I am no stranger to hardball politics, and I love a good fight as much as anyone. But clean, democratic fights must respect principles of transparency and disclosure. Opponents of the single-use bag ban are failing to live up to these principles.
On the night of Jan. 7, I received a phone call on my family’s landline. A recorded voice announced that I needed to stay tuned about important public health information, that I was being transferred to a telephone “town hall.” I could not tell if this was a public emergency or a marketing call, so I stayed on.
I was “put through” to what sounded like a talk radio show in progress, though the host was never named. His two guests were “doctors” Andre Feliz and Robert Johnson, discussing the health threat of reusable plastic bags.
It soon became clear to me that this was a political campaign call, and a sophisticated one at that. You may have heard of “push polls.” One of the most famous came out of the 2000 Republican Primary in South Carolina, where thousands of calls were made to voters who, after being told that John McCain had adopted a “black baby,” were asked if they supported his candidacy.
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In a nutshell, the scenario that SLO voters are being exposed to is this: Studies show that reusable bags contain bacteria; therefore, if we stop using single-use bags, we expose ourselves to bacterial infection. The language used to deliver this message includes the spread of “horrible bloody diarrhea” in children and “spontaneous abortions” among mothers exposed to listeria.
This tactic, called “association” by campaign consultants, is used to link frightening, negative images to policies and people, in this case county Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose contact information was repeatedly provided to listeners. I was then asked to use the phone keypad to indicate support or opposition to the single-use bag ban, and urged to show up at today’s meeting of the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) of SLO.
The organization behind this well-designed hit piece is called the “Environmental Safety Alliance” (ESA). A view of their website suggests that they are a front organization, but it is impossible to determine their funding. Tobacco lobbyist Richard Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom features prominently in the “News” section, but every post is authored by ADMIN (as opposed to a person) and as of my visit, there were zero “likes” on Facebook or “tweets” on Twitter. An address in the bowels of the website lists 1840 Westminster Court, Carmichael, CA 95628; aprivate residence in the suburbs of Sacramento. They could have done a better job at faking the website.
Dirty play of this sort should disgust both proponents and opponents of the bag ban because outside groups who intentionally mislead voters are a threat to us all. To my knowledge, one of the few studies published (cited on the ESA website), funded by the American Chemistry Council but authored by microbiologist Charles Gerba, tested 84 unwashed bags and found the same sorts of bacteria found on countertops and public surfaces that we use daily. Gerba stated that the use of reusable bags is not likely to lead to any infectious outbreaks.
The most dangerous parasites in SLO are the sponsors of the Environmental Safety Alliance, who are trying to infect and exploit voters. Representatives from ESA who appear at public meetings, especially doctors Feliz or Johnson, should be questioned about their financial relationship with the chemical, petroleum and plastic manufacturing industries.
Everyone has the right to express policy preferences and to persuade the public. But individuals and corporations that take advantage of the secrecy provided by campaign finance laws violate the basic principles of open and honest communication. They have an obligation to provide voters with a full disclosure of their interests. Otherwise, our democracy is vulnerable to just this sort of infestation.
Michael Latner is assistant professor of political science at Cal Poly, where he teaches courses on campaigns, elections and American government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.