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Votes

When Candidates Attack

What happens when political candidates start getting nasty?

Many voters throughout Northern Virginia received in their mailboxes last week an ad from Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat seeking to be elected governor on Nov. 8.

"Things are a mess in Washington, D.C.," the ad says, alongside images representing federal government mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina response, rising gas prices and U.S. Rep. Tom Delay, a Republican from Texas under indictment for campaign finance skullduggery.

"Don't let it happen in Virginia," it says, insisting that a vote for Republican Jerry Kilgore will send the commonwealth in the wrong direction.

Just a few days earlier, many of those same Northern Virginia mailboxes were filled with similarly vitriolic attack ads from the Kilgore camp.

One such Kilgore mailer features Kaine's head atop a comic book-style superhero, "Taxman," asserting the Democrat will increase gas, sales and car taxes.

"Taxman Tim Kaine — he's raised taxes in every office he's held. Now he wants to raise taxes again as governor," it says.

With less than two weeks before Virginia elects a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats of the House of Delegates, partisan potshots are on the increase.

While mudslinging tends to increase during the final stretch of political campaigns, in many cases attack ads alienate potential voters because negative campaigning is often considered uncivil and unbecoming of public officials, said Toni-Michelle Travis, a George Mason University professor of politics.

"Historically, Virginians have been turned off by negative campaigning," Travis said. "Especially when it's a personal attack or blatantly not true."

WHILE THE UNFRIENDLY FIRE in the race to become Virginia's next governor has received the most attention, a handful of hot House of Delegates races in Northern Virginia have also taken a turn for the nasty.

In the 67th District, which includes Chantilly and the surrounding area, Democrat Chuck Caputo's campaign has just released a new attack mailer against his opponent Republican Chris Craddock.

The mail piece criticizes Craddock's "divisive words" and amplifies a quote by the Republican from a Washington Blade article, in which he said, "Christians and gays hate and despise each other."

"We're talking about building bridges, not burning them," said Joe Lestingi, Caputo's campaign manager. "In this case, Mr. Craddock is burning bridges."

Jim Howland, Craddock's campaign manager, said the Washington Blade quote was taken out of context.

For their part, the Craddock campaign has sent out a series of attacks against Caputo, alleging the Democrat will raise taxes by more than $9.48 billion — or nearly $8,000 for a typical Fairfax County family.

The basis for the tax hike attack is Caputo's kick-off speech, in which he listed the state's "unfunded requirements" of transportation, environmental protection and education.

"Unless Chuck has a check for $9.4 billion, he's going to be raising taxes to pay for this increased state spending," Howland said.

IN THE BURKE and Lake Braddock area, the House race in the 41st District has taken a particularly bitter tone in recent weeks.

Republican Michael Golden initiated the negative campaigning with a mail piece that blames Democrat Dave Marsden for the rise of gangs in Fairfax County.

It goes on to say that Marsden, a former director of Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice, has "resorted to personally attacking Michael Golden and his family."

Golden declined to specify what the personal actually were, but said his campaign is sticking to the issues. Negative campaigning, he said, is frustrating because there is no way to respond.

"There's not a level of accountability," Golden said. "If my opponent says something that's just not true, I have no way to refute that other than putting out another mailer."

In another mail piece, sent out earlier this week, Golden's wife, Jennie Golden, accuses Marsden of telling people that her husband supports "marital rape."

Robby Mook, Marsden's campaign manager, said the "marital rape" claim is not only unfounded, but absurd.

"We have no idea what they're talking about," Mook said. "They're literally saying 'stop the personal attacks,' while making personal attacks. It's so hypocritical."

For his part, Golden said he was upset about a mail piece authorized by the Marsden campaign that features Etch-a-Sketch drawings of a traffic jam, a chaotic classroom and an AK-47 machine gun in a school locker.

The Marsden mailer's tag line says, "If Michael Golden gets his way, here's how Fairfax County will look."

It concludes that Fairfax County's quality of life will be hindered because of Golden's opposition to fully funding education and transportation, as well as his support of allowing concealed firearms on school grounds.

Golden said the ad is deceptive. "When I look at it, I see stuff that's just not true," he said.

POLITICAL ADVERTISING, while not exclusively negative, has become an expensive business in Virginia.

In the governor's race, the three candidates have spent a combined $10 million on mailings, radio spots and TV ads. Candidates running for the House of Delegates in Fairfax County have spent more than $1.07 million on mailings, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

One local House race — in West Springfield, Lorton and Mason Neck — the two candidates running in the 42nd District have spent more than $214,000 on political mailings.

One recent mailer from Del. Dave Albo, the district's Republican incumbent, accuses Democrat Greg Werkheiser of supporting an increase in the gas tax.

Werkheiser, who denies ever proposing an increase in Virginia's gas tax, has been sending letters to Albo demanding a retraction.

"I believe voters deserve a fact-based discussion of these issues, not election-year pandering that is without basis, and, frankly, insults the intelligence of those in the 42nd District," Werkheiser wrote.

Werkheiser said his criteria for campaign mailings is that it must be both accurate and creative. "I've got to inform the public about why the incumbent has got to go," he said. "That's not a hit to democracy. That is democracy."

DESPITE THE ACERBIC tenor of many competitive House of Delegates races this year, one race has been notably civil.

In the 37th District, which covers most of the City of Fairfax, both Republican John Mason and Democrat David Bulova agreed to eschew negative politics and signed a "Code of Fair Campaign Practices."

"We'd both expressed an interest in keeping it positive," Bulova said. "It's something that when you have two candidates who are actually willing to do it, you can show it's possible."