It is a sad fact of electoral politics: When you throw your hat in the ring for any office, particularly one as high-profile as U.S. senator, your life becomes an open book. And what people think of your personal character, not your beliefs or actions, determines many votes. Ask George Bush.
Or ask Aaron Dixon, the Green Party candidate for Democrat Maria Cantwell's Senate seat whose campaign I wrote about in this space two weeks ago.
On March 23, David Goldstein, an avid Cantwell supporter who writes the liberal blog HorsesAss.org, wondered idly what Dixon's voting record was. He discovered, and immediately posted, that Dixon had registered in 1998 at an old address and had not voted since.
This piqued the interest of one of the blog's readers, maverick Republican and frequent electoral candidate Richard Pope, who went to work. And what Pope found from easily accessible public records, mostly in one day, which was dutifully posted at Goldstein's site and circulated to local media, was truly astonishing.
Dixon also never voted in King County before 1998, meaning quite simply that he's never voted. But Dixon has bigger problems. Among them:
Eighteen criminal charges in the past 17 years, most (but not all) for traffic violations and unpaid traffic fines.
Massive debts from dozens of unpaid fines in both Seattle Municipal Court and King County District Court. A number are for driving without insurance. (And yes, he can afford it; in 2004, the last year for which records are available, Pope found that Dixon's nonprofit Central House paid him nearly $60,000 in salary and expenses.)
Dixon claims on his Web site that the woman he lives with (and who was until recently his campaign media contact) is his wife. But she isn't, and she'd better not be. He's still in the process of divorcing his actual wife.
He owes thousands of dollars in unpaid child support to yet another ex.
In response, Dixon's people refer everyone to a statement by Dixon on his Web site. It basically denies and then verifies each finding. On traffic fines: "As a single father of three at the time of the citations, I was not able to keep track of my fines. I am now rectifying this situation." His latest "marriage" was an exchange of vows, but not legal. The child support debts were really day-care costs added to his child support, and "I have been making payments towards that debt." These personal attacks were made by "Democratic Party supporters," when in fact Pope, who unearthed the court records, is a Republican.
It's not a personal attack, Aaron. It's the glare of political publicity.
People get curious. Personal character matters to voters. None of this has the slightest thing to do with Dixon's remarkable achievements as a community activist over the past 40 years. He is hardly the first community activist whose personal life is messy. It happens.
But in election campaigns, image is king. Dixon should have known to take care of these little messes before running for statewide office, but perhaps he did not. So what the hell was the Green Party thinking?
This is Campaign 101. You conduct opposition research on your own candidates, because your opponents (if they take you seriously) will. Did the Greens expect not to be taken seriously? Or are they just stunningly ignorant about how this campaign thing works? Or were they fully informed and hoping to inspire the nonvoting, deadbeat-dad, traffic-scofflaw constituency to send in their ballots?
I believe in the Greens' ideals. I like and respect Dixon, too. The painful thing about this is that it was entirely unnecessary.
The Greens could and should have covered all this before ever talking with Dixon. They could have found some other, more appropriate black community activist to run for U.S. Senate. There is no excuse for not vetting Dixon.
The Greens had to know that between Nader's 2000 "spoiler" run, which still rankles many Democrats, and Dixon's lingering Seattle reputation for his teenage Black Panther exploits, someone would check him out. (Some people have long, resentful memories when it comes to folks advocating armed revolution.) The Greens are now angry at Goldstein, but if he and Pope hadn't found this stuff, someone else who knows how to work the system would have.
Now a good man is being publicly humiliated, his campaign badly damaged, and the Greens are a laughingstock. Ugly. Really ugly. And completely, absolutely avoidable.