A provocative radio ad has ignited debate over negative campaigning and threatened to consume the primary race between two Democratic candidates for the 9th District seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Dr. Travis Calhoun, a local Jennie Stuart Medical Center physician turned politician, paid for a 60-second radio spot that accuses his opponent, retired district judge Peter Macdonald, of being soft on child molesters. Calhoun, 44, defends his commercial as fair criticism of the judge’s record.
To Macdonald, however, the ad is classic “character assassination.” He alleges the information presented is woefully distorted because it is stripped of any context — even essential details such as whether decisions were his or a jury’s.
Macdonald, 58, further contends that he never has nor ever will engage in negative campaigning, a claim that Calhoun disputes in light of revelations about his own medical record.
The ad that started all the fuss lists six cases, which, according to Calhoun, demonstrate Macdonald “handed down the lightest sentences for unspeakable crimes.”
Each case is summed up in two sentences. The first sentence briefly states the charge; the second the jail time Macdonald meted out. In one case, the defendant spent only nine days in jail.
Absent is any information about the degree of the offense or about the conditions of the convict’s release.
“You can’t fit all that into just one minute,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun acquired the information from the Attorney General’s office with the help of a Frankfort consultant firm known as the Stewart Media Group. The same firm also produced Calhoun’s commercials. Calhoun said he would not have authorized the ad if his investigation had turned up only a handful of questionable cases.
“These six cases [in the radio ad] were out of 20,” Calhoun said.
Macdonald’s own ads claim that Calhoun’s interpretation of his record does not add up. He listed several high-level appointments such as being picked to serve as chief judge of western Kentucky for 17 years and being invited to join a national task force on domestic violence as evidence that his judicial record was impeccable.
“Why would the state Supreme Court or the U.S. Department of Justice entrust me with such great responsibility if I wasn’t following the law or failing to protect children?” Macdonald asked rhetorically.
As to the cases cited in the ad, Macdonald said his opponent was extremely selective with facts. He pointed out that the ad failed to distinguish between an initial charge and a final conviction.
For example, one of the cases referred to “an offender … charged with the raping of a child.” A New Era examination of court documents revealed that the case ended with the defendant pleading guilty to a sexual misconduct misdemeanor. This lesser charge can include such acts as touching someone’s buttocks or genitals without consent.
All six of the featured cases by Calhoun began as felony charges but were settled with guilty pleas to misdemeanor crimes.
The decision to downgrade a felony charge to a misdemeanor did not represent the solitary opinion of a single judge, Macdonald said. The only way the district court could handle its load of roughly 5,000 cases per year was a joint decision-making process.
Every plea bargain relied on the input of attorneys, investigating police officers, social workers and, most importantly, the consent of the victim’s family, Macdonald said.
He sentenced the 23-year-old man in the above case to 10 days to jail and to nearly 12 months of probation which included mandatory enrollment in a sex offender treatment program.
Although Macdonald could not recall the specifics of this case none of 150,000 in his career — he did say that, in some instances, treatment offered a better solution than jail time because it helped to change behavior.
Christian County Attorney Mike Foster’s team of prosecutors has tried thousands of cases in district court. Foster confirmed both Macdonald’s account of joint decision-making and treatment-centered sentences in sex abuse cases.
“Sometimes a victim’s family accepts the plea bargain to a lesser charge because they would rather the perpetrator get counseling than put their child on the witness stand in a trial,” Foster said.
Behind the ads
Macdonald suspected that the convenient omission of such context had something to do with the methods employed by Calhoun’s ad agency.
According to some state political observers, the Stewart Media Group has a reputation for taking negative campaigning to new depths.
In the fall of 2002, Stewart produced a television ad on behalf of a candidate for property valuation administrator in Floyd County at the eastern end of the state. The ad attracted national attention because it included footage of his client’s opponent in a sex video.
“Ray Stewart (the owner of the firm) pushes the envelope,” said Al Cross, who was a political writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal for over 15 years.
Cross, now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, knows Stewart personally and acquired his impressions while covering campaigns throughout the state.
“He understands how to put together an effective political message,” Cross said. “And that leads him to run some outrageously negative ads.”
While such tactics failed to win the Floyd county candidate his race, Stewart said negative ads have won races elsewhere. The television ads he produced during a 2004 campaign for Supreme Court of Kentucky contributed to Janet Stumbo’s loss. Stewart also claimed a hand in the electoral defeats of incumbents such as Dave Barber and Pat McCuiston.
McCuiston was unseated in 1993 after Sen. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville hired Stewart’s services and launched a series of negative ads.
“When people get in trouble in their cases, I’m the one they call,” Stewart said. “I have a record of defeating incumbents.”
He explained that although Macdonald is not an incumbent, the judge he has a local record that gives him an advantage over Calhoun.
For all the controversy his commercials foment, Stewart said he bases every word of his ads upon solid research. His company has earned nearly 50 national awards to prove it, he said.
A new wrinkle in the race emerged when a background check of Calhoun turned up knowledge that the state medical licensing board placed a restriction on Calhoun’s ability to prescribe medication.
In 2005, the board ruled that Calhoun could no longer write prescriptions for family members after it was discovered that he had regularly prescribed and delivered a narcotic called Oxycontin to a sister-in-law with multiple sclerosis.
State rules prohibit prescription between family members because it is viewed as a conflict of interest. Calhoun protested by saying the patient was not a “direct” family member.
He also presented the board with a letter from the ethics committee at the Jennie Stuart Medical Center in his defense.
The letter, dated May 11, 2004, argues that the American Medical Association and the Kentucky Medical Association are silent on prescriptions to indirect family members. It further makes the case that as long as a legitimate doctor-patient relationship exists, treatment and prescription to family members “should not be a problem.”
Nevertheless, the board ruled against Calhoun and restricted his license indefinitely. He is still able to practice medicine.
“If the worse thing I ever do is take care of sick, crippled people in my own family and take a lump for it, then so be it,” Calhoun said.
When Calhoun became aware of whisperings about the restriction, he accused Macdonald of spreading the information.
“He wants this stuff to come out without it looking like he’s the source of it,” Calhoun said.
Macdonald reaffirmed his commitment to a clean, issues-centered campaign.
“I said I won’t speak negatively, and I mean that,” Macdonald said.
In last week’s debate, Macdonald did recommend that someone investigate Calhoun’s record. The judge did not, however, offer any information as to what such research might find. Macdonald also declined to comment on Calhoun’s license when asked directly about it.
Macdonald did disclose that he has received significant contributions and calls of support since Calhoun’s ads began.
“Just today someone called up and said, ‘I just heard this on the radio. I know this isn’t the way you did court cause I have been in your court before. What can I do to help you?’” Macdonald shared.
The voters’ verdict on the ads will be revealed at Tuesday’s primary election. The winner moves on to face Christian County magistrate and Republican candidate Myron Dossett in the November general election.
JOE PARRINO can be reached at 887-3239 or by e-mail at email@example.com.