Gov. Larry Hogan’s attack on Democratic opponent Ben Jealous as someone who will “release thousands of violent and dangerous criminals into our neighborhoods” was extended into fliers arriving in Baltimore City mailboxes this week.
While the discipline and focus of Team Hogan’s messaging during the campaign is impressive, the echo of that message with an infamous and racist ad used by George H.W. Bush to win the presidency in 1988 is troubling.
The media war this election season is going to be ugly, thanks to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy — both because of the upheaval caused by his retirement and because of his decision in Citizens United.
In this media age lived at the intersection of TV and digital platforms, fliers sent via snail mail are often overlooked. But they are still considered extremely important in Maryland politics. Remember the attack fliers between supporters of Catherine Pugh and Sheila Dixon in our last mayoral election — another proud moment in Baltimore political and civic history?
The cover page features a color photo of a smiling, shirt-sleeved Hogan in a crowd shaking hands. The message is a traditional one for incumbents: “Larry Hogan is changing Maryland. He needs your vote to finish the job. Governor Hogan needs your help.”
But when you open it, you see a black and white vertical image of Jealous filling half of the next page with type on the rest of it.
“The other side is planning to turn out to vote in record numbers to support Ben Jealous’ extreme agenda,” it says. “Don’t let them win. Stand up against Ben Jealous and his plan to: Dramatically raise your taxes. Nearly double the state budget. Release thousands of violent and dangerous criminal into our neighborhoods.”
On the next page under the heading, “The choice is clear,” the flier says: “Larry Hogan signed legislation to increase jail time for repeat violent offenders to keep them off our streets. Ben Jealous wants to cut our public safety budget in half and release thousands of dangerous criminals from jail.”
In their one TV debate, Jealous called Hogan out for such attacks.
“From Willie Horton to Donald Trump, your party plays from the same playbook,” Jealous said. “We see it in the hateful ads you’ve been running for months. You try to scare people, sir, because you don’t have a plan ...”
The Willie Horton reference was to a racist ad during the 1988 election featuring an African-American convict named Willie Horton that Republican candidate George H.W. Bush used to beat Democrat Michael Dukakis.
In 1986, while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, Horton, who was serving a life sentence for murder, was given a weekend furlough from prison as part of a program supported by Dukakis. While on furlough, Horton escaped and raped a woman and assaulted her fiance in Maryland.
Note how the adjective “dangerous” is used in the flier in connection with the criminals Hogan claims Jealous wants to release. Note also how the word “our” is used.
The dark imagery for Jealous was quickly established by Team Hogan in Facebook ads just days after the Democrat’s win in the primary. It was extended exponentially on TV with more than $1.2 million in ads from the Republican Governors Association airing in Baltimore during July alone.
The Hogan campaign has objected strongly any time it believes critics are insinuating that it is using racist themes or imagery — even in its response to this post, in which I was careful not to call the flier “racist.” The Hogan camp insists that its claim that Jealous’ plan to reduce the prison population would “release thousands of violent and dangerous criminals into our neighborhoods” is factually accurate. They point to a Sun story on Jealous’ plan that quotes Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, saying, “My concern about lowering the prison population below where it is now is we’d have to look at letting out violent offenders, and that’s something I would oppose.”
But here’s the thing: Jealous has said he would not release violent and dangerous criminals but believes the prison population can be substantially reduced while enhancing public safety. The Hogan campaign is certainly free to argue with Jealous’ math on how low the prison population can go and how much can be saved, but arguing that he wants to “release thousands of violent and dangerous criminals into our neighborhoods” is another matter altogether.