When a Campaign Issue Suddenly Isn't an Issue

You’re the incumbent mayor, running for re-election.

Polls show you down some 20 points. Your articulate, aggressive opponent accuses you of corruption, citing a four-year-long probe of allegations about political fund raising and the awarding of city contracts. Your opponent constantly reminds the voters that your deputy mayor — formerly your chief campaign fund-raiser — resigned over allegations that he steered city contracts to your political donors.

You fire back, noting that nine years ago your opponent wrote a letter to President Clinton in which, you say, your opponent wanted leniency for a man who turned out to be a convicted drug dealer. In short, this is one nasty race.

How nasty? Your city’s major newspaper editorializes: “(I)nstead of hearing what’s best for the city, voters get an earful about who would be worse. Just think what that will do to turnout, a dismal 26 percent in the primary.”

“Make no mistake,” says your opponent, “this is the most investigated administration in Los Angeles history since the 1930s.” You blast your challenger for putting his kids in private schools, while not doing enough, as a politician, to fight for state aid to public schools. “Because you failed that test of leadership,” you say, “you took your kids out of the public school system.”

But wait. An aide informs you that — as a young man — your opponent took the State Bar Examination to obtain a law license four times. What’s more, your opponent, currently a city councilman, to date has never passed the exam. And the failure of inner-city public schools has become a major campaign issue. Question: Do you use against your opponent his failure — after four tries — to pass the California bar?

Is the issue relevant? Does your opponent’s failure to pass the bar render him unqualified to run for mayor of a major city? Of course not. But you could, for example, question your opponent’s commitment to higher school standards. Given the city’s 50 percent inner-city dropout rate, your opponent’s position on, for example, requiring high-school students to take exit exams might be worth hearing about.

Also, your opponent attended UCLA and credits his success, in part, to UCLA’s “affirmative action program.” What’s wrong with expecting that someone who attends UCLA, presumably at least in part at taxpayers’ expense, and goes on to law school will, in fact, at some point pass his bar exam?

So, do you use against your opponent the fact that he took and flunked the bar examination four times? A little more information. The players in this nasty race are real. The city is Los Angeles, and the incumbent mayor is a white man named James Hahn. His challenger, a Latino, is a city councilman named Antonio Villaraigosa.

If elected, Villaraigosa would become the first Latino mayor in the city of Los Angeles since the 1870s.

Let’s turn it around.

Suppose Antonio Villaraigosa is the incumbent mayor, and he faces a challenge from a successful, white politician. But this successful white politician took and flunked the bar four times, never passing it. Are we supposed to believe that Villaraigosa wouldn’t bring this up?

Face it. There’s a no-fly zone over challenging Villaraigosa’s academic background. Why? Hahn fears being labeled racist if he dares raise this question against his Latino opponent. Sadly, this shows that the mayor does not treat his opponent as an equal. He sees Villaraigosa as a member of a protected class, not as an individual opponent with strengths and weaknesses.

Few critics had a problem calling President George W. Bush “stupid.” As a white, male, Southern, Christian Republican, Bush enjoys no hands-off treatment. Though he attended Yale and received an MBA from Harvard, Bush’s critics constantly call him “dumb.”

On election night, Newsweek wrote about a frustrated candidate John Kerry, who said, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot.” During the campaign, when Bush suffered a bicycle accident, Kerry said: “What happened? Did his training wheels fall off?” Martin Sheen called the president “a moron.” Cartoonist Aaron McGruder pronounced him a “functional illiterate.”

Here’s another recent example of why politicians tiptoe around minorities lest they get called “racist.” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an interview with newspaper publishers, said the borders “should be closed.” He discussed, among other things, President Bush’s proposal for a guest worker program. But never mind, the fit hit the shan.

California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat, said, “When comments like that are made, racism once again tries to surface its ugly head upon the people of the state of California.”

Schwarzenegger promptly apologized, calling his remark a “total screw-up,” said he meant “secure” the border and, incredibly, blamed the mistake on the fact that English is not his first language.

Moral to the story? Certain minorities are perceived to be too weak, fragile, insecure or unintelligent to be treated as equals. So much for content of character.