Negative doesn’t have to mean nasty

Defining a “clean” political campaign can be tricky. Like beauty, civility is subjective, and what’s inappropriate to one person can be fair game to another.

We were curious, then, when a candidate for local office, Michael Byrd, recently wrote and circulated a campaign code of conduct. Here are a few items from his pledge:

  • I will always communicate in positive terms.
  • I will not take out of context any statement or action of another person in order to misrepresent a position or activity.
  • I will not engage in personal attacks including, but not limited to, the spreading of malicious rumors, innuendo, false statements, misinformation or incomplete or misleading facts.

Byrd, who is running for 4th District supervisor, has promised to follow the code, and he’s suggesting that “every elected officeholder and every candidate for elective office in the county sign a strict pledge to conduct themselves in a manner that is civil, honest and respectful towards all people, especially those with whom they may disagree.“

We encourage all efforts to promote civil discourse, and we commend Byrd for raising awareness of this issue early on in the campaign.

We do, however, want to sound a note of caution.

It’s one thing to promise not to take an opponent’s statements out of context or to spread malicious rumors about a candidate. It’s another to make a blanket promise to run a positive campaign.

There are times when “negatives” are relevant, such as when an incumbent has failed to live up to campaign promises, or when a challenger lacks the knowledge and background for a particular office.

The Institute for Local Government in California authored an excellent paper, “How to Run a Clean Campaign,” that includes results of a survey on what the public views as valid criticism.

A few examples: An opponent’s voting record, accepting contributions from special interest groups and failing to pay taxes on time are among the subjects the public believes are appropriate for discussion in a campaign.

On the flip side, criticisms the public found unfair included a candidate’s past troubles, such as alcohol or marijuana use; actions of a family member; marital infidelity; and past personal financial problems.

Bottom line: Running a “clean” political campaign is commendable, and we have great respect for candidates who rise above the muck and avoid the nasty personal attacks that have become too common at every level of politics.

If signing a pledge will help elevate the discourse, then we support that.

We believe, however, that it’s important to acknowledge that it is possible to be negative without being nasty. We strongly urge all candidates to raise legitimate concerns that voters need to know, without bullying the opposition, whether or not that’s spelled out in a code of conduct.