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The Day the Coleen Rowley Campaign Faced the Advertising on the Wall

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Former FBI Agent and whistleblower-turned congressional candidate Coleen Rowley had just stepped up to the microphone in Room 125 of the Minnesota State Capitol. She looked, well, like a Congresswoman, with the Stars and Stripes framing her right shoulder, a proper venue, and a well-staged room. Twelve slickly-produced attack flyers-courtesy of a Karl Rove protégé- papered a table on stage right. Practically invisible on stage left was a small easel, propping up the last direct mail piece of the Rowley campaign. The 4 x 6 post card was the only response the campaign could afford at the eleventh hour. "Smart. Strong. Ethical." The symbolism was obvious, or so we hoped. We were all operating on oxygen fanned by a wing and prayer.

I slumped into a chair in the back row, all but hidden behind the conference table, and leaned into the shoulder of Rowley's campaign manager, Terry Rogers. Rogers is a big guy, former union lobbyist, and he did not look happy. To put it bluntly, he thought we were nuts to stage a press conference about negative advertising three days before the mid-term elections. "Why are we restating John Kline's attack ads?" he growled. Being a volunteer, I was there to serve Rowley and not make policy. Indeed, I was happy to see any press in attendance, having just hustled back to the conference room after a run through the press corps offices in the catacomb-like basement, shaming the corps into hauling their "you-know-whats" up the elevator. If the latest SurveyUSA polls were correct, the campaign was over. Twin Cities' television station KSTP's (ABC) release of the privately-commissioned dismal poll numbers, a few days earlier, prompted a private donor to come forward to Rowley with a large donation which would refute Kline's sophisticated direct mail attack campaign, issue by issue, in the Monday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It was a Hail Mary pass. At least that was the hope.

Rowley was pointing to the glossy blow-up of the ad. Rogers looked worried. Rowley was off her usual game. The conference started out rambling. We both cringed as Rowley inadvertently gave sound-bites, which taken out of context, would provide manna for the Kline staff member who was videotaping next to the cameraman from WCCO (CBS) television. When the candidate started to explain about the lady in the pancake restaurant she finally found her stride. But the Pancake Lady was the tale that unfortunately defined the campaign. I thought about Roger's admonition when I moved down to Northfield for the last five weeks of the campaign. "If we win this thing, we will look like geniuses." How did we get here? We were flunking. Unwittingly, I had begun studying several years prior to my final exam.

In the year after 9/11, most Minnesotans, if they did not know Coleen Rowley's name, knew that there was a former FBI agent from the Minneapolis area who suspected there was something fishy about Zacarias Moussaoui and his desire to learn how to fly jumbo jets but not land them. If you lived in an area of the state which carried Time Magazine on the supermarket racks-unusual in rural areas-you even knew what the FBI agent looked like. Stern, glasses, long hair, arms crossed, her presence all but dominating the other two women in whistleblower tribute. In the days following the year of scandals, Rowley looked all the part of an avenging angel. If you read the magazine, Rowley might have become a personal hero. She epitomized the classic American story of the little girl who dreams big. Little girl wants to join the television "Man From Uncle Crew." Little girl writes a letter to the producers, is told there is no such organization, and that she can't join the U.N.C.L.E real-life counterpart, the FBI, because she is a girl. Little girl says, "Well, that's stupid." Girl grows up, gets a law degree, joins the FBI, runs triathlons, has four kids, carries a loaded Glock 24/7, knows how to use it, chases mob guys like "Tony P" through the New York countryside, and in a cinematic moment, hand-carries the "bombshell memo" that just about takes down the FBI in the aftermath of botched security that arguably led to planes raining down from the sky on a bright September day in 2001.

That was enough to make her my hero, but heroes are untouchable as well as unfathomable, and I never imagined our paths would cross in Conference Room 125. In May of 2006 I was supposed to be working in MN-8, helping a friend get elected to the State Senate and my long term Congressman get re-elected to a seventeenth term. It was "the old man," Jim Oberstar, who first introduced me to Rowley at a reception prior to the May District Convention. Oberstar was solidly behind her, courted her, and finally convinced her to run. His words rang out in that hotel reception room. "And when we gain fifteen seats in the House of Representatives, and Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House, she will say 'Coleen Rowley' at the first roll call," Oberstar boomed. It seemed impossible, but history would prove Oberstar's predictions more than prescient, with the exception of Coleen Rowley. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to help Rowley, and would do so if given the opportunity. I met Terry Rogers at the same event and we good-naturedly traded barbs over the Rowley campaign logo, never dreaming that we would end up together in Room 125 in the waning days of a campaign buried by negative advertising, indifference from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) wunderkind, Rahm Emanuel, and the lost faith of a pancake lady.

Rogers told us that newsman and local icon, Jim Klobuchar, proclaimed at a post election gathering that CD-2 was "a tough district." Rogers thought it ironic that a prolific writer would have so few words to describe a phenomenon. Klobuchar is the father of Democratic Senator-elect, Amy Klobuchar, who solidly, in the memorable words of George Bush, 'thumped" her opponent, Mark Kennedy. Before Klobuchar's "thumping" of Kennedy, CD-2 was thought to be untouchably conservative and reliably Republican. As Rowley noted in an election post-mortem, "Amy Klobuchar's relatively big win in this same district (that Rowley lost) proved that wisdom wrong. In fact the significant percentage of CD-2 voters who split their ballot to vote for Amy Klobuchar as well as John Kline has to make one wonder. These critical votes cannot be attributed to issues; in fact they flew in the face of the issues, but point again to the power of money to air expensive ads to influence the voting public."

It was vintage Rowley. Not 24 hours after the election was called for John Kline, Rowley challenged several of us to critique her review of what went wrong. Was it us-or them? How could a squeaky-clean former FBI agent, embraced by the media, veterans, 9/11 moms, survivors, and widows- endorsed by a major newspaper and a slew of suburban weeklies, possibly lose to an undistinguished Republican Congressman-especially one who voted lock-step with an administration entrenched in a war that became a referendum for the voters? What factors led to the election of John Kline? There are five possible factors: the ideology of the electorate, the conduct of the Kline campaign, the conduct of the Rowley campaign, the inattention of the press and its abdication of its responsibilities as the Jeffersonian "fourth estate," and the indifference of the DCCC under the leadership of Rahm Emanuel.

Columnist Wayne Madsen charges "Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois withheld campaign financing from several Democratic House candidates who were running on platforms that were not 'vetted' and approved by his coterie of the Democratic leadership. The withholding of funds by Emanuel has been reported to the Wayne Madsen Report (WMR) by unsuccessful Democratic House candidates across the country. The Emanuel strategy was at loggerheads with that of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean whose strategy was to fight a 50 state campaign against the GOP with support for all Democrats."

Madsen's analysis directly references Rowley, charging that Emanuel's intransigence was responsible for "burying" the Rowley campaign. The view from the inside of the campaign is that Rowley certainly was buried by negative advertising that she had neither the inclination nor the money to respond to in kind. Negative advertising was totally off-limits in the Rowley ethic. That would not stop independent bloggers and a student volunteer from waging their own war, but it was never Rowley's fight. To understand Rowley is to understand a candidate who has well-defined (some would say rigid) ethical path that would have her issuing mea culpas that she had abandoned her ethics because staff finally convinced her to remind voters that she was indeed the angel they remembered, but could not name, who graced the cover of Time Magazine. "I did not deserve to be on the cover of Time Magazine because I told the truth," she would tell anyone willing to listen (or believe) in the disclaimer. Coleen Rowley waged a frugal, ethical campaign with only the hearts and souls of a strong grassroots organization and the support of the Democratic farmer Labor (DFL) Field Office in CD-2. With about $1.5 million accumulated in large part from special interests including big oil, drug, defense contractor and insurance company PACs, Kline could pay Rove's protégé a handsome fee for cleverly worded but hugely misleading distortions and then send them out throughout the district.

Would a few more million dollars from Emanuel have made the difference and refuted Kline's charges that Rowley would: legalize meth, abandon vets, and reinstitute the draft-that she had lost her mind-that she compared marines to Nazi's for god's sake? Even worse were the personal attacks on Rowley, a private citizen who risked all to volunteer in public service to her country. Rogers and I were sitting in the lobby of a Hilton chain in Bloomington. We had just returned from dropping Alice Hoagland at the airport. Hoagland is the mother of Mark Bingham, one of the passengers of Flight 93, who, along with other passengers, was the last line of defense in the beginning of the war on terrorism. She was returning to California after spending a day with Minneapolis media and participating in a press conference in which veterans, retired military and 9/11 families endorsed Rowley for her strong stance on truth in government and national security. Rowley had also just garnered the formal endorsement of Retired General and former Supreme Allied Commander, Wesley Clark. The television was on so we could catch the coverage, and we were basking in what had been a good few days in the Rowley campaign.

We heard her voice before we heard the television ad. "There is that unethical, ugly, Coleen Rowley with the stringy hair and the yellow teeth." It was Rowley, defusing the attack ad that was running on the flickering screen. The Republican's took the same approach with Rowley and her counterpart, Patty Wetterling, from neighboring CD-6. Both are attractive women, not necessarily glamorous, although they could be if they agreed to subject themselves to makeovers. The ads made them look like drowned rats. Unattractive, some might say scary. There is no doubt that Rowley has thick skin-but this was beyond the pale for anyone to endure, and embarrassing to watch with subject of the atrocity standing behind us.

Rowley remains convinced that "The substance of the late press conference, that Kline's special interest-funded negative ad campaign was about to corrupt the election, was essentially right. Even though I was an impolitic and unglossy as a candidate, it just doesn't explain the senseless votes of those who voted on Election Day against Kennedy and for Kline."

Rowley still wonders why her campaign "didn't have the money to effectively combat Kline's smears and why it was never able to attract the support and money of the Democratic and other powerful special interests. That of course, at least in part, could be blamed on my (Rowley's) unwillingness to go along with the bad system as it now exists and my idea that you can't become what you're fighting against," she wrote in an email.

If Rowley would not go negative, would millions in positive advertising have been enough to mute the lies, personal attacks and degradation?

A look at the DCCC's top tier of races, favored by Emanuel would suggest the answer is "no." Rowley was out spent three to one by the incumbent. Rogers says, "Her (Rowley's) opponent ran the most vicious and negative attack ads in Minnesota's history." In spite of the odds stacked decidedly against her, Coleen Rowley received the largest percentage of votes for any challenger to an incumbent congressman in Minnesota. It took three runs for John Kline to defeat incumbent representative Bill Luthor. When you look at the "top tier" races targeted for support by the Democratic National Committee, the following also lost, despite millions of dollars: Patti Wetterling, Diane Farrell (CT), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Teresa Hafen (NV), Jill Derby (NV), Phyllis Busansky (FL), Mary Jo Kilroy (OH), and Lois Murphy (PA).

So, perhaps money doesn't change everything. However, the attention of the "fourth estate" might have leveled the playing field and helped the archetypal Pancake Lady get a grip on what was really happening in CD-2. The tale of the Pioneer Press's botched endorsement of John Kline and its subsequent partial retraction of that endorsement is a cautionary tale. Where is Thomas Jefferson when you need him? If we accept negative advertising as a factor, then we should carefully look into the institutions and persons which did not hold the truth statements implied in the negative advertising to the challenges of critical thinking. How did statements, made by John Kline's campaign, become accepted as "truth?" Most importantly, we all wondered, did the press and media abandon responsibilities inherent in the definition which accompanies the fourth estate?

Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Constitution, wrote that "the basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right." With the strokes of the pen that formed this statement, Jefferson offered a definition of "the fourth estate." Good governance requires an informed society. The role of the media is providing accurate information. The Pioneer Press's error-filled endorsement of John Kline abandoned and compromised the underlying principles and responsibilities of a free press.

How did this happen?

Large newspapers have editorial boards that invite the candidates in for interviews and then render their opinion as to who would be the best choice for the voters. In the case of the conservative Pioneer Press, the endorsement was written by a right wing blogger, Craig Westover, AKA "Captain Fish Sticks." His main objection to Rowley was an erroneous charge that her campaign produced a popular YouTube video which was a direct attack on John Kline's character. In fact, the video was produced by another blogger and did not contain the campaign approval statement required by federal law: "I am Coleen Rowley and I approve this ad." Rowley had outright rejected the video as being too negative. Sources were not verified, the editorial editor, Mike Burbach, did not check his writer, and untruths were reported as facts by a major Midwestern newspaper. In addition, the Pioneer Press got it wrong when it reported about Kline's voting record regarding body armor and veterans benefits. Kline voted with the Bush administration and denied funding for both initiatives. The skunk was at the garden party and any amount of effort at "retraction" or "corrections" did nothing do redress the damages to the Rowley campaign. Had mistakes made by the Pioneer Press effectively cancelled a positive endorsement, free of errors, offered by the rival Minneapolis Star Tribune? A bigger question might be: Does anyone really read endorsements and act upon them? Most studies show that negative advertising works. In a piece written for the Center for Public Integrity after the 2000 election, columnist Charles Lewis, bemoaned that all candidates talked about reform but questioned their sincerity based upon the amount of mud-slinging they were willing to authorize in the interest of campaign politics. "How much campaign cash and "free advice" have they each received from Washington lobbyists? And how many companies and their lobbyists have already been swirling around the candidates, like hungry buzzards poised to pick the carcass of trust and independence clean?" Lewis asked. Lewis goes on to suggest that perhaps it would be best to look at the advisors in order to determine what kind of "truth" would be proffered to the voters.

Even more interesting, and perhaps telling, was a small post-election item which appeared in the well read Minneapolis freebee "City Pages." In an election night play-by-play, City Pages describes Kline as impervious to the Iraq backlash, mounting the victory platform to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and segues to "the inept campaign mounted by challenger Coleen Rowley." "Inept" is a damning five-letter word in the context of what happened in CD-2. CD-2 is outside of the metro area reached by City Pages readers. Why the unchallenged, un-researched slam? Hardly a model of journalistic excellence, City Pages can pretty much say whatever it wants. The fact is, City Pages was copied on several press releases and media advisories that it chose to ignore regarding the Rowley campaign. The most important was the Wesley Clark endorsement which was ignored by all Minnesota and Twin Cities media. A political reporter at Minnesota Public Radio said she saw it come over the wire, but it was not reported. What does an ethical, under funded campaign have to do to get the attention of the local media? How does the same campaign counter ineffectual media organizations which have abandoned the Journalist's Code of Ethics? How does one candidate, one campaign, argue that special interest corruption in the form of millions of dollars pumped into negative advertising undermines democracy as surely as the dereliction of duty by the media when it fails to thoroughly vet what it disseminates?

What is the end result? The result is the Pancake Lady, encountered by citizen candidate Rowley when she took a break for lunch and found that attack ads do work. They work even when the recipient is a 70 year old woman who has voted Democratic all her life, but was going to vote against Rowley because John Kline has convinced her that Rowley is going to take away her social security and give it to alien workers. These aliens were depicted on the "illegal alien" flyer as red glow seeping around a door frame-shades of close encounters of the outer space kind. Rowley lobbied the Pancake Lady and explained that she was an independent-minded Democrat who had no intention of giving away anyone's social security. Did it work? Judging by the split ticket for John Kline in CD-2, there are thousands of Pancake Ladies and Gentlemen who fell for the lies and deceptions and who were abandoned by television and print media when content was not properly vetted and verified.

No matter how you dissect the election results in CD-2, Coleen Rowley is national hero, who risked her own career and her family's financial security to blow the whistle on mistakes at the FBI, where she was a 42 year veteran. It is possible she could have spared America the events of 9/11/. Her Republican opponent unleashed a firestorm of negative advertising which was bankrolled by corporate and wartime interests, unethical members of Congress, and the all-but-forgotten devil of a tobacco industry. Citizen Rowley led the ethical charge against special interest and corruption in Congress, was outmaneuvered, outflanked and finally gunned-down by money interests. Shame on the DCCC for sending her into battle without the basic body armor of funding and for not stepping forward to help retire a debt load which is minor when compared to the millions dumped into Rahm Emanuel's favorite races-a debt that is all but insurmountable for a family trying to survive on an FBI pension.

Rowley won't say this. In her thank-you to staff in the aftermath of her loss, she worried most that's he had let her supporters down. "I always feared taking this responsibility only because I did not want to ask for people's money and trust and then risk letting them down." I was never afraid of personal failure. But taking down others with me is a whole 'nother story and it has nagged me this entire time."

As Rowley always writes: "The truth matters." Well, the truth of this matter is that the media and the DCCC let us all down. Democracy, in the person of Coleen Rowley, took a big hit in CD-2. Truth collided with perception on Conference Rom 125, a day late and a dollar short.

 

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http://www.georgianne-nienaber.com

Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)
 

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