It started with an anonymous postcard addressed to "Pizza Lover," followed by anonymous automated phone calls — with "loaded" survey questions. Then came another anonymous postcard mailer — just as unclear as the first.
The topic of each of these anonymous messages — the upcoming Town Council elections.
Being described by some residents as "the most important election" the Town of Herndon will face, it is clear some candidates, or their supporters, are willing to do whatever it takes — and pay whatever it costs — to sway voters to participate in the May 2 elections.
"It's very unfortunate that apparently outside groups are putting large amounts of money into this election," said council member Carol Bruce. "It costs a lot of money to do polling."
In the last week a number of Herndon residents have reported receiving an automated phone call. The call starts out with the voice asking if the person is planning to vote in the upcoming Town Council election. It then goes on to ask a number of other questions, never identifying who authorized the survey.
While she has not received the automated call, Bruce — who is running for re-election this term — received a number of calls from constituents complaining about the biased content of the survey.
"I was called by at least one resident who was absolutely furious by the tone of the questions," said Mayor Michael O'Reilly. "I don't know if who is calling is identified or not, or who they are calling for."
HERNDON RESIDENT and 2004-06 Town Council candidate Joel Mills received and participated in the automated poll.
"The automated phone call was directed against the mayor and the incumbents," he said. "It said it was an 'election research' survey, but it was a push poll. It was not an objective opinion survey; all of the questions in the poll are heavily loaded questions."
A "push poll" is a political campaign technique where either an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of people participating in the survey. Usually push polls are viewed as negative campaigning and are often done at the end of campaign, right before voters cast their ballots. The use of push polls is "clearly political telemarketing, using innuendo and, in many cases, clearly false information to influence voters; there is no intent to conduct research," according to the National Council on Public Polls. More than 10 years ago the National Council on Public Polls issued a release to media representatives warning them against reporting the information gathered from push polls, calling them a "thoroughly unethical political campaign technique."
In the Herndon automated phone survey, the questions were loaded because of the way they were phrased, Mills said. Questions included topics like "are you concerned that Herndon is the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in Northern Virginia?" and "Do you support a tax payer funded day labor center, Neighborhood Resource Center or cultural arts center?" to "Are you concerned by the level of overcrowding in the town?" These led up to the final question, "Do you support a change in the leadership of our Town Council?"
"I have been doing this [running for public office] since 1988 and I have never seen anything like this," said Bruce.
Town of Herndon residents are not the only ones receiving the phone calls, she said. Bruce heard from friends who live in the Fairfax County portion of Herndon who received the automated call, she said. These residents cannot vote in the upcoming election because they are not town residents.
WHILE SOME RESIDENTS are upset about the "loaded" questions of the automated survey and are frustrated no candidate or political group is taking credit for the anonymous postcards, others feel this is typical campaign hype.
"I think people are trying to make a big deal about it," council member Ann Null said about the anonymous mailers. "Last cycle people got up in arms about Neighbors For Herndon."
When running for the 2004-06 term, a community group — Neighbor's For Herndon — was formed to help get Null elected. On council for one term, Null chose not to run for re-election this year, saying she was "happy with the selection" of candidates running. While no candidates have currently asked her to help with their campaigns, Null said she is willing to assist if asked.
Former Herndon Mayor, Del. Tom Rust (R-86), agreed with Null that the initial reaction to recent campaign tactics should be expected because of events that unfolded during the 2004-06 term.
"Obviously the day-labor site was a flash point in Herndon and there are people who are emotional about the issue on both sides," he said.
Reflecting on the elections held in the early 1990s, Rust recalled there were 13 candidates running due to a heavy debate regarding the future plans for the 58-acre Runnymede Park.
"Yes the emotions were extremely high during that election," he said. "It certainly had the intensity of this campaign, but that passed just like this will pass."
During his council campaign Rust estimated he spent roughly $2,000 to $2,500 total. That money was used to create brochures, place advertisements in the local newspapers and create signs to be placed in people's yards, he said. He also used a lot of "shoe leather" by walking door-to-door to speak to constituents.
While phone calls were not uncommon in previous council election campaigns, they were done through a phone tree where campaign committee members called residents to remind them to vote, Rust said. The anonymous automated survey and anonymous postcard mailers are a new trend for this year's election.
The most recent postcard states "some candidates who think they walk on water are really a drop in the bucket. Choose your Herndon Town Council candidates wisely."
Joking the only person he knew to walk on water was Jesus Christ, and the last he knew "Jesus wasn't running for Town Council," O'Reilly said he plans to use the same campaign tactics he used in 2004 to get elected.
"I don't think that an anonymous postcard that is addressed to 'pizza lover', especially when the message is going to be garbled, is going to influence a voter," said O'Reilly. "The most important part is going out and meeting people door-to-door."