Truth gets stretched in race for governor

Monday, September 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:11 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Propose, rebut. Attack, counterattack.

In the coming weeks, voters are likely to become weary of this pattern of political campaigns. Yet many will end up basing their votes on the candidates’ proposals and criticisms.

The challenge, then, becomes deciphering the truth from the rhetoric.

This was quite a task in the Missouri governor’s race last week.

Supporters of Republican Matt Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill accused each other of being soft on criminals, harmful to schoolchildren and in violation of election laws.

Can all this really be true?

Both campaigns back up their accusations with facts. Yet they also leave some out. Consider the accusation last week, made by Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd on behalf of Blunt, that McCaskill failed to put criminals behind bars while serving as Jackson County prosecutor in the 1990s. Blunt’s campaign backed up the criticism by citing a Department of Justice report from 1998. The incriminating statistic: Just 23 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison or jail in Jackson County.

What Blunt’s camp failed to note was another statistic in the same report: 82 percent of felony defendants were convicted in Jackson County, well above the study’s 68 percent average.

Furthermore, in Jackson County more convicted felons were eligible for probation sentences.

On the same day as Blunt’s factually questionable attack, McCaskill’s campaign launched its own partially factual accusation.

When Blunt proposed to increase funding for Parents as Teachers, an early childhood education program, McCaskill’s campaign responded by claiming Blunt had voted against the program when he was in the legislature.

McCaskill’s campaign pointed to Blunt’s 1999 “no” vote on the budget for the Department of Elementary and Secondary and Education, which oversees the Parents as Teachers program.

The program comprised a tiny portion of the department’s multi-billion-dollar budget. And what McCaskill’s campaign didn’t explain was that Blunt voted against every major budget bill that year. So to follow that logic, Blunt could be portrayed as opposing every government function.

Another example of distorted facts last week came when the Missouri Democratic Party criticized Blunt for asking county clerks to send the names of people who had requested absentee ballots to the state Republican Party.

The Democratic Party suggested Blunt was using a “potentially illegal scheme to violate Missouri election laws.” As evidence, it cited a state law against coercing voters while assisting them in casting absentee ballots.

Yet that law refers to cases where disabled people literally need help casting a vote. And candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — have for decades asked clerks for the names of absentee voters so they could target them with campaign materials.

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