The Tennessee Democratic Party charged this week that Republican congressional candidate Steve Gill misused campaign money to make a payment on his Ford Explorer. Apparently, party Chairman Will T. Cheek wasn’t firing off just another half-baked partisan shot. The attack was effective. It got some coveragebut it didn’t deserve to.
During election seasons, political parties and campaigns are endlessly firing off press releases making all sorts of claims and charging that candidates have essentially violated the law for their own personal gains. The fax machines stay especially busy in races like Gill’s, which in 1994 was an eyelash shy2,000 votesof sending Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon back home to Murfreesboro. Now Gill is back, and the Democratic Party is trying to keep the wolf from getting too close to the door.
In the heat of these campaigns, candidates are all too successful at manipulating the media. Too often, reporters are guilty of simply printing the accusation, calling the opposing campaign for comment, and letting that be that. Not enough effort is expended trying to find out whether the charge is grounded. Sometimes it’s a story, but sometimes it isn’t.
Such was the case when Cheek charged that the Gill campaign’s $2,500 expenditure to a car dealership for lease of a Ford Explorer was improper. Cheek also announced that he was planning to file an FEC complaint about the matter.
In fact, there is no evidence the Gill campaign did anything wrong. Federal Election Commission officials, speaking in generalities, say that as long as campaigns document disbursements and as long as campaign money is not being spent for a candidate’s personal use, such payments are legal.
“There was clearly an attempt by Gill to bury this report in his FEC report,” Cheek’s release said of the payment to Wiles Ford Mercury of Lewisburg. “You can only reimburse the candidate or campaign staff for travel expenses. Wiles Ford Mercury does not work for the Gill campaign and never traveled anywhere. Gill simply cut a campaign check to cover his car payment and hoped no one would notice.”
The Gill campaign defends the payment and says the FEC was consulted about how to document the transaction.
“Naturally, we wouldn’t have made the payment or disclosed it if we thought it was wrong,” says Gill campaign manager Tony Grande. “We called the FEC at the time, and they said we were doing the right thing. We were following their rules.”
Gill leased the vehicle in question in 1993. It was his personal car, but, in a practice that state election officials say is common, he sought reimbursement from his campaign for mileage to campaign events. The lease was for three years. When it recently expired, Gill bought the car.
By the time the lease expired, Gill had driven the Ford about 54,000 miles. Approximately 20,000 miles involved travel to campaign events in the Sixth Congressional District. According to Grande, Gill sought reimbursement for 10,000 of those 20,000 miles, at 25 cents a mile, for a total of $2,500. As for the other $2,500 he was owed, Gill declared a tax deduction for that sum. Grande said Gill didn’t want the campaign to absorb a $5,000 expense and that $2,500 seemed like a more reasonable reimbursement.
Eyebrows were raised because the $2,500 check wasn’t written to Gill. It was written to the dealership at the time Gill bought the car. The $2,500 became part of the purchase; Gill then financed the rest of the purchase price himself.
The minor episode, which received dutiful treatment in the Tuesday Tennessean and more thorough coverage in a Banner story offering more details, presages a bitter race. While the Gill car-payment episode is a perfect example of a nonstory being presented as news, a recent charge from Democratic Congressman Bob Clement about his own Republican opponent is definitely worthy of attention.
After Republican opponent Steven Edmondson repeatedly challenged Clement to limit his campaign spending this year to $200,000, Clement responded by copying a letter to reporters explaining his reasons why he would not agree to a limit. That letter included a statement that Edmondson does not reside in Nashville.
At least one news story followed, saying Edmondson lives in Murfreesboro and teaches at Lebanon High School. Both Murfreesboro and Lebanon are outside the district. The reports also noted that Edmondson uses an Antioch post office box for his campaign address.
Edmondson responded by saying that because he is a Nashville native, not to mention the fact that he purchases season tickets to Vanderbilt football and basketball games, he is qualified to represent the Fifth District.
Now that’s a story.
If the shoe fits
Political junkies are buzzing over two public art exhibits on display through the end of September at the Nashville Airport.
After a tour to San Diego for the Republican National Convention, then to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for the Democratic National Convention, the Johnston and Murphy “Presidential Shoes” exhibit has landed here.
The company has handcrafted tailored shoes for every incoming president since 1850, most recently classic black wing tips and a pair of blue suede shoes for President Clinton. The exhibit displays the shoes of 12 former presidents and includes some personal notes from them. Shoe styles include Abraham Lincoln’s black chukka boot and Ronald Reagan’s classic cap toe.
Other past presidents represented in the exhibit are Ulysses Grant, Chester Arthur, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
Another exhibit, “The Art of Politics: The Ronnie Steine Collection,” is also on display at the airport. The Steine exhibit features the Metro Council member’s personal collection of political memorabilia, especially original artwork, rare posters, and buttons relating to national elections and Tennessee politicians.
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