Many people have been said to be turned off by campaign season mudslinging that invariably engulfs a certain percentage of political races.
For nearly 25 years, a dedicated group of Westchester citizen volunteers has worked tirelessly in hopes of providing the public greater clarity between honest, forthright campaigning that is based on the issues and grounded in facts and candidates who have engaged in distortions and defamatory attacks.
Each year, the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee is asked to weigh whether statements, ads or other literature from candidates running for a variety of elected offices at different levels of government have acted appropriately.
“This is a group of thoughtful citizens who in their mind are trying to figure out whether a statement is going to mislead the average voter, and that’s our criteria,” said Victor Goldberg, chairman of the 17-member committee.
A candidate who concludes that he or she has been wronged by inaccurate or defamatory statements may file a complaint with the committee against their opponent, listing one or more instances of unfair campaign practices.
The three-member executive committee must agree that the matter should be heard, said committee member Susan Schwarz. If a hearing is deemed warranted, a date is scheduled where a minimum of five committee members must be in attendance to listen to arguments from both candidates and/or their representatives, she said.
Schwarz said the hearing, which is scheduled as quickly as possible, allows each side to make a presentation of up to 10 minutes. Afterwards, the attending committee members have up to a half-hour to ask questions of both camps.
The committee then deliberates and reaches a consensus before issuing a written response that is carefully composed to make sure that the wording accurately represents the group’s sentiment and tone. That typically is done within 24 hours. The committee can find a campaign to be fair or unfair or issue no finding.
Goldberg said the committee has no power other than to post their findings on its website and to distribute it to the two campaigns and the media. During one election season it has considered as few as a half-dozen complaints and other years in excess of 20.
“Our goal is to have a system to help ensure fairness in the campaigns,” Goldberg said. “I think our decisions have done that, but I’m not sure how successful we’ve been ensuring fairness in the campaigns because we have no power except what (the media) gives us by publishing findings about whether a candidate involved in the process has been unfair. That’s all we got.”
The Fair Campaign Practices Committee was formed in 1991 after the late Gannett newspaper columnist Milton Hoffman continually called for an independent body to hold candidates and campaigns accountable for their statements and actions.
Established by the League of Women Voters, it was initially funded by a grant from the Westchester Community Foundation, a nonprofit community endowment. The League of Women Voters has no role in the committee’s findings but is in charge of its funding.
Committee member Joy Rosenzweig said the group is looking to more effectively publicize its work and the role it serves in the election process. She said greater communication and use of social media can help lead to a more informed electorate in Westchester.
“Once we get the word out more, more and more people will learn about the findings, more people will look on our site before Election Day, and some people will be able to say, ‘Okay, I’ve heard that guy’s name five times about something unfair, let me look more,” Rosenzweig said. “Maybe it’ll make a difference if they’re on the fence. That’s one of our goals, I think, to really be able to extend our influence.”
Committee members must be county residents and are recommended by another member. No sitting elected official is allowed, although former officeholders and candidates are permitted. For example, former New Castle supervisor Polly Kuhn currently sits on the committee. Typically, members have been involved in civic affairs. Goldberg was a League of Women Voters member and served on the Scarsdale Planning Board.
A new member, Pleasantville resident Paul Atkinson, was recommended by Robert Kirkwood, currently the New Castle Planning Board chairman. Atkinson, who spent years working in communications and media, said he’s found the group to be highly objective. Members may recuse themselves if they feel they have a conflict of interest.
“It kind of appealed to me because you have to be objective in the business world and realize scoundrels are scoundrels, distortion is distortion, and it really can come from either side of the (political) spectrum,” Atkinson said.
One Republican campaign consultant who has had clients appear before the committee but asked not to be identified, said the Fair Campaign Practices Committee has dedicated residents who serve an important function. It often has the desired effect because few campaigns will want to risk the bad publicity that could accompany an unfavorable finding.
“I don’t think it has changed the election process, but you do think twice before putting something out there in the campaign,” the consultant said.
On certain occasions, the committee will issue a finding without a complaint, Goldberg said. For example, if a campaign is going to publicize the committee’s finding, it must release the committee’s entire finding. Failure to do so can result in an unfair finding.
Another issue has been the increase in the state political parties and political action committees funding campaigns and sending out literature without a candidate’s knowledge, Schwarz said.
“The one thing we say is candidates are responsible for the stuff put out there in their name,” she said.
Despite what could be a contentious relationship, Goldberg said in his 10 years on the committee he has gained enormous respect for candidates and the political party leaders no matter how heated a race may become.
“The party reps say I’m not crazy about (a finding) but I understand where you’re coming from,” Goldberg said. “I have great admiration for the party reps for their integrity and for their intelligence and I think the League of Women Voters was correct when it opted right from the start for a transparent system.”