Political Pioneer

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(Pictured: rural Illinois. Not visible: potholes, probably.)

From the 1970s onward, the western part of Illinois was sometimes called the state of Forgottonia (state bird the albatross, state flower the forget-me-not). The region had sent few if any Democrats to the state legislature since the 1930s, and decades later, its dogged Republicanism had a cost. Republican governments felt little need to shed state largesse on the region since it would vote for them no matter what; Democratic governments knew that however much money they spent to benefit the region, it wouldn’t keep people from voting Republican. As a result, issues that mattered to the people of Forgottonia were often, well, forgotten. Existing roads and bridges were in terrible shape, and new roads were badly needed to better link the region to the rest of the Midwest.

In 1986, I was on the radio in Macomb, which was sometimes considered the capital of Forgottonia. In that year, George Lipper, who formerly owned the station I worked for (a man I have written about here), decided to run for the state legislature as a Democrat. George had been a strong infrastructure advocate for years, wherever he lived. He believed that good roads were as critical to economic development in the 1980s as canals and railroads had been in the 19th century. And after the General Assembly member representing our part of Forgottonia opposed Governor Jim Thompson’s “Build Illinois” infrastructure and development plan, George decided to run against him.

I can’t remember all of the details surrounding Build Illinois; Thompson was a Republican, and there were suggestions that the money was being targeted to help Republican electoral prospects across the state. One would have expected the incumbent legislator, also a Republican, to heartily support an infusion of money into his district, but he did not.

(Why would Big Jim earmark money for a district that would vote to reelect him anyway? I have heard the following story, which I am not sure is true: at some point during his term, Thompson was scheduled to appear somewhere in the region. He was unable to fly that day and had take a limo from Springfield, whereupon he was directly introduced to Forgottonia’s crappy roads.)

George’s candidacy was such a longshot that the state Democratic Party wouldn’t return his calls, and he was forced to raise money door-to-door. One day, I got a call from him asking me to personally produce his radio ads. In one of them, he intended to use a soundbite of the incumbent, from a press conference in which he said, “I opposed Build Illinois.”

I’d been through several election cycles in radio by then, but I had never heard a political ad that did such a thing. I even wondered whether it was ethical, and if it would be effective to use his opponent’s own words and voice against him. I didn’t say anything about it to George, however. I put the ads together, wrapping George’s script, which he voiced, around the incumbent’s words, and I tacked on the paid-for announcement in my own voice. Then I made a few copies (on small reels of tape) so that George could send them to other stations in the district, and we were done.

When the ad began to run, the incumbent lost his shit. It wasn’t long before he started running an ad accusing George of taking his words out of context, crying that there was more to his comments than that short soundbite. And in truth there was, but it was him elaborating on why he thought it was a bad idea for the state to spend money on a popular program designed to boost the economy and help people.

I wish that I could tell you that George’s groundbreaking gambit and my radio production skills were integral parts of a winning campaign, but I cannot. He did, however, get a larger percentage of the vote in the district than any Democrat in many years. But come 1988, he did not run again. In that year, after his 1986 opponent decided to run for a judgeship instead of reelection to the Assembly, a local businessman who had been instrumental in George’s 1986 campaign won the seat.

Today, politicians and PACs use soundbites from their opponents in ads all the time. (And it’s equally common for the opponents to claim that their words have been taken out of context.) As it happens, I may have been involved in pioneering this practice. Sorry, America.

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