If this wasn’t the least truthful election in state history, it was a contender.
Campaign advertisements have long taken a speck of truth and stretched it beyond recognition to shock and scare, and try to secure votes. But this year saw new extremes in deception, as advocacy groups used outright lies in hopes of sullying candidates they oppose.
One political scientist said 2014 ranks as a watershed for lies in political advertising.
“In recent memory, it was the worst,” said Lonna Atkeson, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at The University of New Mexico.
One recent story that captured her attention was an advocacy group’s allegation that Geoff Rodgers, a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, was arrested in Florida years ago but concealed that information from voters.
Rodgers says the accusation, made by ProgressNow New Mexico, is false. He said in an interview that he has never been arrested. Rodgers, 52, said his background includes nothing more than a couple of speeding tickets, and even those didn’t occur in Florida, where he once lived.
Even so, he said, certain people have accepted ProgressNow’s false story as fact, including a woman who publicly questioned him about it during a Republican rally last week.
Rodgers, of Los Alamos, is running against Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, in one of the closely contested races that will determine which party controls the state House of Representatives.
Pat Davis, executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, said Monday he doesn’t know whether Rodgers has ever been arrested.
But his group’s Internet story contained accusatory information about a Geoff Rodgers taken from a search engine that listed a possible criminal charge in Florida from either 1993 or 1995. Then, targeting the candidate from Los Alamos, Davis’ organization wrote: “What’s this new charged [sic] Geoff didn’t disclose?”
Rodgers said he has a clean record and therefore had nothing to reveal.
In an interview, Davis said he had hoped to verify by election day whether Rodgers was arrested or charged with a crime by obtaining archived records from Florida. So far, Davis said, his group has not received a response to its request for public records.
Of the story he posted about Rodgers, Davis said: “It’s not our best work.”
Nonetheless, Davis defended running an unverified story, saying his intent was prompt voters to ask Rodgers questions about his past.
Another advocacy group circulated a false advertisement about Garcia Richard in hopes of tearing her down to help Rodgers.
Republican-leaning Advance New Mexico Now sent out the inaccurate direct-mail ad. The group claimed that Garcia Richard had voted for a bill to expunge certain criminal records, a lie.
Garcia Richard voted against the bill, a fact easily verified by reviewing public records of the state House of Representatives. But Advance New Mexico Now falsely advertised that Garcia Richard had “voted to hide arrest records from employers like daycare centers and schools.”
Atkeson said those who wrote lies in ads or statements ought to motivate the state Legislature to establish “an ethics committee with teeth so candidates or groups can’t blatantly lie.”
While defamation laws already exist, Atkeson said more needs to be done to stop untrue attacks in the next election.
“What we’ve seen is a public crime, not just a private crime,” she said.
ProgressNow New Mexico, the group helping Democratic candidates, had to backtrack recently on another of its stories.
It falsely claimed that the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez was discriminating against tribal members at Motor Vehicle Division offices, particularly one in Farmington near the Navajo Nation.
“MVD says Navajo-only speakers are ‘illiterates,’ must learn English to obtain state ID cards or licenses,” Davis’ group said in its story, which was false.
He obtained an incomplete email from a Motor Vehicle Division bureau chief that used the word “illiteracy.” Without seeing the full email, Davis’ group falsely wrote that Martinez’s administration had called Navajos “illiterates” and refused to help them with translations for driver tests.
After The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on Davis’ group incorrectly describing the email, ProgressNow New Mexico revised its Internet story. It offered a new claim in its follow-up: “New Mexico MVD clarifies policies on non-English speakers.”
ProgressNow has stuck to another story, one alleging that Republican state Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque used a fake name when he checked into a hotel for a government conference in Denver.
By innuendo, ProgressNow said Gentry was involved romantically with Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque.
Gentry, who hopes to be speaker of the House, said he attended the conference using his own name. He called the ProgressNow story false.
State Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, had no opposition in this year’s election, a circumstance that he saw as a good break.
“I am so thankful,” Wooley said. “Most of the campaigns were pretty dirty.”
In particular, Wooley criticized Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall for running negative ads against his challenger, Republican Allen Weh.
“I hate that that one got really bad,” said Wooley, who blamed Udall for setting the tone by attacking Weh.
The same criticism has been leveled against Weh, a Vietnam veteran and retired colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.
In one direct-mail ad, Weh said Udall had no allegiance to the United States because he protested against the Vietnam War some 45 years ago while Weh was fighting in it.
Larry Ogan, a Vietnam veteran and now an artist in Santa Fe, was so offended by the ad that he publicly criticized Weh for robbing the Senate campaign of decency.