Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Politics is dirty. Adlai Stevenson once said, “He who slings mud generally loses ground,” but in my experience it seems that he who throws the mud wins. The “that's-not-true” response to salacious charges is never as sexy or memorable as the allegations themselves and it only takes a little repetition to create a negative impression of a candidate in the minds of voters.
Negative advertising is something we've come to expect each election cycle, especially in big-ticket races. Just look at the primary between Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But as the May 18 primary approached, a state Senate race took a particularly ugly turn.
On May 13, Linda Pondexter Chesterfield, a candidate for the District 34 state Senate seat, began running ads on black radio stations calling her opponent Jay Barth a liar. But that's not all.
In just 60 seconds, Chesterfield, who is black, managed to play the race card and the gay card against Barth, a Hendrix professor who is white and openly gay. If you thought identity politics was a thing of the past, this ad proves you wrong.
“One of my areas of research is radio advertising,” Barth says. “So it worried me in terms of the electoral impact it might have. We were torn on how to react to it. We knew there would be some outrage about the ad among progressives who would be upset [not only] about the distortions that it presented but also at the attempt to bring my sexuality into the race at the very last minute.”
The ad claims, “At the Democratic Stonewall Caucus meeting on April 21, [Barth] said he wanted to become the first openly gay man elected to the Arkansas legislature. That's his business. But when asked about it at the NAACP meeting on May 4, he denied ever saying it.”
Not true, says Barth.
“Someone walked up to me and said, ‘Did I hear you say that the only reason you were running was because you were an openly gay man?' And I said no, the reason I'm running is because I have expertise on key issues facing the district and I have a history of bringing people together to get things done. So I never denied what I said at the Stonewall meeting,” Barth said.
Next, the ad claims that Barth said Chesterfield voted against anti-bullying legislation and then notes “the truth is Mrs. Pondexter Chesterfield was one of the bill's co-sponsors.”
“I did not say that,” Barth says. “I said she missed the vote, which is accurate if you look at the record. It was also accurate that she was the co-sponsor, but being a co-sponsor on a bill and not showing up for the vote is like putting a candidate's sign in your yard and then not showing up for the election.”
There's more. The ad, a “conversation” between two voters, continues, “What about his charge that she seldom showed up at the legislature? That plays into one of the oldest stereotypes used against black folk and that is, we're lazy.”
What makes the accusations particularly nasty, especially implying — about as subtly as a brick to the face — that Barth is a racist, is that Barth's campaign was, perhaps naively and at least ironically so, about bringing people together and transcending identity politics.
“We were advertising a lot more than she was and we ultimately had confidence that our message would get through,” Barth says. “In retrospect, we had a little more of a nuanced argument and my opponent had a really blunt argument. I think it's easier for blunt arguments to get through.”
Barth says the ad didn't determine the outcome of the race, but it certainly didn't help. Still, he isn't cynical and remains a “very hopeful person.”
“I've learned a lot and I'll take that into the classroom,” he says. “A lot of people got involved in this campaign who will continue to be involved in public service. So, good things are going to come out of this.”
Chesterfield could not be reached by phone or e-mail.
One of the final lines of the advertisement said, “No one can deny that desperate people will say anything to win.”
That's one thing the ad got right.
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