A dozen years ago, I was completing my stint leading a national election-ethics project, encouraging candidates to negotiate, sign, and abide by “clean campaign” pledges. It was, as you might imagine, an uphill battle. I was excited when a group in Toledo, Ohio, picked up the idea on their own and pressed for the 2001 mayoral race — which was getting quite brutal in the context of the times — to adopt such a pledge.
Great civic movements start in the unlikeliest of places — the front section of the Montgomery bus from which Rosa Parks refused to move, the Sacramento steak house where Mothers Against Drunk Driving first met, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio’s filibuster began the Free Speech Movement. To these history may one day allow us to add another: the restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of citizens met one night last August to discuss what they could do to demand a better quality of political campaign.
After a particularly tense debate between the mayoral candidates, the local daily newspaper, the Toledo Blade, had called on the front-runners (Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest and state representative Jack Ford) to sign a code of conduct to help keep the campaign out of the mud. To the surprise of many observers, they agreed. Brought together by the Toledo League of Women Voters, a group of citizens came together at Mountain Jack’s restaurant on the outskirts of town for the first of many meetings devoted to monitoring the code. Thus was born the Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee.
It was an effort that succeeded where many thought it would fail. By the end of the campaign, the talk radio hosts who had derided the committee were quoting it, and the Blade would only cover accusations of negative campaigning if the committee had already weighed in.
Since that time, the nascent, local effort has had its ups and downs. The Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee disbanded in 2004 under the weight of little public notice and other political interests its members wanted to pursue. Campaigns continued to increase in intensity and nastiness. But the Toledo Blade continued the effort after a fashion, calling on every mayoral candidate since then to adopt the pledge, and then holding them to its standards.
So I was delighted when I saw this week’s Blade editorial, calling on the current candidates for mayor to agree to and abide by a pledge:
As we have done during every Toledo mayoral campaign since 2001, The Blade is publicly challenging the general-election candidates to sign the Clean Campaign Pledge developed by the Institute of Global Ethics, a Maine-based nonpartisan group that promotes ethical behavior and integrity in public and private life.
The voluntary pledge appears on this page. Its language hasn’t changed since the institute composed it 15 years ago, but political campaigns at all levels surely have. They’ve gotten nastier, dirtier, less transparent, more polarized, and much more awash in money for go-for-the jugular TV ads.
Negative campaigning often does more to alienate voters than to educate them. And as the shameful 15-percent turnout for last week’s Toledo primary makes clear, we can’t afford to turn off any more voters.
That’s why this year’s campaign between Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, needs to be civil and respectful — of the candidates as well as of voters’ intelligence. The contenders must focus on issues and ideas, rather than personal insults and toxic attacks.
. . .
In its coverage of this year’s campaign, The Blade will continue to fact-check what the candidates say, whether or not they sign the pledge. If we see bad behavior, we’ll call the candidates on it.
In past campaigns, independent citizens’ groups reviewed candidates’ compliance with the pledge they had signed, and investigated and publicized charges of violations. It would be great if similar watchdogs emerged in the remaining weeks of this campaign, but it’s getting late.
Kudos to The Blade for keeping this effort going. Culture change can be a thankless business and it takes time.
Thank you for my friend and colleague Paula Mirk for passing on the news.