Social media empowers vicious local political campaigns

Monday , September 02, 2013 - 7:46 AM

Bryon Saxton, Standard-Examiner Staff

What was to be an uneventful off-year election this summer is generating some real political heat in many Top of Utah communities, where current and former candidates throw out claims like they were birdseed.

One political expert blames the apparent increase in attack campaigning locally on the use of social media and the individual candidate being able to get such a quick reaction from it.

Another political guru points out that negative campaigning, which often works, is a result of candidates having to fight over such a small slice of voters who will cast ballots in the Nov. 5 general election.

The latest city to find itself up to its chin in political discord is West Point, where defeated primary candidate Eric Braegger is taking city leaders to task through a YouTube video.

Braegger, a Draper City police officer eliminated from the Aug. 13 municipal primary in West Point, says in his video he encountered a corrupt system in his run for a city council seat. He also questions the timing of one of the mid-term appointments made to the council by Mayor Erik Craythorne.

Braegger also questions the effort by two-term Councilman Andy Dawson, seeking reelection, to try to remove from the Nov. 5 ballot council candidate Brogan Fullmer. Dawson’s move is based on a claim that Fullmer defaced the city’s official ballot by posting a picture clip on Facebook of the names of those candidates seeking office and a filled-in oval marked ballot by his name.

“I’m out of this process now," Braegger said. “The only way I can do anything about the stuff I have seen, is educate people about it. That is exactly why I made the You Tube video.”

Making and posting the video seemed the faster way to get his message out, Braegger said.

West Point City Manager Kyle Laws confirms a “defacing the ballot” complaint was lodged against Fullmer by Dawson, but officials dismissed the complaint after an investigation.

“In my mind I did nothing wrong," Dawson told the Standard-Examiner. The ballot names were posted both on Fullmer’s Facebook and personal website on the day of the primary, and it was then he brought it to the attention of city officials, he said. There was no request made to have Fullmer removed from the ballot, Dawson said.

The city did respond to Dawson’s complaint by sending out to candidates for a second time a list of election bylaws that are to be followed, Laws said.

Dawson never requested Fullmer be removed from the ballot, Laws said, “but he did want us to look at Fullmer’s Facebook post from the standpoint of a legal issue.”

Regarding a new council member being appointed as a mid-term appointment versus elected, Craythorne, who is running unopposed this November, in response to Braegger’s YouTube video, said the state code clearly gives specific instructions how a vacant council seat is to be filled.

“It is not a mayor’s appointment. It is an appointment by the governing body, which is the city council,” Craythorne said in an email to Braegger.

Braegger has made Craythorne’s entire response available on his YouTube video.

Other Top of Utah municipal races have turned snarky as well.

In Sunset, mayoral candidate Councilman Ryan Furniss has been exchanging political jabs with those who are supporting challenger Beverly Macfarlane.

Macfarlane supporters are claiming illegal activity occurred when the majority of the council, Furniss included, rejected recommended council appointments made by Mayor Chad Bangerter.

Furniss said based on legal counsel the council did nothing illegal and the efforts being made by his challenger’s supporters are an attempt to discredit him.

Other cities experiencing political tumult this summer include Layton and Kaysville, where citizen groups have organized in both cities to back certain candidates, and work against others.

In Layton, there are accusations of team-ticket running, which although isn’t illegal, some candidates feel does present a concern should an entire ticket be elected and it resort to bloc voting on the council.

Kaysville is undergoing a similar uprising. There, disgruntled residents have organized in trying to elect one of their own group members to the council.

But the political unrest extends beyond the borders of Davis County.

In North Ogden and Uintah City, there have been unfriendly exchanges among candidates, including military service records being questioned, and claims of city leaders’ salaries being reduced merely to appease residents, respectively.

In an essentially one-party state, in an off-year local election, there is a “very small slice of registered voters” who will choose the winners, said Gary Johnson, associate professor in the political science department at Weber State University.

Based on that, candidates believe messages need to be a little more pointed, sometimes contentious and personal in nature, he said.

“They are fighting over the same 200 voters,” Johnson said. “The attentive public in a race this fall is very small. Throwing the dirt may make the difference.”

That type of negative campaigning that has proven to be effective in the past, he said.

Typically in Utah, municipal candidates also spend a limited amount of money, Johnson said, and a candidate who is able to accuse his opponent of something can serve as surrogate for that lack of spending.

Politicians are not suddenly sliding into a vortex of increased meanness, Johnson said. “American political campaigns have always been nasty,” he said, citing examples from the 1800s.

But there is a coarsening of the political debate nationally, Johnson said, politicians having little incentive to cooperate or socialize, with the major political parties demonizing the other.

The decline in civility at the national level runs downhill, into the state and local races, he said.

Social media is only a new ingredient that has been added to the mix.

“Social media rewards sensationalism,” Johnson said.

Davis County Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings said the change in the Top of Utah’s political climate may well be from the use of social media, where it allows issues to be magnified, and provides a candidate immediate feedback or response.

“They are no longer whisper campaigns," Rawlings said of the days when rumors were shared among voters through a political flier or even a note being passed around at a party convention.

Rawlings said even though the ability of a candidate to share a message with constituents has been made easier through social media, it can backfire, because a social media-fueled response from an opponent or others can be just as rapid and powerful.

“The thing they forget is that sometimes it works against them," he said.

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