Candidates dig deep into opponents’ pasts

Democrat Tim Keller (right) talks to Alex Weimer, campaign volunteer, as they await the results for the state auditor’s race at the Doubletree Hotel in Downtown Albuquerque on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (Taylor Mallak/NM News Port)

It’s no secret that politicians sometimes run negative campaign ads, but this seems to be the year for digging deep in the closet for skeletons.

For example, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez attacked her opponent, Gary King, on votes he cast in the New Mexico Legislature two decades ago.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall attacked his opponent, Allen Weh, for comments he made to the Ruidoso News in 2010.

And Democratic state auditor candidate Tim Keller reached to the back of the wardrobe for for his skeletons in his first campaign ad, titled “Car Wash”.
The ad, which includes many elements from the popular TV show Breaking Bad, stars Keller as the “clean choice” for the state and casts his Republican competitor, Robert Aragon, as a dirty lawyer.

The ad claims that Aragon was sued by clients for fraud and negligence four times. According to court records, Aragon was sued, but three of those cases were from nearly 20 years ago – in 1992, 1993, and 1997. Only one was recent – from 2007.

This is not a new strategy, said private political consultant Juan Carlos Holmes; however, a surprising number of candidates are employing it this year.

“This year seems to be the year of dredging up really old sins. I think it’s an aberration. I don’t think there’s any particular reason for it,” he said.

“In some cases, it’s possible some people are hoping that, if they go after older sins, their more recent sins won’t come up.”

In the case of Keller’s ad, one week after it was released, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that two of Aragon’s top contributors, Antoinette and James Greenlee were sentenced to five years’ probation for fraud charges. This information wasn’t mentioned in “Car Wash”, yet Keller’s campaign manager Alan Packman knew about the case at least a day before the story broke.

“In December, the (Greenlees) pled guilty to fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. He took their money in June. (Aragon)’s the attorney of record for Antoinette Greenlee,” Packman said in an interview on Oct. 21. “The Santa Fe New Mexican is breaking that tomorrow.”

Calls to Aragon were not returned.

Keller said he defends the decision to call Aragon’s past into question – especially the claims in the ad that Aragon failed to pay more than $250,000 in taxes. Those 12 cases are much newer – dating between 2000 and 2009.

“I think folks can decide for themselves if they think that matters or not,” he said.

The senator’s district

Another curious aspect of Keller’s ad is the “Breaking Bad” theme.
Keller is the state senator for residents living within the boundaries of Tramway and San Mateo Boulevards and Gibson and Lomas Boulevards, an area infamously known as the War Zone.

The area is hardly the epicenter of crime it had been in the early 2000s when the Albuquerque Police Department was reporting more than 20,000 crimes annually. According to crimemapping.com, Keller’s district has had just 415 violent or drug-related crimes in the last six months. The whole of the city has had more than 2,400 reports for the same types of crimes in the same time period.

While the unflattering War Zone title has stuck around, Keller’s own efforts did quite a bit in shedding that nickname. His first bill to reach the Senate floor after his 2009 election was to rename the area the International District, which Keller said he has done much to heal the reputation of the previously disparaged area.

Yet his ad uses themes and styles popularized by a television show that made the City of Albuquerque famous for drugs and violence.

But Keller said his ad focuses on fraud, waste and abuse rather than drugs and violence and has nothing to do with his district.

“Breaking Bad is popular in Albuquerque – regardless of what it’s about. And it’s been great for our economy,” he said. “It was really just a way to make it more memorable for folks.”

Residents in Keller’s district seem to feel the same way. Of two dozen people interviewed, none said they were particularly upset by the ad.

“As far as advertisements go, it was pretty neat,” said Levi Turner, who lives near Louisiana and Gibson Boulevards.

Turner said he thought it wasn’t a big deal that the ad used “Breaking Bad” as its theme. For him, it seemed like a way to highlight the general corruption in government.”

“I’m not upset with it, I’m not enthralled with it either. It’s just like ‘oh, politics,” he said.

Holmes, who has worked for various Democratic candidates, said the ad does open Keller to criticism from the Republican Party, but pointed out that it also spotlights one of New Mexico’s most prized industries – film.

“While ‘Breaking Bad’ itself may seem like a negative because of the subject matter; the industry – the film industry, obviously, not the meth industry – is very well looked upon in this town and in this state,” he said.

Holmes also said that anything that helps to win a candidate name recognition is a good thing, and that’s the point of a campaign ad. Voters, he said, won’t necessarily recognize a politician’s name – especially if it’s not a person running for a big ticket race.

“A campaign ad is a lot more penetration than door-to-door, meeting voters individually, than rallies,” Holmes said. “A campaign ad insists upon itself. People are watching their sitcoms or football or the news, and there’s always going to be commercials. So the campaign ad sits among that.”