TAMPA — With only a brief campaign before the special election to replace Pinellas County's Rep. C.W. Bill Young, both sides are going for a quick knockout with a frenzy of attack ads that play fast and loose with the facts.
The Republican ads recycle attacks launched at Democrat Alex Sink during the 2010 governor's race by Gov. Rick Scott — allegations concerning her record as chief financial officer and her career as a prominent banker.
The Democratic attacks focus on Republican David Jolly's career as a Washington lobbyist.
In the age of Internet fact-checking, the attacks are usually based on a kernel of truth. But nearly all exaggerate or distort it, and some on both sides are outright false — or use tricky wording to convey a false impression.
For example, Sink never took a state plane to the Bahamas for a vacation at taxpayers' expense — an ad by the national Republican Party suggests that, but doesn't precisely say it.
And Jolly apparently never lobbied to convert Medicare to a voucher program, or to partially privatize Social Security, as an ad by the Sink campaign appears to say but doesn't exactly say.
Most of the ads link the opponent to a negative public perception — distaste for lobbyists, suspicion about the Affordable Care Act — regardless of whether that perception is well-founded.
It's a fact, for example, that Jolly has been a lobbyist since leaving Young's staff in 2006, an example of what good-government watchdogs call the “revolving door” of Congress members and staffers moving into lobbying.
But that's not illegal, and it's possible to lobby for what some would see as good causes, as Jolly says he did, as well as bad ones. Governments, charities and schools hire lobbyists just as corporations and interest groups do.
Sink, while never an ardent supporter of the Affordable Care Act, derided by opponents as “Obamacare,” opposes repealing it and believes health care reform is necessary. She says the law needs revisions, but the attacks blame her for every perceived negative effect, whether true or false, including a discredited accusation that it will cause 300,000 Floridians to lose health insurance coverage.
Besides the campaigns, ads have been aired in the race so far by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the U.S. House campaign wing of the national Democratic Party; the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's House campaign wing; American Action Network, a conservative advocacy group; and the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Which side stretches the truth more is a judgment call.
The GOP side has launched a greater volume of different charges at Sink, most distorted or outright discredited. The Democratic attacks against Jolly are mostly based on his career as a paid lobbyist but the specifics range from questionable to apparently false.
Here's a check on some of the attacks against both candidates.
ATTACKS ON JOLLY
Cashing in as lobbyist. He “cashed in on his connections” to become a lobbyist after leaving Young's staff, “got paid over $1 million working for special interests” — from a Sink campaign ad — and lobbied for “special interests that received over $3 million in taxpayer-funded earmarks,” according to an ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Jolly worked first for Van Scoyoc Associates after leaving Young's staff, then in 2011 opened his own firm, Three Bridges Advisers, which has earned $1.2 million in fees.
The phrase “special interest” can mean anything the speaker disagrees with. The $3 million in earmarks refers to contracts arranged by Young for two Pinellas County firms, BayCare Health System and Alakai Consulting & Engineering Inc.
Jolly says he's proud to have helped to win contracts for local firms and insists his knowledge of the Washington governing process would make him a better congressman.
Pakistan connection. The narrator in an ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cites Jolly's “firm lobbying for hundreds of millions for a dictator in Pakistan as we face record debt,” while a superscript says his “employer lobbied for taxpayer-funded $300 million.”
Van Scoyoc represented the government of Pakistan in 2007-08, but Jolly says he never personally lobbied for Pakistan or its president at the time, Pervez Musharraf. The ad is worded to avoid falsehood, blaming “the firm,” and in small type in the superscript, Jolly's “employer.”
At the time, Musharraf was a key U.S. ally in the war on terror and in Afghanistan. He took power in a coup in 1999, but never wielded absolute power. He stepped down in 2008 and is now on trial for treason.
Privatizing social security. Jolly “even lobbied for a group committed to privatizing Social Security,” according to a Sink campaign ad.
It's true that Jolly lobbied for the Free Enterprise Nation, an advocacy group founded by Pinellas County millionaire Jim MacDougald, who favors a plan supported by many Republicans to divert part of Social Security tax revenue to private accounts — sometimes called “partial privatization.”
MacDougald, a major Republican donor, is now Jolly's campaign finance chairman.
But according to research by the independent political fact-checking organization FactCheck.org, which interviewed MacDougald and checked archives of the group's website, the organization itself never took a position on the issue.
Jolly listed “Social Security reform” on lobbying disclosures as a topic he discussed while representing Free Enterprise Nation, but says that didn't include privatization.
Medicare vouchers. Jolly “lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program,” according to a Sink ad. That refers to a plan backed by many Republicans, including Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to convert Medicare to a “premium support” or voucher plan. The change was part of the famous Ryan budget proposal debated hotly during the government budget crisis and the 2012 presidential campaign.
The Jolly campaign acknowledges he discussed the plan with Ryan in his capacity as a lobbyist but denies he lobbied for the Medicare plan.
The ad's wording is tricky, saying he lobbied “on,” not “for,” a plan including the Medicare changes.
Jolly says he opposes the Medicare premium support plan. He told the Tribune in an email in January that he is “on record” opposing the Ryan budget plan, although he declined to take a position when asked about it in a Bay News 9 interview in December.
ATTACKS ON SINK
Abusing the plane. As chief financial officer 2007-2011, she “spent $400,000 of taxpayer money to jet around in a state-owned plane. ... used the taxpayer-funded plane so she could get to a vacation in the Bahamas ... even used the plane to attend political campaign events,” says an ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The allegation is based on 2009 news stories about use of state planes by Sink and other top state officials. The stories ran in the Miami Herald and the then-St. Petersburg Times.
Sink's use of state aircraft — along with that of other top officials, including former Attorney General Bill McCollum and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp — was questioned because of incidents in which she took plane trips on state business that also took her to her Tampa home; to political events in the same locations; or included stops to pick up or drop off family members.
Sink said the practice was common among those allowed to use the planes, but out of what a spokeswoman called “an abundance of caution,” her 2010 campaign for governor repaid the state $17,000 for trips that included political activity along with state business.
The $400,000 figure is accurate, but the story cited as the source also notes, as the ad doesn't, that Sink ranked third out of four Cabinet members in frequency of using the plane.
Sink never took a state plane to the Bahamas. According to the news story cited, she and CFO staff members took a plane to Miami on state business. Returning to Tallahassee, it dropped Sink in Fort Lauderdale where she caught a commercial flight to her family's condo in the islands.
The ad also doesn't note that state Ethics Commission complaints against Sink, McCollum and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp over the travel were all dismissed.
Banking contracts. As CFO, Sink “approved lucrative contracts with her former bank, while our state's pension fund was investigated for risky investments and lost billions,” according to an American Action Network Ad.
Sink, a former Florida head of NationsBank, retired from the bank and put her assets in a blind trust when she became CFO — a member of the Florida Cabinet, along with the attorney general, agriculture commissioner and governor. The Cabinet votes on state bond issues.
The ad refers to a 2008 bond issue that used Merrill Lynch, then a subsidiary of NationsBank, as one of 12 underwriters, according to research by FactCheck.org.
The ad doesn't mention that the other Cabinet members, all Republicans, all voted to approve the contract; or that Merrill Lynch was the top recommended firm for the contract by the state Division of Bond Finance; or that with her assets in a blind trust, Sink had no financial interest in the decision.
The ad also doesn't mention that Sink was one of three Cabinet members, along with the governor and attorney general, responsible for overseeing the state pension fund — or that the losses occurred during a historic recession.
Higher taxes. Sink “has supported higher taxes ... Higher property taxes ... Higher sales taxes ... More taxes on water and TV too ... Another tax and spender Florida can't afford,” says an ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The documentation cited by the ad refers to incidents in which Sink favored reviewing and possibly eliminating some exemptions to sales taxes, and opposed a constitutional amendment designed to lower property taxes for some property owners, noted FactCheck.org , calling the ad false. In neither case did she advocate raising the taxes.
The reference to taxes on water and TV stems from 1997, when Sink was a member of a commission appointed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to decide how to handle crushing overcrowding of schools resulting from rapid growth.
The commission, mainly business leaders, recommended extending the state's 2.5 percent tax on utilities to water and cable television. The idea, which Sink supported, was not adopted.
Health care costs. Sink supports the Affordable Care Act even though “300,000 Floridians will lose their current health coverage ... Cancelled health plans, higher premiums, Medicare cuts, people losing their doctors. A disaster for families and seniors,” said a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad, echoed by a National Republican Congressional Committee ad, saying 300,000 “could lose their health insurance plans.”
The claim of 300,000 Floridians losing their coverage refers to letters sent last fall by health insurer Florida Blue to policy holders whose plans don't meet standards of the Affordable Care Act. But Florida Blue never said it would cancel coverage. Instead, the policyholders would be offered other options or enrolled in new policies.
The new standards have been delayed for a year.
To avoid outright falsehood, one ad says the individuals “could” lose their coverage, and the other says they'll lose their “current” coverage.
The ad doesn't mention that all would be eligible to buy new policies, possibly at better prices with a government subsidy, through the program's health insurance exchange.
The Medicare cuts enacted under the Affordable Care Act affect the Medicare Advantage plan, the same as those proposed in the Ryan budget favored by Republicans. Whether the Affordable Care Act will cause people to pay higher premiums or lose their doctors is a subject of national debate.