When sitting legislators run for office, it’s always fair game for their opponents to point out the conflict of interest between a politician’s thirst for campaign cash and his or her role in passing or blocking legislation. But there is a difference between highlighting potential conflicts and declaring that a legislator actively intervened on behalf of a contributor. Make that latter charge without the goods to back it up, and you’re going to have some trouble with the Claim Check needle.
That is the problem with a new ad from Congressional candidate Dan Roberti that takes aim at political donations received by fellow Democrat Chris Donovan, the current Connecticut speaker of the House. Raising the issue is well within bounds; if Donovan were running for re-election, it wouldn’t even be legal for him to accept donations from businesses with interests before the legislature. But Donovan is seeking the open Fifth District Congressional seat, which allows him to get around that restriction. That opens a political vulnerability, and late last week, Roberti pounced.
“House Speaker Chris Donovan took money from a fight promoter, then green-lighted ultimate fighting,” says the narrator of Roberti’s ad, while a man vaguely resembling Donovan accepts a fat envelope and nervously stashes it in his coat pocket.
“Took money from tanning bed operators,” the narrator continues, “then killed a bill that protected kids from skin cancer.”
Those are fairly serious charges, so let’s break them down. For both assertions, the ad includes a citation to an April story in the Torrington Register Citizen. That piece accurately reports that Donovan’s Congressional campaign received $1,000 from the Indoor Tanning Association and another $1,000 from a PAC run by the parent company of an organization called the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The tanning bill, which would have prohibited children under 18 from using tanning beds, was the subject of a public hearing last February, but the leadership of the Public Health Committee never put it to a vote. The mixed martial arts bill, which would allow such matches throughout the state, had passed through one legislative committee at the time of the article, and went on to be approved by two more committees, with overwhelming and bipartisan support. But it never came up for a full vote, and with or without Donovan’s support, it was actually dead long before Roberti’s ad ran. Donovan is not a member of any of the committees that considered or voted on either bill.
So what’s the basis for claiming that Donovan “green-lighted” one bill and “killed” the other? “The background and basis for that is that he’s speaker of the House,” said Erik Williams, Roberti’s campaign manager. “Speaker of the House controls the flow of legislation.”
The speaker’s power is well understood at the Capitol, and few would challenge the assertion that he could affect the prospects for a piece of legislation if he tried. But this ad asserts that Donovan not only had the power to determine the fate of these bills, but actually exercised that power to move one along and block the other.
Williams acknowledged the campaign had no specific evidence that Donovan threw his weight around on the tanning or martial arts bills. “I just refer back to the article on that. That would be my basis for it,” Williams said.
But the Register Citizen story never asserts that Donovan played a role in the outcome of either bill. To the contrary, reporter Jordan Fenster wrote: “Any suggestion that Donovan could have influenced the progress or stalling of any of these bills probably ascribes too much power to the House speaker. Though he is influential, the legislative process is one that requires a village, and Donovan, House speaker though he may be, is not all powerful.”
The ad also takes a quick swipe at another primary opponent, Elizabeth Esty, with the line: “Elizabeth Esty took money from polluters her husband regulates.” Esty is married to Daniel Esty, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Among donations to her campaign are several, totaling $2,500, from two high-ranking employees of NRG Energy, Inc., which operates several power plants in the state. Based on those contributions alone, that part of the ad is fair.
Throughout the ad, the Donovan figure (and later, the Esty figure) is holding a leather briefcase billowing smoke. After making its claims about the tanning bed and martial arts legislation (and asking: “Any surprise the FBI just busted his campaign for taking $27,000 to kill a roll-your-own tobacco bill?”), the ad offers up its take-away line, with a message that reads, “Where there’s smoke…”
It’s a clever allusion to roll-your-own cigarette scandal that has led to the arrest of Donovan’s former campaign manager and finance director, among others. And it serves as an invitation to voters to finish the sentence and see fire in that smoke, concluding for themselves that there is a quid pro quo between campaign contributors and the powerful politicians they support.
Williams says that’s the implication the ad was going for. “It’s more about the fact that he took money from these interests that are before the legislature. And if he was running for his own state House seat, they would be illegal,” he said. “That’s the main point that we wanted to make on this.”
A message like that – suggesting a link between donation and action – would be fair political jousting. But Roberti’s ad goes a significant step further in declaring that Donovan actively promoted or blocked the legislative initiatives that affected his political benefactors. The campaign does not have specific evidence to support that charge, and in the absence of that evidence, we rate this ad overall as Somewhat Misleading.
Watch Roberti’s ad below. And click here for more information on Claim Check.