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CAMPAIGN 2000

Effort by Bush Supporter Shines Light on 'Issue Ads'

March 05, 2000|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Feb. 22, John McCain defeated George W. Bush in the Michigan and Arizona primaries, stunning the Republican establishment. Three days later, Texas businessman and Bush backer Sam Wyly, under a group he formed called Republicans for Clean Air, bought more than $2 million worth of TV ads nationwide lambasting McCain and praising Bush.

Wyly had plenty of cash. On the same day as the Michigan upset, he had sold off Sterling Commerce, a business software company, for $3.9 billion.

Wyly and his brother have donated $210,000 to Bush's gubernatorial races. But now, under federal election law, Wyly could only give $1,000 to Bush's presidential bid. Watchdog groups say Wyly is an example of how increasing numbers of wealthy individuals, corporations and others are getting around federal election law by running so-called issue ads that indirectly help candidates they support.

Issue ads are supposed to address a specific concern, such as abortion rights or the environment. But many target candidates as well. The stage was set by the Supreme Court in 1976, which ruled that if words like "vote for," "vote against" or "defeat" were not used in ads, then they were issue-advocacy ads, not subject to campaign finance laws.

Wyly's ads criticize John McCain's environmental record and praise the record of George W. Bush. But they do not say "vote for Bush" or "vote against McCain."

Experts say that a booming economy and a negative reaction to McCain's campaign finance reform efforts have rapidly increased use of issue ads in the primaries. Under McCain's reforms, such ads would not be allowed to run within 60 days of an election.

"We're going to see an unprecedented number of these ads," said Darrell West of Brown University, who studies campaign ads in presidential elections.

So far this election, in addition to the Sierra Club and anti-abortion groups that regularly run issue ads, the National Smokers Alliance, the Republican Leadership Council, Americans for Tax Reform and Hands Across New Jersey have all broadcast issue ads attacking presidential candidates.

With the exception of the Sierra Club, all the ads have either attacked Bush's rivals, praised him, or both. In every case, the Bush campaign has said it had no prior knowledge of the ads.

Critics also complain that there is no requirement for groups sponsoring issue ads to reveal the source of their money. Wyly disclosed Friday that he was paying for the ads, a day after McCain filed complaints with the FCC and TV stations running them, demanding more information on who was paying.

The ad's producer, Rob Allyn, insisted the spots are issue ads. But asked why Wyly had decided to produce the ads, Allyn attributed it to "the fact that this election was seen as being in the balance [between Bush and McCain] a week ago."

Allyn noted that Wyly, who has made a fortune running the Bonanza Steakhouse and Michael's Crafts chains, is now working on GreenMountain.com, billed as the nation's largest retailer of alternative energy sources.

The ads attack McCain for voting against solar and other energy measures, and praise Bush for cracking down on polluting coal-burning electricity plants. Those plants are GreenMountain.com's main competition. Environmental groups claim Bush has a poor record on pollution.

McCain has voted for and against alternative energy legislation. Speaking at a rally Saturday, he said that the ads running in California, New York and Ohio days before those states' primaries proved the need for campaign finance reform.

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