Candidate’s ad protested

Published 8:31 am Friday, April 27, 2012

FRANKLIN—Two mayoral candidates, another City Council candidate and a sitting city councilman have challenged the legality of a newspaper advertisement by Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson’s mayoral campaign committee.

The ad, which was published in Sunday’s and Wednesday’s editions of The Tidewater News, appears again today on Page A4.

Ward 1 council candidate Earl Blythe, incumbent Mayor Jim Councill, mayoral candidate and Ward 3 Councilman Greg McLemore and Ward 6 Councilman Don Blythe have each filed formal complaints with election officials, claiming the ad violates state code because it used their photographs but failed to mention that they didn’t endorse it.

Johnson’s attorney said the claim is baseless.

The advertisement infers that Councill, McLemore, Don Blythe and Earl Blythe are members of a “coalition.” The advertisement also groups Johnson, Ward 2 Councilman Benny Burgess, Earl Blythe’s Ward 1 opponent and incumbent Councilman Barry Cheatham and Ward 5 Councilwoman Mary Hilliard in a different coalition. The text under the photographs says “a uniter, not a divider” and lists the address of Johnson’s campaign website.

Earl Blythe argued in his complaint to Franklin Voter Registrar Jennifer Maynard that under Virginia Code Section 24.2-956 an advertisement sponsored by a candidate campaign committee that “makes reference to any other clearly-identified candidate who is not sponsoring the advertisement, the sponsor shall state whether it is authorized by the candidate not sponsoring the advertisement.”

Earl Blythe said he doesn’t understand why his image was used, especially since he’s not on the council and is only running for a seat.

“I take special exception that they included me,” Earl Blythe said. “I could not and would not be part of any coalition or alliance.”

G. Elliott Cobb, an attorney for Johnson and her campaign committee, said the advertisement is legal and the complaints omit a part of the code that states the advertisement is legal if it is sponsored by the candidate the ad is supporting or by that candidate’s campaign committee.

“The complaints filed by the coalition of Jim Councill, Greg McLemore, Don Blythe and Earl Blythe are baseless,” Cobb said in a statement. “They are political rhetoric. The complaints of Councill and Earl Blythe purport to quote the law, but both complaints leave out the last sentence of subdivision 2, the key provision which clearly shows that the ads comply with the law.”

That sentence of the code says, “This subdivision does not apply if the sponsor of the advertisement is the candidate the advertisement supports or that candidate’s campaign committee.”

When the complaints were filed, the Franklin Electoral Board called an emergency meeting Wednesday and later notified Johnson of the complaints, Maynard said. The local board forwarded the complaints to the Virginia Board of Elections and Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke.

Cooke said Thursday he had no comment on the situation.

Johnson called The Tidewater News on Wednesday and instructed that the advertisement not be published again. However, on Thursday the Johnson campaign decided to publish the ad in today’s edition.

Tidewater News Publisher Steve Stewart said the newspaper’s attorney reviewed the ad after the newspaper learned of the candidates’ objections, but the attorney found no violations of the code section cited by Earl Blythe or Councill or violations of any other Virginia law.

“The newspaper is happy to sell advertising space to any candidate or campaign committee who is willing to pay for it,” Stewart said. “The candidates and Councilman Blythe can debate among themselves the fairness of the ad, but there are no legal issues in the opinion of our counsel. Had we determined that the Johnson ad violated the law, we would not have published it again.”

Chris Piper, Virginia Board of Elections manager of election services, said the board will determine whether a violation occurred. A hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. May 24 at the state General Assembly building.

If the board finds a violation, Johnson’s election committee could face a fine of $100 for a first offense and $500 for a second, Piper said.

Piper said the Board of Elections is required to notify the candidate whose advertisement is in question by certified mail 10 days before the hearing. He said they like to allow 20 days for this, and therefore the election, which is Tuesday, will be over before the issue can be ruled on.

Councill called the advertisement “bad politics” and “very likely a violation of election law.” He added that he’s not in an alliance and he was upset his photo was used without permission.

“I’m not in an alliance and I can’t be in one with Earl Blythe because he’s not even on council,” Councill said. “I’ve always tried to be a collaborator and a consolidator. I give everyone ample time to speak, and I think that’s the mayor’s job.”

McLemore said he thinks the advertisement is illegal and “in poor taste.”

Don Blythe called the advertisement “dirty politics.”

“I’m not even running for office and (Johnson) put me in the middle of it,” Don Blythe said. “They did a smear campaign ad, and the damage has already been done.”