When I ran for U.S. Congress against Bill McCollum in 1996 and 1998, my wife's worst nightmare was not that I would lose, but that I would be the victim of a smear campaign that would drag me into the muck that has always oozed just above the bedrock of the American political system. I told her not to worry -- I would only be denigrated by my opponent, or his supporters, if I posed a threat to his incumbency. McCollum's polls obviously promised him a comfortable margin of victory, so both my races remained relatively clean and upbeat.
This past winter, eschewing another run for public office, I worked as a paid staff member for the Bruce Gordy for Mayor campaign. What I saw, from this vantage point in Orlando's first contested mayoral election in a generation, was my wife's worst nightmare come true. There are many reasons why our campaign did not achieve victory -- some of them our own fault -- but it is clear to me that a major factor was the intensely personal and negative campaign waged against us, not only by incumbent Mayor Glenda Hood but by other powers in The City Beautiful that considered Bruce Gordy a threat.
And unlike my previous candidacies, Gordy was a threat, and not just to Hood. Clearly, he also was a threat to the town's only daily newspaper, which had championed much of Hood's agenda over the years. In politics, threats need to be destroyed, and no device is too negative or too unseemly. The record shows that Hood and her main surrogate, the Orlando Sentinel, worked in tandem to defeat Gordy -- employing innuendo, false reporting, derisive advertising and bold-faced lies in order to succeed.
In fact, although the polls did not close until 7 p.m. on March 14, the race for mayor was actually over on a sunny Saturday morning some three weeks earlier. On that day, Feb. 26, Gordy's insurgent challenge against Hood began the long slide to defeat, following an above-the-fold headline in the Sentinel that read: "Gordy says he lied about Hood."
Those six words were enough to arrest the growing momentum of Gordy's campaign, sending him into a tailspin from which he never recovered. Even though Gordy denied ever saying he lied, and even though several of the refutations made by Gordy's adversaries were, themselves, later recanted, the Sentinel stood by its story. The stain on Gordy's character was indelible; the assault on his veracity, successful. (Many of our election-day poll workers reported that people told them they simply could not vote for a "liar.")
Meanwhile, back at the Sentinel, columnist Myriam Marquez chimed in, calling the 50-year-old dentist, civic leader and elected official "Brucey-boy." So full of vitriol must her editors have been that Marquez's final character-assassinating column actually came out the day after the election!
Over the weeks that followed the inaccurate headline, the Hood campaign piled on its own attacks, sending out mailers that quoted all of the Sentinel's growing cache of disparaging coverage. From the front page, to the editorials, to the columns, the negative ink bled right onto Hood's mail pieces. All she had to do was cut and paste.
Conversely, while the paper continued to hit Gordy for "taking the low road," it persisted in portraying Hood as the candidate of honesty and integrity -- regardless of the evidence. When Gordy was maligned in a Hood mailer that quoted deceased ex-City Commissioner Nap Ford, saying that a Gordy vote against spending $75,000 of taxpayers' money on a football game between two black colleges smacked of "racism," the paper's editorial writers were silent.
The Sentinel's own "adwatch" feature never rebuked Hood's final TV spot, a shameless blast at Gordy that brought howls of protest even from some of her own supporters. In the end, the campaign that complained most loudly of being victimized by negative attacks -- but actually was launching them itself with devastating acumen, and in seeming connivance with the newspaper -- garnered 55 percent of the vote. Orlando's "nastiest" race in years was over. The threat was destroyed.
Since our commonwealth began, our political campaigns have served as the background for dirty tricks, lies, smears and all sorts of chicanery and skullduggery. The mayor's race proves that Orlando has joined the mainstream of this sad American tradition. And though it is unfortunate but predictable that a campaign might wage a negative attack on an honorable opponent, it is unforgivable that our city's newspaper would so willingly and so partially join in the fray.
One wonders why anyone would choose to run against the status quo in this town ever again. What a nightmare.