption charges and conviction.  Harrop and Elorza have been highly critical, but as aforementioned, the Democrats are focused primarily on the task at hand -- making it past the primary.

If Elorza does advance, can he count on the support of his former Democratic opponents and their backers -- or will there be a mass exodus of those who see Cianci as the more viable candidate?  Republican Dr. Daniel Harrop provides an X factor in the genera election, of course, but a three-way race is vastly different animal than a four-way one before Adrain dropped out.  The winner will need to secure a greater chunk of the electorate. 


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