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Maine Democrats seek laws to restrict negative ads

By The Associated Press


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Saying they were victimized by "extreme negative campaigning" during the election cycle that earlier this month, legislative Democrats in Maine say they want new laws to prevent such attacks in the future.

And in South Dakota, a Rapid City lawmaker says he wants to put restrictions on political advertising as well, saying residents of that state are tired of long and loud campaigns such as this year's race for U.S. Senate.

The Maine legislation has not been formalized yet, but Democratic lawmakers there say they would like it to include provisions aimed at identifying the sources of the negative ads and disclosing candidates who stand to benefit.

Democrats also said they would like to close loopholes they say allow some ads to qualify as "issue advocacy," thereby skirting certain disclosure requirements.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Sharon Treat of Gardiner said mailings targeting Democrats and distributed late in the last campaign by a Republican-backed political action committee were "sleazy" and spread "outright lies."

Democrats warned that inaction would lead to escalation of negative advertising and further heighten voter cynicism toward politics. And independent Gov. Angus King, discussing the issue separately, warned that what's become a national pattern of negative advertising by both sides could keep good people from running for office.

"The people of Maine deserve better than what they got in this past election cycle," said state Sen. Michael McAlevey, a Waterboro Democrat who was defeated on Nov. 5.

While both parties traded attack ads in races for top-of-the-ticket offices in Maine, Democrats said on Nov. 13 that they did not resort to negative advertising in any legislative campaigns.

Republicans did not take issue with that, but said the Democrats have been behind some hard-hitting ads in previous campaigns that leave them little right to point fingers.

"I think they're being a little bit pious," said House Minority Leader Joe Bruno, R-Raymond.

Bruno cited an ad showing a picture of a battered woman and gun and implying that a Republican candidate's votes on certain legislation contributed to domestic violence.

Bruno's assistant GOP floor leader, state Rep. William Schneider, raised concerns about a Democratic proposal calling for a ban on negative advertising within 10 days of an election. Democrats say the rule would protect candidates from being blindsided by attack ads and left with insufficient time to respond.

Schneider said the proposal would seem to violate free speech

"A lot of lawyers are going to look at a lot of drafts before this legislation sees the light of day," acknowledged the Democrat who suggested the idea, state Rep. Chris Hall of Bristol, whose Senate race against Alna Republican Leslie Fossel is being scheduled for a ballot recount.

Pamela Hatch, a Skowhegan Democrat who won a state Senate seat, said slick brochures caught every candidate who was targeted off-guard.

Noting that she represents the hometown of Margaret Chase Smith, Hatch said the longtime U.S. senator "would have turned over in her grave if she'd seen what went on in this last election."

The Democratic legislation would be offered during the 2003-04 session.

Meanwhile in South Dakota, Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli is writing a bill that would limit advertising on radio and television stations to no more than 60 days before a primary or general election.

"I'm proposing this because of what has happened in South Dakota in the last year and one-half with the incessant political advertising, and because anybody is naive who doesn't think it's going to happen again," said Napoli, who says he has started to look for legislative support and sponsors.

"The political hacks will try to shove this under the table, but I believe this is what people want, this or something like it. We've had enough."

Others say the proposal may seem like a good idea in the wake of the Nov. 5 general election. But they point out that laws and court rulings are careful to protect political free speech, no matter what form it takes.

"You can do what he's suggesting in England, where they limit campaigns, but in this country we have this thing called the Constitution that protects speech," said Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican senator-elect from Watertown.

Napoli said he asked acquaintances with legal training about the proposal and got varying responses.

"Some said it was clearly unconstitutional, but others said it might be possible," Napoli said. "We restrict forms of political advertising, such as placement of yard signs, good taste on content of billboards, and we have some restrictions on advertising generally. This idea is worth talking about. I think any citizen would tell you that."

David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association in Brookings, doubts the viability of the proposal.

"I agree people are tired of campaign ads on their television back to back to back and day after day, but this kind of thing just has too many free-speech issues," he said.

Steve Willard of Pierre, lobbyist for the South Dakota Broadcasters Association, agreed with Bordewyk.

"We'd absolutely oppose it," he said. "It's ludicrous."

Napoli said the restrictions would help restore credibility in the political process.

"I'm probably going to put it in the hopper and let people have the discussion," he said.