For some it might be considered a badge of honor, but for state Rep. Tommy Merritt (R-Longview), it probably feels more like tire tracks. The affable East Texas Republican was run over this year by one of the nation’s most vicious campaign hit teams, a secret outfit whose reach spreads all over the American political system. It specializes in attempted assassination of political careers under the guise of issue education. Apparently, one sure way to escape the torrent of negative attacks it can bankroll is to avoid crossing George W. Bush and a select group of Texas Republicans.
Merritt, who refused to comment for this story, is guilty of many sins in the house that Rove wrought. He wears a scarlet M for Moderate. His freethinking independence is a frowned-upon trait in a party leadership that demands a lockstep response. In 2001, Merritt voted with Democrats on legislative redistricting—rejecting the first step in what appears to have been a long-term GOP plan to stack the Texas Legislature. During the 2002 race for speaker of the Texas Hous—currently under investigation by a Travis County grand jury—Merritt was frequently mentioned as an ABC (Anybody But Craddick). Then in 2003, in the heat of a third special session on redistricting, Tommy Merritt had the temerity to vote with his district instead of following the dictates of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and Co.
When Sen. Bill Ratliff (R-Mt. Pleasant)—who also opposed congressional redistricting in 2003—retired, Merritt opted to run for the open Senate seat. It was largely a three-way contest. On one side was Paul Sadler, a Democratic trial lawyer and former state rep. On the other side was Kevin Eltife, a young Republican mayor from Tyler. And caught in the middle was Rep. Tommy Merritt, the owner of a small insulation contracting business. Governor Rick Perry, and more importantly, his financial network, supported Eltife over Merritt.
That’s when Americans for Job Security (AJS) appeared on the scene. Launched in 1997 with a million-dollar contribution from the American Insurance Association, the Virginia-based AJS claims to have 500 members. It’s impossible to know if that’s the truth since the group refuses to release a membership list or divulge how much special interest money is funneled through the organization. It does admit that it uses corporate money. It’s unclear if one person or many finance any given AJS campaign. You can’t find out without a subpoena. AJS is a 501(c)(6) organization and is allowed in most state elections to run so-called third-party “issue advocacy” ads, purportedly to educate voters. In the radio, television, or direct mail advertisements it sponsors, AJS doesn’t have to reveal anything about itself other than its name. Since its founding, it’s estimated the group has spent about $26 million on political races all over the nation, including $8.5 million in 2002 and $7.5 million in 2000.
The way AJS President Mike Dubke explains it, the organization is just an assemblage of public interest-minded champions of free enterprise educating voters on the records of politicians who want to gouge taxpayers. As a third-party group, AJS cannot legally coordinate with candidate campaigns nor can it explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate. That might be seen as a campaign contribution. Instead, AJS just scours the known universe of elections in the United States, from the lowliest state board of education race to U.S. Senate campaigns, looking to make a difference. And as it combed through all the ongoing political races in the country late last year, it just happened to come across a special election in East Texas.
“Basically the thrust of our organization is to advocate pro-market, pro-paycheck issues across the country,” says Dubke. “In Texas, our piece concerning Tommy Merritt was right up our alley, talking about an individual who wants to raise taxes on goods and services and basically take more money out of the pockets of the average citizen.”
AJS used two radio ads and a lot of airtime to mow down Merritt’s record. Dubke stands by the ads and says his group is legally bound to speak only the truth in them. Both ads used similar content but cast the message in different scenes that mimicked fellow radio listeners. In one, the listener first hears the rattle of dishes and the pouring of coffee to conjure up a fictitious couple sharing their morning repast. In the other, a man and woman drive along in their car, just another pair of commuters listening to the radio.
In the dining room scene, the man chuckles to himself and says, “You can’t make this up. According to the San Antonio Express-News Tommy Merritt introduced a quote stupid bill that would allow people to simply hand the police officer a prepaid coupon when they got pulled over for speeding.”
Admittedly, it was one of Merritt’s more peculiar legislative ideas, but the Express-News line was in fact taken from an overly cutesy book review of a tome called Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest: True News of the World’s Least Competent People and not, as AJS would have listeners believe, a news story. The ad also featured casual cuts like, “I always wondered what he did down there.” And it makes the charge that Merritt only “passed eight bills in eight years,” which is accurate but not a complete picture of the representative’s contributions as it does not take into account bills he co-authored or amended.
In each ad, AJS shoots its favorite pro-tax bullet, accusing Merritt of wanting to expand the sales tax. It never mentions that this is to fund education. Instead, it sounds like a whim—the Republican representative just likes to raise people’s taxes. (An irony here is that Governor Rick Perry and the Republican Legislature might well end up expanding the sales tax to end the Robin Hood education funding system.)
The tag line of the breakfast piece is, “Well that’s Tommy Merritt. Stupid bills and higher taxes.”
Not surprisingly, Merritt didn’t reach the run-off. Although Dubke insists there was no coordination between AJS and Governor Perry’s office, the campaign benefited the state’s Republican leaders in two ways. It allowed Eltife more time to introduce himself to new constituents and it freed up other third-party Republican-leaning groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform to tenderize the Democratic trial lawyer for the Eltife run-off. It also sent a clear signal to Texas GOP moderates everywhere about just who was in charge.
On January 15, the nonprofit watchdog group Campaigns for People filed a letter of complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle about the ads. The complaint asks for an investigation of the possible violation of the Texas prohibition on corporate contributions and expenditures for electioneering. Did AJS cooridinate in some way with the Eltife campaign? ” been on the edge of—if not violating—the law and the states and feds haven’t done anything about it,” complains Fred Lewis, executive director for Campaigns for People.
Lewis believes that the negativity of the AJS ads discourages voters from participating in the political process. The secrecy of who funds AJS obscures whether the organization is deliberately skirting the century-old prohibition in Texas on corporate money in campaigns. “There is nothing redeeming about at all,” he concludes.
Gregg Cox, a prosecutor in Earle’s office, says the DA is still looking into whether the complaint merits a full investigation. The only other time it appears AJS was slapped by regulators or law enforcement for its activities was in Alaska. In 2002 the Alaska Public Offices Commission voted to direct its staff to consider sanctions against AJS for failing to file campaign disclosure reports for television ads aired on behalf of a Republican candidate for governor of the state. The commission ended up imposing a $150 fine that Dubke claims is still unresolved.
Inevitably, when an AJS attack ad airs, the local media clucks about the tone and sometimes even the messenger. When there is an uproar over the ads the real beneficiary of the publicity—the person who’s running against the one being tarred—almost always condemns it and asks AJS to stop. AJS normally ignores the pleas. It’s a cost-free inoculation for the benefiting candidate. Dubke says such griping is typical. “It messes up their political plans whether they like what we say or they don’t like what we say,” he says. “That’s kind of a badge of honor for us.”
A key to understanding how AJS really works can be found in the person of David Carney, who appears to be the wizard behind the curtain. An East Coast Republican with roots that stretch back to New Hampshire and the first Bush White House, Carney served Bush I as political director. He was also chief of staff for Governor John H. Sununu. In newspapers as diverse as The Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune, Carney is described as a “GOP strategist.” In Texas, the press has labeled him Governor Perry’s “chief advisor” and “general campaign consultant.” AJS president Dubke calls Carney a “consultant” for the group. But as recently as 2002, the media reported Carney was “chief executive” of AJS. (Carney did not respond to a request for comment from the Observer.)
Carney’s affiliation with Perry again spilled onto the pages of the Morning News recently. Over the President’s Day weekend last month, Carney joined the governor, Texas’ first lady Anita Perry, the governor’s top staff, and their spouses as well as the director of the right-wing think-tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation Brooke Rollins, Republican strategist Grover Norquist, and two of Perry’s biggest contributors, John Nau ($120,000 since 2000) and James Leininger, ($75,000 since 2000) along with their wives on a yacht in the Bahamas. The group flew a private jet to the Abaco Islands in what was billed as a private “retreat to discuss public school finance.” Leininger, an ardent proponent of vouchers and charter schools, is practically the only major donor to Perry and GOP legislators who didn’t have his wishes fulfilled by the 78th Legislature. It may take a special session on school finance to accomplish that.
“I don’t think where we went has a thing to do with whether or not there was real, progressive conversation,” a defensive Perry told the Morning News. “And there was real progressive conversation. I’m glad I went.” (It’s left to the imagination what subjects those conversations included, but if even a tenth of the rumors floating around the Capitol at the time were true, they were likely quite interesting.) Perry now says he will pay for the trip from his campaign account.
During the Merritt race, Carney told the political newsletter, the Quorum Report, that the AJS campaign was “not intended to impact on an election.” If it did, that would be electioneering and possibly illegal coordination. In the same way, Carney insisted to the Houston Chronicle in late 2000 that AJS didn’t coordinate with the Bush II presidential campaign when it snuffed out a Republican incumbent on the State Board of Education.
San Antonio dentist Bob Offutt had first been elected to the state board in 1992. The radical-right ideologue didn’t think much of Governor George W. Bush and endorsed Steve Forbes in the 2000 presidential election. Offutt even campaigned in New Hampshire and Iowa, cutting radio ads for Forbes blasting Bush’s record in Texas. When it came time for the Republican primary for the State Board of Ed, AJS exacted retribution, spending more than $40,000 on direct mail to successfully defeat Offutt. But there was no coordination with the Bush campaign, insists Carney.
Seemingly in every report on the danger of abuse of “issue advocacy” in elections, AJS is mentioned as a prime suspect. It was likely activities by AJS and other similar organizations that prompted the crafters of the federal campaign legislation known as McCain-Feingold to take action on the subject. The new law prohibits AJS or other “third-party” groups from broadcasting their wares within 60 days of an election for federal posts. It does allow them to drop direct-mail pieces within that period.
It is precisely during those 60 days that the public is paying attention, says Dubke, who argues passionately against the campaign law. “I don’t think the Politburo had such restrictions in the U.S.S.R. during the height of Communism than we now see under McCain-Feingold,” he says.
The prohibition on the federal level might not stop the group from activities like flying a banner at the Minnesota state fair during the Wellstone campaign in 2002 that read: “Wellstone Quit Taxing the Dead!” Nor will it prevent the group from mixing it up in state elections. If anything, in the future AJS could become more active on the state level since it won’t be spending as much money on federal races.
Some Republicans argue that AJS is simply doing what the Sierra Club, labor unions, and third-party groups on the left regularly do. But there is a qualitative difference. Voters know what the Sierra Club stands for and that the bulk of the money the organization raises comes from individual environmentalists. Nobody knows what’s behind the meaningless name, Americans for Job Security. Even Texans for Lawsuit Reform carries more truth in advertising.
“We don’t know who is funding [Americans for Job Security],” notes Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People. “Is it Chinese businessmen who want to outsource jobs to China? Here is the reason that disclosure is so important: The public is entitled to know if AJS is just a bunch of insurance companies.”
Dubke understands that keeping the membership of AJS secret will be viewed as suspect. The group does it, he contends, to prevent the media, or voters for that matter, from making the messenger the message.
“We figured we would take that knock and that’s a knock that we are willing to take,” he says. “We feel that the fact that our issues are being spoken about, more so than one or two members, is much more important.”
The calculation is an understandable one. No one has been willing to hound AJS for its work on behalf of faceless special interests in the systematic and sustained way AJS attacks candidates. It’s too bad, since if ever there was a case where the messenger is the message, this is it.