(Updates with comment from MWW in 13th paragraph.)
By Mark Niquette
Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Even as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces an audit of his federally funded tourism advertisements, an influx of campaign money makes commercials paid for by taxpayers or corporate sponsors increasingly attractive to cash-strapped politicians.
New Jersey Democrats said the post-Hurricane Sandy spots, paid for from $25 million in U.S. aid, were re-election publicity for the potential Republican presidential choice. Other governors, particularly those with Oval Office aspirations, faced similar criticism since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 allowed a gush of spending. They include Republican Rick Perry, whose $2 million campaign in six states touted Texas’s business climate and Martin O’Malley, a Maryland Democrat, who appeared in a $48 million campaign backed by MGM Resorts International that pushed a vote to expand gambling.
Only nine states restrict such ads. The Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited corporate and union political expenditures, has incumbents hunting every advantage, said Joseph Sandler, a Washington election-law attorney and former Democratic National Committee general counsel. The state-paid advertisements are ever more valuable, he said.
“In an era when outside groups have massively more resources than their own campaigns? You bet,” Sandler said. “They already are looking at that.”
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington group advocating tighter campaign laws, said that this year’s 36 governor races are the first to feel the court decision’s full effect. Independent expenditures increased to more than $1 billion in 2012 from $286 million in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Among the governors up for re-election this year are Republican Rick Scott of Florida, who ran a tourism ad in 2011, Republican Bill Haslam of Tennessee, who appeared in a television spot last year promoting seat-belt use, and Democrat John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who recorded a radio commercial about drilling for the state’s Oil and Gas Association in 2012.
Politicians will be increasingly attracted to so-called public-service ads on television, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, another Washington group that supports tighter finance laws.
“Even in the days of the Internet, television is a uniquely powerful medium,” McGehee said. “Its value in getting your mug out there is unrivaled.”
In New Jersey, Christie, who received national attention for his hurricane response, appeared in the summer tourism ad before winning re-election in November by 22 percentage points.
The 30-second commercial opens with upbeat music, aerial footage of the shoreline and a family walking on a beach. Near the end, Christie’s wife says, “The Jersey Shore is open.” His son says, “the word is spreading” and then Christie adds, “Because we’re stronger than the storm.”
The inspector general of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is auditing the campaign, according to U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a Long Branch Democrat who requested the review. He has asked why the winning ad company, MWW of East Rutherford, New Jersey, was paid $4.7 million while another firm lost out despite bidding only $2.5 million. That campaign didn’t feature Christie.
“It is inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state’s recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign,” Pallone said in an Aug. 8 letter to the department.
MWW said Christie was included in the ads only after the contract was awarded and that the audit would show its proposal was actually cheaper. The bids differed because MWW proposed a more expansive campaign with higher labor costs for events and promotions than its nearest competitor, Josh Zeitz, a spokesman for the company, said in an e-mail today.
The governor has said the ads weren’t political, and his staff said they were vetted by President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history,” Colin Reed, a Christie spokesman, said in a Jan. 13 statement.
Politicians who promote themselves through their official positions is not a new phenomenon. They put their names on highway signs, their faces on official websites and they make personal public-service announcements.
Even before the video age, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt bolstered his image with a series of “fireside chats” on radio.
New Jersey in particular has a history of seeing its governors in starring roles. Republican Thomas H. Kean soared to popularity in the 1980s with his “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together” tourism commercials. Democrat Jim McGreevey aired state-funded ads on issues he championed in his campaign.
Separating the official from the political isn’t easy, said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana.
“It’s really difficult to just place a judgment that says, ‘This was done for political purposes solely,’” Bender said by phone.
At least nine states limit or bar public-service announcements using taxpayer dollars that feature officeholders, according to Jennie Drage Bowser, a Portland, Oregon-based consultant and former elections-policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut law says officials shall not appear in ads during the 12 months before elections, and Illinois bans such ads “on behalf of any state administered program.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, questioned how effective the ads are at fulfilling their ostensible purpose.
Sloan pointed to commercials that Perry has run in several states, including one in Missouri in August featuring the governor in front of a state flag and the Capitol in the background saying, “Texas is calling. Your opportunity awaits.” The campaign was funded by TexasOne, a nonprofit group with money from businesses, chambers of commerce and local, tax-funded economic-development groups.
“It’s hard for me to imagine how Rick Perry running an ad is going to get anybody to move their business,” Sloan said. “Like some company owner is going to say, ‘I saw Rick Perry on TV today. He said Texas is a good state. Let’s go to Texas.’”
The practice is “ripe for abuse,” McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said. She suggested that an independent panel determine whether an ad featuring an officeholder crosses the line.
“The last person on earth who has perspective is the governor or the powerful politician,” she said.