Saturday, January 23, 2010

How much attention do “fringe” political candidates deserve to receive?

Every election cycle brings the no-name candidates – the people who managed to come up with enough valid signatures of support on their nominating petitions that they can be on the Election Day ballot.

But because of a lack of experience or a lack of funding (or sometimes a lack of charisma), their campaigns never kick off. The end result usually is that news coverage of the elections usually focus on the so-called “legitimate” candidates, and ignore outright the fact that there are other people in the race.

IT IS NOT the least bit unusual for some voters to show up at the polls on Election Day and to not realize that these people exist – until that moment when they look at the ballot and are confronted with names they have never seen or heard before.

It usually takes something serious for any of those candidates to gain any attention. Others spend their campaigns ranting and raging about the lack of attention, which is ignored on the grounds that the people involved aren’t significant enough to deserve having their complaints listened to.

What will probably be the most significant example of this “syndrome” in this election cycle will fall into the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, where most people think that Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, former Chicago city inspector general David Hoffman and former Chicago Urban League head Cheryle Jackson are the extent of the candidates.

That has Jacob Meister, a Chicago attorney, upset.

HE’S THE GUY who filed a complaint this week with the Federal Communications Commission against WTTW-TV because that station, on its “Chicago Tonight” program, had a candidate forum for Giannoulias, Hoffman and Jackson.

They left Meister out, and it wasn’t an accident on their part.

WTTW used the “standard” that is often talked about this time of year, requiring that candidates receive at least a certain percentage level of support in various polls as evidence that they are really significant.

Meister didn’t matter, so now Meister is trying to get back at the public television station by filing a complaint that claims they violated federal regulations that relate to giving candidates equal time. He also complains that the polls referred to by the television station are so old as to be worthless by now – which may be his one legitimate complaint.

I’M NOT SURE if Meister and his attorneys seriously expect some sort of sanctions against WTTW. What this complaint seems more about (in my opinion, at least) is doing something that forces the candidate to be included in news coverage of the campaign.

It could easily turn out that the stories written in recent days about Meister’s campaign will be the only coverage he gets during the primary election cycle.

This kind of thing happens often.

I still remember 1994 and the Illinois gubernatorial primary for the Democrats – the one in which then Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch defeated then-Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris and then-Cook County Board President Richard Phelan for the right to get beaten by then-Gov. Jim Edgar in the general election that year.

OF COURSE, THERE was a fourth candidate – James Gierach. In fact, he actually won the ballot “lottery” that gave him the top ballot spot. But despite the fact that his name came first, the only reason he got covered that year was when he showed up uninvited at the gubernatorial debate and refused to leave. Officials wound up deciding to postpone the debate, rather than deign to include Gierach.

Meister, who hints that his non-inclusion is due in part to being gay, comes off as the 2010 equivalent of Gierach – who was the candidate who tried campaigning on a platform that said the state’s drug policy was in serious need of reform.

It was (and still is), but nobody wanted to talk about it.

Now I know people in the news business who will defend almost to the death their right to exclude people from the coverage. I once had a political reporter-type for a central Illinois-based television station tell me with a straight face that trying to acknowledge every single name on the ballot would be “too confusing.”

PERSONALLY, I THINK every candidate who manages to get (and keep) his or her name on the Election Day ballot deserves some mention – even if a fringe candidate’s coverage is nothing more than an explanation of why this person does NOT deserve to be taken as serious as other candidates.

So it is with that in mind that I point out an e-mail message I received earlier this week from Tom Castillo, an electrician from Elmhurst who got onto the Democratic primary ballot for lieutenant governor – challenging four state legislators and a businessman (he owns a cleaning products company and the family pawn shop) for the right to be sitting pretty politically should something happen to a future Gov. Quinn/Hynes.

I wrote a commentary late last year about the campaign of Scott Lee Cohen (the businessman candidate), and Castillo this week objected to not being mentioned.

As he wrote to me, “You keep referring to Cohen as the only ‘outside candidate’ in the Lt. Governor’s race. I, too, am an outsider. I just don’t have the big bank account.”

BUT THE POINT of that particular commentary was to point out the influence, both positive and negative, that self-funded candidates can have on election cycles. It may not be fair, but it is life. The fact that Cohen can afford to pay for the kind of campaign that forces itself into the public eye means that eye should be critical.

With no prior government experience to provide a record of sorts that can be studied and no attention being paid otherwise, those will be the reasons that Castillo is likely to finish sixth in a six-candidate field come the night of Feb. 2.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Jacob Meister is one of the few people who thinks of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate from Illinois ( as a fully-legitimate four-way campaign.

This could wind up being Thomas Castillo’s only mention ( by the Chicago Argus. Here is “equal time” ( for Jacob Meister.

This is what can become ( of fringe candidates.

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