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On “SurveyGate” And Silliness

By Greg L | 30 January 2015 | RPV, Virginia Politics, Virginia House | 6 Comments

Susan Stimpson is complaining about RPV sending out mailers on behalf of House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell’s re-election campaign dressed up as a “survey”, and newly-minted chairman John Whitbeck has gone on the offensive to defend the institution he now leads against her complaints.  That certainly creates an opportunity for bloggers of various ideological persuasions and personal affiliations to copy-and-paste the complaints of both sides and try to drive their enemies into the ground, but it doesn’t begin to address the issues this “surveygate” actually raises nor help Republicans develop a more effective Republican Party of Virginia.

I had hoped that Virginia blogs would do a better job thinking before reacting on this one, but they haven’t.  That just leaves a lot of (perhaps intentionally) mislead and confused people out there who armed with the sword of incompetence are poised to hack away at the wrong targets and guarantee the underlying problems here remain unaddressed while we learn more perfectly how to hate one another.

The whole episode clearly started when Speaker Bill Howell wanted to send a mailing out to his district supporting his re-election campaign and save some money while doing so, because the non-profit bulk postage rate that RPV is entitled to use, and candidates cannot themselves use, provides dramatic savings when you’re sending out a lot of mail.  A bulk rate piece that costs about $0.26 is $0.14 with a non-profit bulk mail permit, and when you send out over ten thousand of these things at once there’s a very significant financial advantage to using the non-profit rate.

It would be absolutely astonishing if RPV, which is always on the brink of insolvency, is throwing it’s scarce resources into printing and mailing campaign materials for the Speaker as the disclaimer on the mailing states.  They simply don’t have the money it would take to fund a campaign mail effort in a House of Delegates District.

Instead, as is almost always the case, the candidate shoots some money to the state party, which can roll out bulk mail on their behalf at a lower rate than a campaign is authorized to do, an often ignored but rather clear violation of Postal Service regulations and 39 U.S.C. 3626 (e).  The campaign finance disclosure required under Virginia’s campaign finance laws says that the mailing was paid for by the party, but the party was actually getting paid to do the mailing, acting as a vendor.  This “renting out your bulk mail permit” scheme involves having a campaign send a contribution to the state party, having the party send out a mailer on your behalf using their discounted bulk mail rates, and then fraudulently claiming that the mailing was paid for by the state party.  Howell, who has plenty of money, certainly paid for this mailer instead of RPV, which does not.  

Since this was going to be sent by the party instead of Howell’s campaign, it had to be cloaked as something reasonably constituent-service oriented rather than campaign-oriented, so in addition to the big picture of Bill and his wife’s smiling faces and a plea to either visit Howell’s website or mail something to them, was another one of the meaningless surveys we get from politicians that they use to build lists of potential supporters as they disregard whatever feedback they get from the carefully-worded questions that are designed to show how much you agree with them.  The claims that this is normal practice, that RPV spends it’s own money to send out meaningless surveys only to districts where primary challenges just happen to be going on is pretty silly.  Has anyone else gotten a multi-page survey from RPV asking constituents to get in touch with their local Delegate in any district other than the 28th?  Of course not.

“Last year, the General Assembly adopted a number of reforms to Virginia’s transparency, disclosure and ethics laws.  Those reforms included (a) creating a $250 gift cap, (b) creating a statewide ethics advisory commission, (c) requiring more frequent disclosures, (d) requiring all disclosure forms be posted online, (e) requiring mandatory ethics training for elected officials.  Which of the following do you believe? [Responses ask whether this went far enough]” - Howell “survey”

Hmm, you don’t think this is an exercise in persuasion, rather than a survey, do you?

The claim is that this was prepared weeks ago and somehow got delayed in the mail is also pretty funny.  Does anyone think that whoever got lavishly paid to produce and distribute this mailer is so thoroughly incompetent that they’d have mail arrive not days late, but weeks late?  These direct mail guys pride themselves on being able to get mail to arrive on a specific day, and they see it as a competitive advantage in the industry.  If some direct mail house is screwing up this badly, they deserve to go out of business. Since no one is telling us who the firm is that did the mailing, so they’d appropriately get destroyed for such a monumental screw-up, we don’t know who campaigns should hold accountable or avoid doing business with.  Perhaps they’re not throwing an innocent party under the bus that they intend to do business with in the future.  Actually, strike the “perhaps” there.  It’s a certainty.  They can’t extend the lie here far enough that anyone could actually respond to such a fanciful scenario as the mail house that gets stuff in people’s mailboxes two weeks late.  It would hurt favored innocent people, rather than the guilty.

The other curious aspect of the timing on all of this is that the mailing (when it actually went out rather than the claims) was immediately before John Whitbeck was elected as RPV Chairman, and everyone was focused on giving Pat Mullins a nice send off while trying to keep tabs on the utter chaos that happens during a General Assembly session.  If you’re a senior staffer with some authority and you want to pull a fast one to benefit the most powerful man right now in Republican politics right before your job might evaporate as a new Chairman considers changing who his key Lieutenants should be, this is the time to do it.  If key RPV staffers end up getting a nice jobs from Speaker Howell right after the session ends, you’ll know this is how they demonstrated an adequate level of loyalty to qualify for them.

John Whitbeck has dutifully stepped into the breach here to defend the actions of others in order to protect the image of the organization he now leads.  That’s admirable - falling on your sword for others when you had nothing to do at all with what happened.  It’s the highest order of leadership and selflessness, but I think it’s the wrong approach unless the whole point here is to quietly reform RPV and it’s culture without causing waves, in which case Republicans are not being made aware of the problems this whole episode reveals.  I wish John was taking this one by the horns, telling us we’ve got problems here, and telling us what he’s going to do to fix them.  It’s even possible that his response on all this was written by RPV staff, and he actually isn’t aware of what’s happened - yet.

Those problems are pretty significant.  The bulk mail permit rental scheme, while politically advantageous is ridiculously unethical.  If RPV aggregates state-wide contributions to run efficient bulk mail programs in support of Republican candidates in key districts, that’s good.  If it’s renting out their mail permit and acting like a campaign vendor to specific candidates, that’s a bad wrong that infects RPV with a culture of corruption that will reap rather bitter fruit.  If RPV staff is pulling fast one’s like this behind the scenes without the knowledge of the chairman, that’s horrible.  If candidates and RPV staff are getting the chairman to peddle lies in defense of the organization, that is unconscionable.  And that’s not to mention the whole issue of candidates, with RPV’s assistance, demonstrating that they think their constituents are drooling idiots that believe that these surveys are in any way what they purport to be.

While other Virginia blogs are hell-bent on throwing rocks at Speaker Howell or Susan Stimpson on this, I’d advise them to look a lot deeper at this and help illuminate the structural and cultural issues with RPV that badly need to be resolved.

UPDATE: The Bull Elephant weighs in as well, focusing on the ethical issues of having RPV provide support to a candidate whose nomination is contested and demolising the myth that this wasn’t a campaign piece. It’s a good read from them, as usual.

Disclaimer: I have been approached by some on Howell’s “team” this election season about doing professional work for him.  No doubt this post precludes any opportunity to do so, so the next time some idiot starts whining about me pimping stories that would benefit my clients, I hope they have the courage to look at this post and see that my opinions and convictions aren’t for sale.  This is one of those instances when there’s a personal financial penalty involved with telling the truth, and this isn’t the first time.

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  1. James R Shaw said on 30 Jan 2015 at 2:51 pm:
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    Thanks for the insights. I teach a class on ethics in March. This will serve as one of the cases to be looked at.

  2. Jeanine Martin said on 30 Jan 2015 at 3:20 pm:
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    VERY interesting take on what has happened this week.

  3. Mike Thompson Sr said on 30 Jan 2015 at 11:40 pm:
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    When I was in the direct mail business many years ago, there was a special carve out in the postal regulations/federal law that made such mailings using the political parties’ non profit postal rates totally legal. This was for GOP and Democrat elected officials and official GOP nominees to help make these parties more meaningful. Both political parties had that advantage to offer. I have not seen the mailing in question since I don’t live in the district in question. So I can’t comment on it. I am only commenting on the idea that somehow the postal regulations have been misused. They were not on mailing a constituent survey unless this postal regulation/law has changed and I don’t believe that is the case.

  4. Tom Fitzpatrick said on 31 Jan 2015 at 8:30 am:
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    It is more than disappointing to find out how diametrically opposed the so-called party of conservative “values” is from, well, conservative values. It is painful, and damaging.

    Mark Twain famously opined on how the average person would not want to see how either sausages or laws are made. The process by which candidates are fabricated and offered for sale is even more disgusting, and the ownership of, and steps in, that ugly process are jealously guarded.

    My own recent explorations into the state electoral and party processes may require me to surrender my paid-in-full lifetime membership in the Cynics Club, and be branded the delusional idealistic fool I may have been all along.

  5. Nate Boyer said on 31 Jan 2015 at 7:01 pm:
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    Greg, I did receive a similar mailer a couple weeks ago as a constituent of Del. Kathy Byron, who is not facing a primary challenge that I’m aware of. I share the concern that RPV is helping out incumbents in challenged races, but I don’t know that this ’survey’ was limited strictly to those districts.

  6. Anonymous said on 16 Feb 2015 at 1:40 am:
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    Whitbeck didn’t write that ridiculous defense of the mailer. Shaun Kenney did. Whitbeck was not too happy to learn it was chock-full of lies.

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