The Power of a Name

Chris Jones, D.D. Dawson, and Joshua Huffman in studio
A Democratic, Republican, and independent candidate walk into a radio studio…

While reading online last night, I was reminded of an encounter from mid 2012.  To set the scene, it was a Republican gathering in Harrisonburg shortly after a primary where Representative Bob Goodlatte fended off a challenge for the Republican nomination for the 6th district seat from Karen Kwiatkowski.  As many of you may know, I was a volunteer for her campaign.  Although I had been an ardent supporter of Representative Goodlatte from 1995 to 2010, I no longer believed that he represented my values in Washington while Kwiatkowski articulated a much better message.  Anyway, at this meeting Bob Goodlatte saw me, came over, and stated that he hoped that I would now support him as much as I supported his opponent.  It may sound strange at first reading, but I found his statement quite offensive.

You see, leading up to the primary, Bob Goodlatte seemed to do his best to try and ignore Karen’s challenge.  He steadfastly refused to debate her and, to the best of my knowledge, he never mentioned her by name.  On the scant times he referenced her, she was always identified as “my opponent.”  Then, even after the election was over, she still wasn’t worthy of being called by her name.

Using the term “my opponent” isn’t something novel for Goodlatte or his campaign.  For example, in 2006 I was an employee of the Republican Party of Virginia.  I’m sure many of you will remember the “macaca moment” when then Republican Senator George Allen called one of Jim Webb’s staffers “macaca”, apparently a racial slur which likely cost Allen the election.  However, I’d like you to listen to the recording of this incident once more.

Notice what Senator Allen says.  Not once does he mention Jim Webb by name, instead calling him “my opponent” or rather curiously “your opponent” in reference to the Webb staffer, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Also, Allen doesn’t call S.R. Sidarth (the Webb staffer) by his name and instead makes up a name for him.  Even if the word macaca wasn’t a Portuguese word for a monkey, in this video Allen seems to suggest that Sidarth’s name isn’t important.  Apparently some Allen staffers called Sidarth “mohawk” based upon his hairstyle at the time.  But really, is using that term all that much better?  Rather than taking the time to learn who this fellow is who has been following him around to various campaign stops, by inventing a name for him Allen and his crew seem to suggest that Sidarth is simply a nameless replaceable staffer for the Webb campaign who doesn’t have much value.

With either of these two examples I’m not claiming that it is only Republicans who refuse to reference their opponents by name.  I’m sure politicians of all stripes do likewise.  However, as a former Republican staffer and political activist, these are two examples I personally remember.

This subject reminds me of a scene from the movie Fight Club.  If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend doing so.  Anyway, at one point the characters create a plan called Project Mayhem.  When a person is part of Project Mayhem, he is stripped of his name and becomes an undistinguished and replaceable cog in the plan.  But, when Robert Paulsen is killed and it is suggested that they secretly bury his body in the garden, Edward Norton’s character objects to calling his fallen friend a nameless and disposable object.  Here’s the scene.  (Please pardon the language and violence from the movie).

As you might imagine, I find this tactic of refusing to call one’s political adversaries by name very demeaning.  After all, a person is more than a mere political opponent, an obstacle to be overcome, or an annoyance to be brushed aside.  Be it for better or worse he or she is much more than a candidate for an election or even a series of elections.  He or she has a unique personality, has a collection of experiences, an abundance of hopes, dreams, and fears.  He or she is someone’s mother…or brother…or niece…or son.  He or she is someone’s friend, possible lover, potential mentor, or perhaps an eager pupil.

I am of the thought that everyone has at least enough human dignity to be worthy of being called by his or her name, not degraded as an “opponent” or slurred based upon their appearance.  I’d like to think that our elected officials should be at the forefront of embracing this philosophy, instead of deriding those who dare challenge their misguided perception of a divine right to rule.  In an open and fair political system especially, everyone should at least have the power of his or her name, his or her right to run for office, and the ability to express his or her opinions.

Memoirs from the 93rd: Part II

ODU

The sticky situation with Old Dominion University was a constant thorn in the side of the campaign.  If you will recall from my post on Oct 20, I didn’t want to create a “macaca moment” for the campaign as a result of this blog.  Unfortunately ODU became that very “macaca moment”.  If you are unfamiliar with this term, watch this segment from the Allen campaign.  It is a single comment or issue detrimental to the campaign that is repeated ad infinitum.  Like leprosy, if left untreated it can hideously disfigure the campaign and cause the public to view the candidate as an undesirable outcast.  I

f you will allow me to return to 2006 for a moment, I don’t believe that comment should have cost George Allen his seat, as he was a good legislator and governor.  I just wish that the issue could have been resolved quickly and completely and not allowed to fester.

But let’s return to the issue at hand.  I’m not going to exhaustively go into the ins and outs of the situation, as I’m sure there are many other blogs who have already done so.  The basic information is as follows:  Several years ago Delegate Hamilton secured funding for a teacher training center at Old Dominion University.  A bit later, the university offered Delegate Hamilton a part time $40,000 position at the university.  Was it a quid pro quo agreement?  Or was it a legitimate hiring practice?  It was a question that would continually haunt the campaign.  Once the situation came into the public eye, Delegate Hamilton resigned from his position and offered an apology for creating the perception of impropriety.  What else could the campaign and candidate have done?  Given his extensive background in the Newport News School system, I believed that his job was appropriate.  After all, I wouldn’t work for a person or organization I thought was unethical.  You have to wonder though, if the ODU issue was such a sordid outrage, why wasn’t it brought to light several years ago when it happened and not when it was politically advantageous, during an election?

When I learned of the issue, I knew that it would be a strong talking point for the Democrats.  After all, our opponent, Robin Abbott was not well known.  By comparison, Delegate Hamilton, as a 21-year incumbent, had a massive name ID advantage.  It served as a perfect opportunity for the Democrats to paint Phil Hamilton in a negative light, a problem in need of removal.  What I didn’t know, however, was that other Republican candidates and the Republican Party of Virginia itself would use the issue against us.  While drinking iced tea after a lengthy day of campaigning, I was shocked to hear that both Bob McDonnell and Bill Bolling called upon Delegate Hamilton to resign.  It was troubling news indeed.  Although I didn’t agree with their decision, it did make some political sense.  As they were both running for statewide office, they did not want this scandal to be used against them too.  By comparison, I much preferred Ken Cuccinelli’s approach to the issue.  He thought the question as to Delegate Hamilton’s fate should be left to both the voters and the House Ethics Committee.  As a result of his stance, in Hampton Roads, Steve Shannon, Cuccinelli’s opponent, spent more time attacking Hamilton than he did Cuccinelli. Believe it or not, what caused me the most concern was RPV Chairman Pat Mullins’ similar condemnation.  Although perhaps less damaging politically (certainly Bob McDonnell and Bill Bolling command much higher statewide publicity), it worried me greatly. I reserve a very high level of respect for the state party, much higher than the national party or most other political organizations and to suffer their wrath made me begin to doubt.  About the same time, the RPV removed Delegate Hamilton’s name from the party website as a candidate thus placing him in the same ostracized category as Catherine Crabill.  The reaction from voters in the 93rd was immediate but mixed.  Believe it or not, some voters returned their McDonnell yard signs as a symbol of protest for “throwing Hamilton under the bus”.  Others sent angry letters or phone calls to the RPV.   The RPV placated this discontent by reinstating Hamilton’s name to the list of official candidates.  On the other side of things, although far less vocal, some party activists agreed with the decision of McDonnell, Bolling, and Mullins and withdrew their support from the campaign.  As I’ll be discussing soon, it was this discontent which cost the campaign dearly.  By contrast, Republican delegates from neighboring districts, Brenda Pogge (96th) and Glenn Oder (94th) rallied behind Delegate Hamilton.  In addition, during the final days of the campaign, Representative Wittman showed up at headquarters to offer his support.  At the end of the day, neither standing with or against Phil Hamilton cost any other candidate his or her position.

On Election Day itself, while working at one of the precincts, I had the opportunity to speak to our opponent, as she was always called.  Was it harmful to the campaign to call her by her name, Robin Abbott?  We discussed a handful of subjects and I brought up ODU.  She mentioned how she didn’t want the ODU situation to dominate the election and, in general, I think her campaign stuck to that plan.  For all the literature that the Abbott campaign paid, I don’t recall seeing a piece focusing mainly on ODU.  The same could not be said, however, for direct mailings created by the Democratic Party of Virginia, the Virginia Education Association, and other related groups.  Several times a week, these organizations would bombard the district with literature slamming Delegate Hamilton over ODU.  Rather than highlight anything positive about Robin Abbott, far more frequently they would find some guilty-looking picture of Delegate Hamilton, add a picture of a hand in a cookie jar or innocent school children and bam, instant sensationalism.  Don’t vote for this guy, he’s a crook…a creep…a bad guy!  Negative campaigning at its finest. The whole affair was rather like a scab.  Just as soon as you would think the issue healed and forgotten, it would be torn open again and exposed to the open air.  It was 2006 all over again.  How can you win in such an environment?

The bottom line is this:  I am convinced that apart from the ODU scandal Delegate Hamilton would have easily won reelection.

Check back for Part III.