CARBONDALE — After all the ballots are cast and counted and the winners announced, what will be left in the wake of this scorched-earth campaign season playing out in Southern Illinois?
The presidential race — divisive as it is — does not account for the vast majority of negative commercials airing in this region.
Rather, the most extreme of the hit pieces are targeted at and created on behalf of candidates who call this region home, and people, as well as their supporters and detractors, who will continue to live within a short distance of each other after the election is over.
“The thing I worry about is a campaign like this will have a residual impact on a community afterward,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU, during a recent election talk he gave at an event in Carbondale hosted by an association of retired university professors.
Yepsen said the majority of the “hired guns” creating these ads and serving as campaign shot-callers will return to Chicago after Nov. 8.
“They leave town,” Yepsen said. “But here we’ve had this real battle, and there are a lot of hard feelings, and then we expect our legislators to work together. We expect our mayors and legislators to work together.”
But the question should be pondered, Yepsen said, after the victory and concession speeches are over, “Can they get past that and work together for the good of the community?”
Plenty of Southern Illinois residents have suggested they are sick of the negative campaigning. But there’s been little talk about what might be the long-term consequences of the millions of dollars in campaign cash flooding into this region from party leaders who live elsewhere.
Southern Illinois’ low and diminishing population count makes it all the more imperative that politicians band together across party lines to be the most effective in Springfield. There’s a long history of Republicans and Democrats from the rural southern reaches doing just that in Springfield to fight for the region.
But the amount of campaign spending in Southern Illinois this election cycle is unprecedented between the five state House and Senate seats in play. The campaign commercials started early in the cycle, and anyone who watches the evening news is hit with a barrage of them.
It raises the question: Just how deep will the wedge be driven by Nov. 8?
Attacks are 'deeply personal'
Glenn Poshard said the volume of negative campaigning and the nature of the attacks doesn't sit well with him.
“You know, it’s fair game to run ads that have to do with a person’s position on policy and the direction of the state and country, things like that,” said Poshard, a retired longtime Democratic politician who is the former president of SIU and presently sits on the John A. Logan College board. “But some of the ads are so deeply personal that it’s going to take a big person to get past it once the election is over.”
Take for instance one of the overriding scorched-earth themes of this election cycle, which has seemingly unfolded as a game of one-upmanship.
The Democratic and Republican parties have paid for numerous fliers and television commercials that attempt to paint candidates of the opposite party as unsafe for children and sympathetic to child sex offenders over the safety of their communities.
This is an extreme narrative that stretches the truth in various ways. There has been no evidence presented to date that any of the state House and Senate candidates running for office in Southern Illinois — Democrats or Republicans — are unsafe for children in the manner suggested through the direct attacks and innuendos presented in the materials.
That said, negative campaign hit pieces aren’t aimed at the truth. Rather, they are scare tactics common in politics — generally built around a tiny grain of truth — and meant to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of undecided voters who don’t personally know the candidates. All is fair in love and politics, some suggest, but others are asking whether the line of decency has been completely erased. It will be “very hard to shake hands and move on” after this campaign cycle, Poshard said.
Sex offenders in the spotlight
In the 117th House District race, incumbent John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion, as well as his Republican opponent Dave Severin of Benton, have been hit with these sex offender ads. One of the ads against Severin opens with a woman named Julie Yana speaking into the camera.
“I’ve worked with sex offenders for over 14 years. I don’t feel a child ever recovers from being a victim of a sexual predator,” she says as a picture flashes of a young girl comforting a younger child with a stuffed animal between them, both with sad looks on their faces. Then a picture of Dave Severin’s face flashes on the screen.
“The sexual predator is very much a danger in everyone’s community,” continues Yana. “I would not feel safe for Dave Severin being a state representative for this area.” Yana then goes on to explain her reason, that Severin is against funding to track sex offenders and owns a business that hired a sex offender.
Yana declined comment to the newspaper. According to the Department of Human Service’s website, Yana is an administrative assistant at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna. She also is president of a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the labor union representing most state workers.
In a recent telephone interview, Bradley said he stands by the contents of the ads he’s running against Severin, while declaring those running against him as unfair. Bradley refused to answer a question about whether he believes there should be more restrictive laws passed prescribing where people convicted of sex crimes can work after serving their time, given that there has been no indication provided that Severin's employee is serving in a position he is not legally allowed to hold as a registered sex offender.
Severin said he’s not opposed to funding to track sex offenders. He has said he would have voted against a multi-billion dollar House budget that Speaker Mike Madigan pushed during the budget impasse that Republicans claimed to be irresponsible because it was $7 billion out of balance.
That budget included money for the tracking of sex offenders, among hundreds of other line items. Stopgap budgets agreed to by both parties on the eve of the new fiscal year also contained funding to keep those programs operational.
In late September, Severin posted a response to the ad on his Facebook page. He acknowledged that one of his employees has a felony sex offense conviction on his record, and said he was approached after that man served his time about whether he might find a second chance for employment at Severin's business, All Stars-N-Stiches in Benton. In the letter, Severin states he serves a God of “second chances” and admonished Bradley for attempting to score political points by making personal attacks against someone who has acknowledged his wrongdoings and is trying to turn his life around.
In an interview, Severin said the employee follows all guidelines prescribed in law for a registered sex offender. Regardless, the point of the ad was not to start a policy discussion about how people with sex-related convictions should reintegrate in society and to what degree.
“The real point of this ad, of course, is to disqualify my candidacy by throwing out there one of the most dirty and disgusting smear campaigns seen in Illinois politics in a long time,” Severin wrote.
Republicans dish it back
Severin vowed to rise above the fray. But it wasn’t long after his letter that an ad paid for by the Republican Party began airing on local networks against Bradley portraying him as sympathetic to sex offenders as well. A spokesman for Severin said the candidate wasn't wasn't aware that Republican Party officials had created that ad and asked that it be removed. But it continued to run for days after that.
As described in a column by Rich Miller, publisher of the Capitol Fax newsletter, that ad opens with footage of a Chicago anchorman saying, “Federal prosecutors now accusing a former state representative of possession child pornography.” A photo then flashes of former state Rep. Keith Farnham and a narrator says, “Unspeakable abuse from a Springfield Democrat.” In 2014, Farnham, of Elgin, resigned from office and pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography.
Footage of Rep. Bradley then appears on the screen and an announcer says, “But as Madigan’s top lieutenant in Democrat leadership, John Bradley stood by as the predator committed heinous crimes on his state computer.
“The sex assault victim was an infant,” the anchorman says, and the commercial closes with the narrator saying that Bradley wrote “a check to the predator’s campaign just to strengthen Madigan’s power. Cowardice so despicable you have to wonder, how does John Bradley sleep at night?”
Among a multitude of contributions Bradley has made over the years, he did give $1,000 to Farnham, but that was three years before Farnham’s arrest, according to Miller. “Nobody had a clue what was going on with Farnham back then,” Miller, a longtime observer of Illinois politics, wrote in his column.
The smear continues
Republican Party operatives have created similar ads attempting to tie Farnham to other Democratic candidates, including in this area, Marsha Griffin, a fourth-grade teacher from Jonesboro who has taken leave to challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Terri Bryant of Murphsyboro for the 115th House District seat.
One of the fliers by the Republican Party against Griffin states that Griffin has “taken more than $90,000 from donors who spent over half a million dollars to elect a politician guilty of possessing child pornography. Why won’t Marsha Griffin reject her dirty campaign money? We can’t trust Marsha Griffin.”
A similar television ad is running against Griffin attempting to tie her to Farnham. The Republican Party leadership also has led an attack against Griffin over a computer glitch that inadvertently caused her teacher’s license to lapse for a period of time until she discovered the error and fixed it.
Griffin took to her Facebook page this week to vent. “Resting secure in who I am as a teacher, and who I am in God,” she wrote. “I am appalled at the level that Terri Bryant and her campaign has sunk to because she has failed to do her job … While they continue their negative spin trying to disparage my character, I will continue knocking on doors and connecting with people throughout the district.”
But Griffin made no mention of the multitude of fliers paid for by the Democratic Party on her behalf with similar attacks that attempt to paint Bryant as soft on sex offenders as well.
One of those fliers shows a manipulated photo of Bryant and Gov. Bruce Rauner holding index fingers to their mouths — making the universal sign for “shhhh. I have a secret.” The flier reads, “Terri Bryant refused to stand up to Bruce Rauner to keep families safe. Terri Bryant failed to protect our kids. She repeatedly sided with Bruce Rauner and opposed funding programs that track sex offenders, allowing dangerous and sexually violent criminals to wander our neighborhoods without our knowledge.” Illinois' sex offender registry has remained operational and updated throughout the budget impasse.
The Democratic Party bases this claim on Bryant voting against the multi-billion dollar House budget pushed by Madigan that included funding for tracking sex offenders and for victims of sexual assault, among hundreds of other services. Bryant eventually voted in favor of the stopgap budgets that provided for these programs to remain operational.
Ads create chilling effect
In terms of political sway, there’s a point of diminishing returns with the effectiveness of these types of ads, Yepsen said. Because of the volume of ads striking a similar chord against candidates of both parties, many people likely are tuning out when they come on.
But Poshard said the danger as he sees it as that this type of campaign season is likely to have a chilling effect on voter engagement in the political process at a time when it’s critical, especially among the younger generation turned off by the antics. He also said this is likely to further dissuade good, qualified people from considering seeking public office in the future because they don’t want to see their character dragged through the mud.
“I think we’re risking a lot here,” Poshard said. “I’m very concerned about it. I think both sides are equally guilty.”
A race to the bottom
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, a Republican from Okawville who is retiring this year after two decades of service, also said he believes this campaign cycle will make it more difficult to recruit candidates to run for public office.
"If you’re honest, you don’t get rich in politics," Luechtefeld said. "It’s a lot of work and if they’re going to ruin your reputation falsely, why do it?"
He said another major problem he sees with this race-to-the-bottom style of campaigning is that an unintended consequence is it turns voters off, not just from one candidate or the other, but to all politicians and the political process. That’s particularly troublesome in Illinois where voter confidence and trust is in need of major repair if the state is ever going to make its way out of the deep financial mess it is in.
"It does seem that anything and everything goes anymore. It’s really a shame and it’s sad” said Luechtefeld, who earned a reputation in Springfield of being a politician firm in his convictions but gentlemanly in his expression of them.
“We wonder why people think politicians are ugly and politicians spend much of their time and money trying to make the other person look ugly. We wonder why people have a very low attitude towards politicians and much of it comes from this I think.”