Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Helms and Herzenberg: When The Old South Met New

The Huffington Post, 10-28-08

Top McCain Advisor Learned Slime Tactics From Jesse Helms

(Note from 2014: This post is excerpted from the new eBook available on Amazon - When Harvey Met Jesse: Attack Ads of the 1990 Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate Race in North Carolina)

Despite sharing the same initials and middle name "Alexander," Jesse Helms and Joe Herzenberg were very different. Helms was a bigoted, heterosexual, Southern Baptist, extreme right wing Republican who used divisive politics to keep himself in power for five U.S. Senate terms. Herzenberg was a tolerant, gay, Jewish, staunchly liberal Democrat who spent his life standing up for progressive ideals.

Jesse Helms and Joe Herzenberg

Yet they were both historic politicians who bookended the Old and New South. Helms, who died last summer at age 86, was the last unapologetically racist politician of the segregation era. Herzenberg, who passed away one year ago today at age 66, was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council two decades ago as the first openly gay elected official in the former Confederacy. And in 1984, their paths memorably crossed during the epic Helms-Hunt U.S. Senate race.

That year, Helms used shameful hate mongering against Herzenberg, his partner Lightning Brown, and the rest of North Carolina's gay and lesbian community to eke out his narrow re-election against sitting Gov. Jim Hunt. Helms had been getting decreasing mileage out of race-baiting, drawing heavy criticism for his filibuster against the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday a year earlier. So he found a new bogeyman - the homosexual menace.

GOP operatives like Lee Atwater whose names are synonymous with slimy politics cut their teeth working on Helms' campaigns. During the '84 race, one of the top Helms aides responsible for implementing this gay-bashing strategy was Atwater's mentor, Charlie Black. Black was neck deep in the planning behind every one of Helms' infamously racist and divisive election bids. He went on to a long lobbying career representing disgraced foreign dictators like the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire. Black currently serves as a senior advisor to John McCain's presidential campaign, and the results of his most recent handiwork have become evident as the McCain-Palin message has swerved disgustingly into the gutter.

McCain and Black confer aboard McCain's campaign plane

Headlines screaming "Jim Hunt Is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate," and asking, "Is Jim Hunt homosexual?...Is he AC and DC?" appeared throughout 1984 in a free newspaper called The Landmark, a virulently anti-gay publication printed in Chatham County, N.C. The paper's homophobic publisher, Bob Windsor of Chapel Hill, was a cog in the Helms machine.

The stories ran alongside paid ads for Helms' re-election campaign, and hundreds of thousands of copies of the paper were distributed around the state, particularly in rural areas. Its press run increased dramatically in the weeks leading up to Election Day. The Landmark was funded by shadowy national Helms backers, part of the religious right that played a key behind-the-scenes organizing role in Helms' campaign.

That June, the N.C. Republican Party held a press conference to accuse Jim Hunt of a "gay connection" because gay donors had bought 100 of 700 tickets to a Hunt fundraiser in New York, and Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, leading Senate sponsor of a gay rights bill, had held a fundraising dinner for Hunt in Boston. The next day, Helms supporters paid to have a Landmark story reprinted as a large ad in the Raleigh News & Observer, accusing Hunt of "accepting a $79,000 contribution from Gay Activists."

Posing as reporters for the black and gay press, right-wing operatives made and taped phone calls to gay Hunt supporters around the country. Articles based on distorted excerpts from the phone calls were then published in issues of The Landmark.

Herzenberg and Brown were the smear campaign's N.C. poster children, targeted because they had helped co-found the Lesbian and Gay Democrats of North Carolina two years earlier, and were both vocally campaigning for Hunt. According to Lightning, one caller "asked about my fund raising for Hunt. The details ended up in The Landmark right away - it was frightening."

Besides running made-up stories that slandered Herzenberg and Brown relentlessly, including accusations that they had started a Chapel Hill NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) chapter and were secretly "porno kings," The Landmark also published their home addresses and did everything possible to incite violence against the two of them. No wonder, as gay activist Mab Segrest recounted in an article on the Senate race, that "Brown and Herzenberg were subjected to more than a dozen separate incidents of intimidation, vandalism and harassment...for their work within the Democratic Party."

In a 1984 interview with the Independent Weekly when Herzenberg and Brown were awarded two of the Indy's first-ever Citizen Awards, Brown told of how "two people even threatened to kill me on Rosemary Street" in Chapel Hill. Herzenberg called the attacks "very disruptive and at times painful." Asked if he had been scared, he admitted, with a subtlety that testified to his courage, "At moments."

In September, The Landmark published an interview with Helms in which he called homosexuality "a perversion and a crime." He described the gay movement as a "threat to the morals of our young people" and to "the ability of our population to reproduce itself...jeopardizing the very survival of the nation."

Helms was eventually forced to publicly distance himself from The Landmark after the paper published its most sensational charges accusing Jim Hunt of having a lover who was a "pretty young boy."" But he was well aware of how the paper was being widely distributed on his behalf. Helms betrayed himself on this point during a televised debate.

Although both were known in Triangle political circles, and in the state's gay community, the only actual media coverage of their status as gay activists was through The Landmark's smear campaign. But in one of their four debates, Helms twice gay-baited Hunt by thundering, "You're supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!" Herzenberg considered the moment he was publicly outed to have been when Helms announced his name on statewide television.

In the wake of his sliming by Helms' hateful tactics, Herzenberg decided he was out of the closet for good. His political activism and organizing flourished. He was elected as an openly gay Mondale delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He helped organize North Carolina's first Gay Pride Parade in 1986. He ran for the Chapel Hill Town Council as an openly gay candidate in 1985, and again in 1987 before he was finally elected.

Herzenberg was arguably the first gay candidate in U.S. history elected to office outside an urban area or historically gay enclave, and he did it by assembling a broad-based progressive coalition. His election was an important symbol of how the South was changing, and in some ways, Jesse Helms and his repugnant minions like Charlie Black made it possible. Joe Herzenberg would have been thrilled to see the political landscape one year after his death, only one week away from the election of Barack Obama and a historic repudiation of the politics of division and hate.


Friday, October 24, 2008

McCain Campaign Tried Using Assault Hoax to Slime Obama

The Huffington Post, 10-24-08

The day after her story of a politically-motivated assault made headlines around the nation, coverage pushed relentlessly by McCain-Palin campaign officials, a McCain campaign worker admitted she made it all up. Ashley Todd, 20, told Pittsburgh police on Wednesday night that she had been held up at an ATM, and the mugger, a 6' 4" black male, had become enraged once he saw a McCain bumper sticker on her car. Todd claimed her assailant had then pinned her to the ground and used a dull knife blade to carve a "B" into her cheek, after telling her, "you are going to be a Barack supporter."

The most appalling part of this episode was the McCain team's reaction. Desperate for a turn of events that would paint their opponents in a negative light, they rushed to disseminate the story to media outlets before all the facts were known. McCain's Pennsylvania communications director Peter Feldman actually peddled a version to reporters that was far more incendiary than details confirmed by police at the time. Feldman claimed the attacker told Todd, "You're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson," and that the carved "B" definitely stood for "Barack."

But it was all a hoax. Friday morning, police stated that "we have learned that the victim's statement has a few inconsistencies in it and her statement has changed." A few hours later, police said Todd had confessed that there was no robbery or attacker, and would be charged with filing a false police report. She also told police she had prior mental health problems.

According to one of the actual police reports documenting the charade's unraveling, Todd says she can't remember whether she mutilated her own face, or had someone else do it. And Todd now claims she can't explain why she invented the story, but her motivation behind staging the incident seems clear from details in the police report - to smear Obama supporters.

Todd said she was driving around in her car, looked in her rear-view mirror, saw a "B," and the first thing she thought of was Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, according to a police report obtained by WTAE Channel 4 Action News.

Todd, from College Station, Texas, had been campaigning for the McCain-Palin ticket in Pennsylvania for the past few weeks. She was volunteering through the College Republican National Committee to recruit other college students to volunteer for McCain-Palin. CRNC executive director Ethan Eilon told FOX News that Todd had taken a year off from Blinn College in Texas to work on the campaign. She is also apparently a former Ron Paul volunteer.

Todd with Ron Paul at campaign appearance in February, 2008

Police doubted her story from the beginning, said Maurita Bryant, the assistant chief of the police department's investigations division:

"We have robbers here in Pittsburgh, but they don't generally mutilate someone's face like that," Bryant said. "They just take the money and run."

Bryant confirmed that police were also suspicious as to why the "B" on Todd's cheek was backward.

This tale faced a skeptical public from the moment it hit. Even rabidly far right blogger Michelle Malkin pointed out numerous holes in Todd's hard-to-believe account of being the victim of a political hate crime.

The entire mess is a tragic development, and I hope this young woman gets the mental health treatment she needs.

Yet a double standard is obvious based on the amount of coverage this incident received prior to any suggestion that it might be a hoax. The story was pushed hard by the Drudge Report, and most conservative talking heads ran with it. Sean Hannity devoted most of his Thursday afternoon talk radio broadcast to the topic, broadcasting live from Pittsburgh. Local news stations around the country featured the story on Thursday night's evening and late night newscasts.

Compare this with how little attention has been paid to a recent wave of politically-motivated, violent acts perpetrated by McCain-Palin supporters, several of which occurred in North Carolina and were covered on HuffPo earlier this week.

The crucial difference is that Obama and Biden are not traveling the country stirring up hatred among their supporters that would incite violence, while McCain and Palin clearly are. But let loose the spectre of a scary, hulking black criminal knifing up a poor, defenseless white girl, and predictably, the media lights swarmed.

Thankfully, McCain and Palin's disgraceful attacks on Obama have backfired, contributing to their meltdown in the polls. And the McCain camp's shameful eagerness to exploit hurtful situations like this hoax for political gain helps explain the revulsion that decent citizens have developed for the GOP's increasingly desperate, unbalanced campaign.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

McCain and Palin Inciting Violence in North Carolina

The Huffington Post, 10-22-08

Forced to defend what should be reliable red state turf, John McCain and Sarah Palin finally showed up in North Carolina over the past few weeks. So far in October, the GOP running mates have appeared at four campaign rallies here. And in the wake of their visits, a string of election season crimes have occurred around the state involving violence, vandalism, and harassment.

First, a reporter was assaulted at a Palin rally held last Thursday at Elon College. Greenboro News & Record reporter Joe Killian was kicked to the ground by a Palin supporter as he was trying to interview protestors at the event who backed Barack Obama. From Joe's blog:

"Oh, you think that's funny?!" the large bearded man said. His face was turning red. "Yeah, that's real funny..." he said.
And then he kicked the back of my leg, buckling my right knee and sending me sprawling onto the ground.

An MSNBC sound technician was hit in the head by a rock thrown by another Palin supporter at this same rally.

Next, over the weekend, about 30 Obama supporters had their tires slashed while attending an Obama rally that attracted an overflow crowd of more than 10,000 at the Fayetteville Crown Coliseum. Among the citizens left stranded were a single mother and toddler. "This is an embarrassment to this city and to me as a citizen," said a nearby resident. "This is a crying shame."

After the rally finished, a mob of white McCain-Palin supporters jeered and harassed a steady stream of mostly black Fayetteville residents standing in line to vote early at the downtown Board of Elections office. According to the Washington Times correspondent who reported the story, "people were shouting about Obama's acknowledged cocaine use as a young man, abortion and one man used the word 'terrorist.' " In doing so, they almost certainly violated the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which states:

"No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote"

McCain supporters heckle early voters in Fayetteville, N.C., Oct. 19

And this Monday, a black bear cub was killed and left at the entrance to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, with Obama campaign signs wrapped around its body, including two taped together over its head. Police reports are calling the incident a "prank," and claim seven students are being questioned. Whatever the motive, this latest development was met with immediate public revulsion and condemnation. As the Asheville Citizen-Times editorialized today, "It was an innocent bear cub that lost its life this time as some deranged person or persons expressed their political rage. Next time, it could be an innocent person."

These incidents have all been perpetrated by or linked to McCain supporters, and stirred up by McCain and Palin's angry, hateful campaign rhetoric. Like during Palin's first stop in the state at a Greenville rally on Oct. 7, when she continued trying to smear Obama over his tenuous connection to Bill Ayers. With uniformed service members standing in the crowd behind her, she again peddled her discredited attack line that Obama was "palling around with terrorists" by asking, "He didn't know that he had launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist?"

The McCain campaign is currently flooding the state with robocalls making identical false charges. The N.C. Republican Party is aiding the attack with a scurrilous mailer sent to N.C. voters headlined, "Obama has close ties to domestic terrorist," with mug shots of Ayers from 1968 and a recent photo of him wearing a Cuban national baseball team jersey. This is the same ridiculously far right state GOP party that ran an attack ad during the primaries tying Obama to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which McCain repudiated at the time.

Briefly, McCain realized the angry tone of his rallies was turning off voters, and rebuked an elderly supporter who called Obama "an Arab." Within days, he was back in the gutter at their final debate. Before 56.5 million people, he linked Obama to the community organizing group ACORN's voter registration efforts, and hysterically insisted ACORN was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

On Saturday, McCain recorded a radio address in Concord, N.C. in which he made the racially loaded claim that "Barack Obama's tax plan would convert the IRS into a giant welfare agency," then appeared at a rally attended by several thousand supporters. There McCain was introduced by loony Republican Congressman Robin Hayes, who informed the crowd, "Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." Hayes is locked in a tight rematch against challenger Larry Kissell, a progressive former textile worker who lost to Hayes in 2006 by only 329 votes.

Last week, Palin told big donors at a fundraiser in Greensboro that she was thrilled to be visiting the "pro-America areas of this great nation," a gaffe so ill-advised and guaranteed to offend that she actually apologized for it, a first for Palin. But it was entirely consistent with her worldview, which is warped and narrow minded, categorizing anyone who doesn't share her extreme beliefs as "haters" and enemies.

The same day, she was asked by a local reporter what she thought of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who was the last unapologeticly racist U.S. politician of the segregation era, held legendary, disgraceful campaign rallies of his own, and whose ultra right wing views were cut from the same cloth as Palin's. No wonder she expressed admiration for the man, admitting that "I do respect those years of service that he had provided." She also did her best to whitewash Helms' shameful legacy by falsely claiming he had apologized for his past misdeeds.

Interviewed by the Washington Post for a recent story on McCain's early political career, former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party Jon Hinz gave some insight into why McCain shows little concern over his campaign stooping to such lengths to trash Obama. "He needs to make enemies of the people he's going against in order to get fired up," said Hinz.

The violent incidents we've witnessed in North Carolina are all lower than low, in fact, they're despicable. But McCain and Palin are to blame for creating an environment where their more unbalanced supporters feel these kinds of actions are legitimate.

Supporters line up for a McCain rally in Wilmington, N.C., Oct. 13

It shows what dangerous ground McCain-Palin are traveling by relying on increasingly desperate, unfounded character attacks on Obama in their attempts to distract our country from the ongoing economic crisis. Yet as polls continue to indicate, these attacks have backfired. They are contributing to voters' distaste for the Republican ticket.

And they're leaving behind a hollowed out party destined for minority status. As independents and moderate Republicans like Colin Powell abandon the McCain-Palin GOP in droves, all that remains are increasingly bitter, frustrated, far-right voters. This election's coming Democratic tsunami will exile Republicans to the political wilderness, where they will have to decide whether to keep clinging to yesterday's politics of fear.

As for John McCain and Sarah Palin, shame on both of them. After resorting to careless demagoguery and stirring up hatred and division so recklessly, neither deserves to hold public office.


Monday, October 6, 2008

Signs of Growing Friction Between McCain and Palin

The Huffington Post, 10-6-08

The call to "Free Sarah Palin!" has been answered, and Palin off the chain is proving to be a loose cannon. The day after her debate with Joe Biden, Palin told FOX News she learned about the McCain campaign's decision to pull out of Michigan when she read about it in the newspaper that morning. Maybe this was just to reassure us she stays well informed by reading newspapers like The New York Times, part of her post-debate strategy to try a damage control re-do of her Katie Couric interviews that continued to drip out one Palin gaffe after another earlier in the week.

But then she claimed to have "fired off a quick e-mail" in which she said, "Oh come on, do we have to?" Over the weekend, she again questioned the decision to reporters outside a diner in Englewood, Colorado, saying she "would sure love to get to run to Michigan and make sure that Michigan knows that we haven't given up there."

And yesterday, in a phone interview with William Kristol, Palin leapt at the chance to resurrect Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a way to drag Obama through the mud. "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more," she said. "Because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country...I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."

When the far right wing clowns running the North Carolina Republican Party ran a racially-tinged attack ad during the primaries tying Obama to Wright, McCain graciously denounced it. "I've said again and again, I do not believe that Sen. Obama shares Rev. Wright's extremist views which he has stated," said McCain, and promised to "disassociate myself from that kind of campaigning."

Either Palin never got the memo, or McCain has flip-flopped and flushed his honor down the toilet yet again in his quest for the presidency. The latter is certainly possible. With McCain-Palin's chances cratering like the economy, McCain has clearly signaled it's time to get McDesperate.

Responding to rising GOP fears that the election is slipping away, the McCain campaign has decided their only hope is "turning a page on this financial crisis," in the words of one senior McCain adviser, and relentlessly tearing down Obama.

"It's a dangerous road, but we have no choice," echoed another top McCain strategist to the NY Daily News. "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose."

But there's more going on with Palin's off the reservation moves than simply carrying out the McNasty plan of attack against Obama. Sarah Palin has her own agenda. She wants to be president, and knows this election is her best shot at elbowing her way into the Oval Office.

Laura Chase, Palin's campaign manager during her first run for mayor of Wasilla in 1996, remembers a night they chatted about her ambitions:
"I said, 'You know, Sarah, within 10 years you could be governor,' " Ms. Chase recalled. "She replied, 'I want to be president.' "

And she's not going to let John McCain stop her. At a rally yesterday in Omaha, Nebraska, playing defense far within the red state zone, Palin also claimed to be making her own calls about which states she barracudas into:

"The pundits were saying, 'Check out where she's going. She's going to Nebraska.' The pundits were saying, 'The only reason she would be going there is because they're scared. They have to shore up votes,' " Palin said. "I so wanted to reach into that TV and say 'no.' I'm going to Nebraska because I want to go to Nebraska," Palin said.

These incidents are not the first time Palin has bared her naked ambition. In September, she made a revealing slip when she flipped the ticket at a rally in Iowa, referring to a "Palin and McCain administration." This happened back when the campaign was still babysitting Palin by restricting her to joint appearances with McCain. Now all bets are off as to what she'll say next out on the trail on her own.

Unless McCain reins her in again fast, we can look forward to another month of jarring moments like on Saturday when she misread a saying from Madeline Albright. Quoting off a Starbucks cup, she warned female voters at a rally in California, "there's a place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women."

In Palin's Mary Poppins bubble, why shouldn't she strut her stuff? At the moment she's pumped up from surviving her debate with Biden, although failing to realize she didn't do nearly enough to prove herself competent enough to be Vice President and reverse her drag on the ticket. But by stepping over the bar painted on the floor, her performance quieted the voice of reason that was beginning to percolate among conservative talking heads calling for her replacement.

Since she now knows McCain won't dump her, Palin is in the driver's seat and plans to stay there. And her take-no-prisoners nasty streak and extreme right wing views have found kindred spirits now that she's fully staffed up with veterans of George W. Bush's slash-and-burn, hyper-partisan campaigns. Like Tucker Eskew, Palin's new chief of staff, who was instrumental in trashing McCain when he helped run Bush's 2000 primary campaign in South Carolina.

Far from a fresh crop of reformers, the Republican operatives who are currently stage managing Sarah Palin are virtually all transplants from the Bush White House. As one Republican strategist told the Washington Post:

"It's insane to me that at the same time that it's running saying it's not going to be the Bush administration, this campaign looks like the Bush campaign on steroids."

Reminiscent of how John Edwards helped keep the Democratic ticket disorganized in 2004 by sticking to his own playbook, Palin is showing the nation McCain is already an afterthought for her. She even said so at the debate, reminding us she "joined this team that is a team of mavericks with John McCain, also." Mr. DeMille, she's ready for her 2012 closeup.

(UPDATE 10/25 - Politico published a jaw-dropping story today confirming that the McCain-Palin rift first spotted here three weeks ago has only gotten worse. Heavy on not-for-attribution interviews with four senior Palin advisors, it revealed that Palin "blames her handlers for a botched rollout and a tarnished public image." These are the same former Bush campaign veterans and dirty-politics practicing Karl Rove proteges who were hand picked by McCain’s team to guide her. Meanwhile, McCain stalwarts on the inside describe Palin as "simply unready — 'green,' sloppy and incomprehensibly willing to criticize McCain." Other stories that have trickled out in recent weeks tracing the McCain-Palin divide can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.)


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