Is Your Hair on Fire? It's Campaign Time.
The D.A. campaign gets hot – very hot
It's an honored axiom of campaign politics (at least among consultants) that the only way to beat a popular incumbent is by "going negative" – that is, by broadly attacking the incumbent's record and persistently sowing doubt in voters' minds. In the Democratic primary race for Travis County District Attorney between incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and challenger Charlie Baird, that theory is getting a thorough workout. (No Republican has filed for the office, so barring a small-party miracle, the Democratic nominee takes the prize.)
Neither longtime prosecutor Lehmberg nor former judge Baird are shrinking violets, and the elongated primary campaign, which should have ended several months ago, has not been good for restoring comity. The candidates often exchange sharp words – most politely summarized as Baird charging Lehmberg with being inattentive to racial injustice and Lehmberg countering that Baird doesn't know what he's talking about. The mood has increasingly darkened as the race goes on.
Most recently, Lehmberg complained that Baird has accused her of "taking bribes"; Baird rejects the charge, insisting instead that he believes Lehmberg, when she headed the D.A.'s Public Integrity Unit, failed to investigate certain allegations of bribery and fraud by public officials. "I have never made that accusation [of Lehmberg taking bribes]," Baird told the Chronicle, "nor do I think it would be anywhere near true. I don't think she's ever done that." Instead, he continued, "People have [told us] they're not looking into public corruption like they should."
The argument became more pointed after a recent telephone poll, apparently in support of Baird. Three people who were polled separately reported that the pollsters explicitly or implicitly said that Lehmberg declined to investigate allegations made against her campaign donors – and the questions made them angry enough to notify the Lehmberg campaign.
Although their recollections of the precise questions differed somewhat, all three insist that the implication – of Lehmberg accepting money in exchange for protection from criminal investigations – was clear. Mimi Purnell recalled the question as approximately, "Would it make any difference to you if you knew that the attorneys who were giving Rosemary Lehmberg so much money were people that she protected when she was head of the Public Integrity Unit?" Purnell says she told the caller that the question was "bullshit" – "I really thought my head was going to explode, and I hung up." Nancy Townsend told much the same story, although she couldn't be certain the words were "bribe" or "money under the table" – "but the intent was clear, and I could not believe it. ... I thought my hair was on fire." Mary Ingle said the poll "specifically said, 'taking bribes,'" and followed with a question asking "what if you knew that she didn't prosecute a policeman for killing an innocent young man" (apparently a reference to the Austin Police officer shooting of Byron Carter). At that point, Ingle said, "This is an unfair poll, and I refuse to answer any more of your questions."
Asked about the polling, Baird said via email: "Your sources are either mistaken about the content of my poll or confusing it with one of at least four other polls we know of that have been conducted in this race. ... The poll question asked whether voters would change their opinion of the incumbent if they knew she had accepted large contributions from individuals who were not investigated when Lehmberg oversaw the PIU as First Assistant DA." (Baird declined to provide the script used by his pollsters, saying it was their proprietary work product.)
Baird's campaign has since produced a couple of mailers connected to the poll's subjects. One, a tobacco ad parody declaring "Travis County deserves better than Rosemary Lehmberg," suggests that her donations from unnamed "tobacco settlement lawyers" are in return for not investigating them for "charges [of] bribery and fraud." "Coincidence?" it asks. Another features a photo of Lehmberg wearing a battered black cowboy hat*, charging that in her "Wild West," "WE like to shoot first – and NEVER ask questions!," a reference to the police shooting. Baird promises a "Police Integrity Unit" to review all police shootings: "It's time for JUSTICE THAT WORKS."
Lehmberg described Baird's explanation of the poll questions as "absurd," and said she doesn't take offense at Baird's criticisms of her performance – e.g., their disagreement over the need for 24/7 arrest intake or her office's handling of repeat minor offenders, which Baird would leave to misdemeanor processing by the Travis County Attorney. "What I don't like," she said, "is being accused of breaking the law." She rejected all of Baird's implications of either bribery or neglect of her duty; as for her campaign donors, she said they are attorneys who want someone "independent and exercising good judgment" in the capital D.A.'s office.
Baird insists his criticisms of Lehmberg are not personal: "Questions related to a person's conduct while in public office and based on evidence in the public record are not personal attacks. Questioning someone's job performance is not a personal attack. ... My campaign has been based on contrasting the stewardship of the District Attorney's Office under Lehmberg and what I would do differently."
Lehmberg insists there's a clear difference between Baird's criticisms of her performance and his "personal attacks on my character. ... That is just not right."
*Corrected. This sentence originally read that the mailer "plunks a battered black cowboy hat on Lehmberg's head." We have since been informed by the Baird campaign that the image featured in the mailer was in fact from a photo of Lehmberg, with hat, taken "at her birthday party, and the photograph was posted, albeit briefly, on Lehmberg's Facebook page for all the world to see."