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League of Women Voters unbowed

Defends change in tactics, ads targeting Brown

LEAGUE PRESIDENT DEFENDS STANCE “We are a nonpartisan organization, but we are political,” said Elisabeth MacNamara. LEAGUE PRESIDENT DEFENDS STANCE
“We are a nonpartisan organization, but we are political,” said Elisabeth MacNamara.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — At a League of Women Voters board meeting several years ago, its president suggested a new strategy: It was time to take off the white gloves.

Leaders of the venerable group, known mainly as a genteel organizer of impartial candidate forums, wanted to raise their voices and push more boldly for its positions.

Nobody dissented. “Nope, not a one,’’ recalled Judy Davis, a board member from Tennessee. “Some even said, ‘Well it’s about darn time.’ ’’

Thirteen days ago, in the highest-profile expression yet of the new strategy, the League began airing blistering, campaign-style ads targeting Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri for their votes on air-quality regulation.

The blowback has been fierce — but League officers are standing firm.

“We chose this time to use a bigger megaphone because the terms of the debate need to be changed,’’ said Elisabeth MacNamara, the group’s national president, who was elected last June. “At some point you’ve got to get people’s attention. The ad is intended to educate people in Massachusetts, and hopefully educate Senator Brown.’’

Brown and his political allies have complained almost ceaselessly since the ads appeared April 29, accusing the League of “gutter’’ politics. The Massachusetts Republican Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission this week, accusing the League of breaking election law.

Officials at the 91-year-old voter-education organization maintain that it is still nonpartisan and the campaign is only an extension of advocacy on other major issues. It also supported campaign finance reform and offered backing for President Obama’s health care overhaul.

“We are a nonpartisan organization, but we are political,’’ MacNamara said.

Critics say the institution went too far with its recent foray into campaign-style attack advertising and risks losing its longstanding reputation as a trusted voter service organization.

“To the extent that the League of Women Voters still sponsors candidate debates, it is problematic for it to be airing ads against candidates, regardless of whether you call it issue advocacy or not,’’ said professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies campaign advertising at the University of Pennsylvania. “It calls into question how neutral the venue actually is.’’

The ad blitz has also exposed the group to accusations of hypocrisy. The League has advocated for more disclosure of the sources of money for campaign advertising. But it has been unwilling to disclose its source of funds for the current ad campaign, saying the public will find out next year when it files its annual report.

The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920, growing out of the women’s suffrage movement. Its original mission was to educate enfranchised women about issues and elections after the ratification of the 19th Amendment that year extended the right to vote to women. The group now has about 140,000 members.

The League’s political stances have become increasingly aggressive since its deliberate decision to try to be heard over the din of partisan politics, several board members said.

“To cut through the clutter sometimes you have to be very bold because people have become inured to this type of thing,’’ said Davis.

During the 2009-2010 health care debate, the League targeted Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent, with radio ads and a Facebook campaign, urging him to “do the right thing’’ and support a public option to the health care bill.

The group’s national president at the time, Mary Wilson, also appeared in a League TV ad urging an end to “the lies’’ about health care overhaul. That ad aired in Arkansas, Maine, and North Dakota, where key senators lived, the League said.

Clean air and climate change are top priorities for the League. So when Brown, a Republican, and McCaskill, a Democrat, voted last month to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency, the League’s national leadership saw an opportunity for a swift and forceful response.

The League’s TV ad centers on a little girl wheezing into an oxygen mask, as an announcer’s voice chastises Brown for his April 6 vote in favor of stripping the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases. It asks the viewer to “just imagine’’ what Brown’s vote could have done to that asthmatic little girl.

“Nothing speaks like images,’’ said MacNamara. Portions of the ads, which are costing the League more than $1 million, have also appeared on websites, including Boston.com, the Globe’s online counterpart.

The harsh tone surprised many rank-and-file members of the organization, with some expressing concerns that the ads are “a little hard-hitting,’’ said Janis McMillen, a League director from Kansas.

“It is a bold move for the League, which has not done this typically in the past,’’ she said. “What I’ve been telling the members is, ‘Look, we spend a lot of time developing positions for advocacy purposes. And if we don’t use those positions, why do we bother?’ ’’

The ads were too bold for the League’s Andover/North Andover chapter, which issued a statement on Tuesday distancing itself from the campaign. Chapter president Kerri Ford also stepped down in protest, a local officer said in an interview yesterday.

The EPA measure Brown supported failed in the Senate on a 50-50 vote, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

The Missouri ad takes McCaskill to task for a different vote, also on April 6, that would have delayed EPA action on many greenhouse gas emissions. McCaskill was one of just 12 senators to support the measure; Brown also voted yes.

Brown and McCaskill are both up for reelection next year.

Brown explained his vote in a statement on his Web page — saying this is not the time for the unelected EPA to be saddling businesses with more regulation — and is using the League’s attack as a fund-raising opportunity. His website includes an online donation form for visitors to give money to Brown’s campaign “to help us fight back.’’

League supporters throw the hypocrisy accusation back at Brown, saying he helped kill legislation last year that sought to increase disclosure requirements in political advertising.

A League of Women Voters board member from Massachusetts, Marlene O’Brien of Wellesley, deferred comment to MacNamara, the group’s president.

Despite the risks to its reputation, being more forceful could make the League a bigger player in the national debate, said Darrell West, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“Candidates take you more seriously when you’re running attack ads,’’ he said. “They notice.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.