EXCLUSIVE: GOP Attack Research Against Sheldon Whitehouse
Friday, July 20, 2012
The documents show that at least some GOP operatives still view his record as state Attorney General, from 1999 to 2003, as open to attack. The research also hits Whitehouse on his privileged background, tenure as U.S. Attorney, and some frivolous attempts to woo high-end donors.
It is unclear how or even if the Hinckley campaign would use the material. But areas of Whitehouse's record and background where he is seen as potentially vulnerable include:
■ ‘Wild West shootout’ in Providence: As U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, Whitehouse was publicly criticized by Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr for authorizing a sting operation in which gang members from New York City were “lured” to Providence for what Kerr described as a “Wild West shootout in Olneyville.” Kerr said Providence police had been put in a “very dangerous situation” that was “created” by law enforcement officials. One gang member was killed and two others were shot.
■ Sued environmental whistleblower: A year after a DEM employee claimed she had been “harassed and demoted” after warning about lax enforcement on hazardous waste, Whitehouse sued the employee in U.S. District court, saying individuals could not, according to the U.S. Constitution, sue states. Operational Clean Government urged Whitehouse to drop the suit, according to news reports at the time.
■ Botched wiretap investigation: Whitehouse touted the fact that his office led the “first-ever state-court authorized wiretap into public corruption” in a bribery case involving a former Lincoln town administrator. However, that wiretap evidence was thrown out of court after a Superior Court judge determined that it had not been properly sealed and stored by the state. The case did end in a conviction, but, after an apparent suicide by the official, Jonathan Oster, the indictment that led to that conviction was dismissed in court.
■ Record on race relations and the Cornel Young case: Whitehouse’s difficulties in smoothing over the relationship between law enforcement and minority groups over racial profiling are well-documented in the GOP research materials. During his time as AG, the issue of race relations and racial profiling exploded out into the open with the fatal shooting of off-duty Providence police officer Cornel Young, Jr. in early 2000. Whitehouse faced criticism from the minority community for declining to appoint an independent prosecutor in the case. The killing of 15-year-old state murder witness Jennifer Rivera later that year certainly did not help matters. (The Puerto Rican teen’s mother claimed she had asked for police protection—a claim that both Providence police and the Attorney General’s office disputed at the time.)
■ Lead paint lawsuit: Whitehouse’s pursuit of a lawsuit against the lead paint industry remains a major sticking point with conservatives. One of the outside attorneys Whitehouse hired to work on the case was John J. McConnell, Jr., a local attorney who was with a South Carolina law firm, Ness Motley. GOP researchers note that Ness Motley and its successor law firm, Motley Rice, contributed at least $14,150 to Whitehouse’s Senate campaign in 2006. And McConnell personally contributed at least $8,400 to his last Senate campaign. (Conservatives haven’t forgotten about the lead paint case or McConnell’s involvement in it—making an issue out of it during his recent confirmation hearings to be a federal judge.)
■ No ‘open meetings’ requirement for General Assembly: Whitehouse’s office issued an opinion declaring that the state General Assembly was not subject to the state law on open meetings. The move drew criticism from then-Secretary of State Jim Langevin as well as the Providence Journal. Whitehouse also took steps to exempt local law enforcement from provisions in the state public records law, earning public rebukes from groups such as Common Cause and the state ACLU.
Democrats respond: ‘It’s desperation’
The Whitehouse re-election campaign yesterday dismissed the research materials as “old attacks” that would not play well among Rhode Island voters.
“These are old attacks that have been raised against Sheldon in the past and rejected by the voters. Barry Hinckley has apparently bought into the Karl Rove style of politics that Rhode Island has no patience for,” said Tony Simon, the campaign manager. “Obviously Mr. Hinckley’s whole campaign is based on taking cheap shots at Sheldon. That’s not our campaign. Sheldon is focused on giving the middle class a shot—by strengthening our commitment to education, protecting Medicare, getting secret money out of politics, and making sure the wealthy are paying their fair share.”
But a senior-level state GOP operative said Whitehouse could still be vulnerable when it comes to his record on fighting public corruption, especially in the Urciuoli case. “I think that if Hinckley goes after that or issues like that he could have something,” the GOP source said. “The best angle is to go after his record—actually his lack of record—in fighting corruption in the state of Rhode Island.”
And, the source added, Hinckley might fare better with such a strategy than Chafee did for three reasons: Chafee was facing a nationwide anti-Republican tide, Urciuoli’s conviction has since been upheld in federal appeals, and Chafee failed to make the attack stick by establishing a broader pattern of inaction on public corruption.
Time for Hinckley to start going negative?
“Republicans have long believed that Whitehouse’s record as AG and U.S. Attorney have never been vetted in a campaign,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor at The Cook Political Report. “There was some thought that Chafee never challenged his record in the 2006 race. As a result, whatever information Hinckley puts out will be ‘new’ to voters. Whether voters find it relevant will depend on the messaging around it.”
In theory, she said attacking Whitehouse “might make the race more competitive.”
Pollster and political scientist Victor Profughi agreed that it might be time for the Hinckley campaign to go on the offensive against Whitehouse. “I think that the Hinckley campaign obviously has very serious problems because [it’s] so underfunded and I suppose if I were in their shoes I would try to use whatever I could get my hands on that might spark some interest and get some people talking about the race,” Profughi said.
“Hinckley trails in fundraising, visibility, and voter support so he doesn’t have good options. Throwing mud may be his last political avenue,” said Darrell West, the Vice President of Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institution. “Senator Whitehouse is very well-respected and has carved out good niches for himself in DC policy circles. It is hard to see him losing this campaign to a relative unknown.”
Do negative ads work in RI?
When it comes to the effectiveness of attack ads, Rhode Island is no different than other places, analysts say.
“There is nothing unique about Rhode Island when it comes to negative ads,” Duffy said. “If it is an effective message, it works. Democrats effectively tied Chafee to Bush in 2006 on the war in Iraq. It worked because voters didn’t like Bush and were unhappy with the direction of the war.”
Profughi said that Rhode Island voters would be as receptive to negative ads as voters anywhere else.
West doesn’t think so. “Voters discount charges from years ago so it is unlikely that these issues will gain traction,” said West, who is a former Brown University political scientist. “People are more focused on contemporary debates over the economy, tax rates, health care, and foreign policy. Those are the issues that will move public opinion, not controversies that are 10 years old.”
Raising his record in state office indeed may not have a “considerable impact” on voters, Profughi said, but at least it could get media talking about the race and might generate some buzz on talk radio—all of which can only help Hinckley.
Hinckley campaign mum on strategy
Hinckley’s campaign manager, Patrick Sweeney, declined to comment on whether the campaign would make an issue out of Whitehouse’s record as Attorney General.
Instead he said: “I believe the research speaks for itself. At the end of the day, Senator Whitehouse is another career politician who will say anything to get reelected. He loves to give flowery speeches on the Senate floor, yet his record is devoid of job creation efforts to help Rhode Islanders get back to work. He continuously puts himself ahead of struggling Rhode Islanders,” Sweeney said. “But this November, there will be a clear choice for Rhode Islanders. A career politician who has spent his career in government, or Barry Hinckley, a man who has spent his entire career in the private sector, creating hundreds of jobs and signing thousands of paychecks.”
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