Posted: Oct. 22, 2007
A LAWYER SAVES THE REPUBLICANS FROM THEMSELVES
By Celia Cohen
There but for a watchful lawyer, the Republican campaign in the special legislative election would have gone afoul of state election law.
The glitch was the doing of LEAD PAC, a startup political action committee created in a low-profile way by state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, the Republican minority leader. The legal patch was the work of Richard A. Forsten, the counsel to the Delaware Republican Party.
The flutter was all about a political flier distributed to voters in the special election Nov. 3 to replace state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Democrat whose ill health and death after 27 years in the legislature left a vacancy in a district that spans the New Castle County and Kent County line.
It is Politics 101 to try to have someone other than the candidate deliver the sharp attacks on the opposition, so the candidate floats above the fray while the surrogate draws the dirty looks and the opposition gets nicked all the same. This particular flier was out of that mode.
It had wonderful things to say about Joanne M. Christian, the Appoquinimink school board president who is the Republican candidate. An independent voice. A real-life perspective.
It had sneering things to say about Bruce C. Ennis, the state representative who is the Democratic candidate. Out of touch. Part of the problem with Dover.
Campaign literature is required to disclose its parentage. This one said it was "paid for by LEAD PAC" -- whatever that was.
Documents on file with the state election department did not exactly make clear who was behind LEAD PAC, which arrived in unheralded fashion for the 2006 primary season when it began to submit campaign finance reports.
Those reports provided clues to LEAD PAC's origins. The biggest contributor at $25,000 was Charlie Copeland's father, the print shop it used was the one Copeland runs, and Copeland is calling the shots for the Republicans in the special election.
When asked, Copeland acknowledged his connection to LEAD PAC, which he said he formed with others he would identify only as "some friends of mine." The name stands for Leadership Effectiveness and Accountability in Delaware.
PACs and other political organizations have every right to insert themselves into elections -- it is what free speech is all about -- but they have to be careful how they do it. They are allowed by law to focus on issues but not expressly on candidates, a distinction known in legal terms as "issue advocacy" and "express advocacy." Violations are treated as misdemeanors.
The LEAD PAC flier was out of bounds by urging, "Joanne Christian for state senator." Forsten, the Republicans' lawyer, saw it after it was distributed and quickly activated a political escape hatch.
If a violation is accidental and corrected within seven days of being caught, it is excused under state law. The Republicans saved themselves by transferring the cost of the flier from LEAD PAC to Christian's campaign, because candidates are free to pay for all the express advocacy they want.
"We got a call from one of our own. We've corrected it. That's a piece that will be paid for by the campaign," Copeland said.
Forsten immunized the Republicans by notifying Elections Commissioner Elaine Manlove by letter Friday. He called the lapse an inadvertent "printer's error."
So it was. Never mind that the printer was Charlie Copeland, and he was his own customer.