‘Clean campaign’ pledge stirs controversy among candidates in Merced County sheriff’s race

05/02/2014 11:00 PM

05/03/2014 11:49 PM

A written pledge to run a “clean campaign” exposed rifts this week between some of the candidates competing to be the next Merced County sheriff.

Written by Pat Lunney, who signed it along with retired sheriff’s Sgt. Vern Warnke, the Clean Campaign Pledge aims to “show voters we all want to campaign on the issues germane to the office,” Lunney said.

“I think this is the office in the county that has the highest integrity and trust with the people in the county, and we should conduct our campaigns in that light so the voters can clearly see what we’re all doing,” Lunney said.

The two other candidates, Merced County sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Swiggart and Livingston City Councilman Jim Soria, declined to sign the pledge.

Swiggart questioned the need for a written pledge, saying he verbally committed earlier this year to running a campaign free of personal attacks. “I gave my word at the beginning of the campaign in January, and I don’t think I’ve done anything to lose credibility or trust at this point,” he said.

Swiggart also questioned the need for a written pledge “so late in the campaign.”

“Perhaps some people have things they want to hide,” Swiggart said. “I don’t have anything to hide. If anyone wants to question me about anything in my past, they just have to ask me.”

Soria also refused to sign the documents, according to the other candidates. Soria did not return numerous phone calls this week seeking comment.

Lunney and Warnke brushed off Swiggart’s comments.

“I think it’s very fair to look at all our past records and qualifications,” Lunney said. “To suggest that somebody has something to hide says to me that person may not be concentrating on issues germane to the sheriff’s race and to the voters.”

Warnke said signing the pledge was “the adult thing to do.”

“I think Pat’s idea behind this was to show people who are tired of all the mudslinging in politics that this race is going to be different,” Warnke said. “I don’t think anybody has anything to hide. I think the two that refused to sign have incorrect perceptions about what it means.”

Lunney, Warnke and Swiggart all said they essentially define “mudslinging” as distorting an opponent’s position on issues or exaggerating an opponent’s record. All agreed factual criticism of an opponent was part of giving voters the most accurate view of all the candidates.

Stephen Routh, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, said clean campaign pledges are “quite common,” particularly in “local-level races.” Routh did not comment on the sheriff’s race in Merced County, but spoke in general terms about the political strategy and possible effectiveness of such pledges.

“Theoretically, it’s a great idea to get the mudslinging out of a race,” Routh said. “Studies show that negativity hurts voter turnout. People don’t like it.”

However, Routh said, it can be hard for voters to gauge whether such pledges work and that pledges can hurt candidates if everyone does not sign.

“Ultimately, there’s no way for candidates to enforce these things,” Routh said. “The problem with negative campaigning is that studies also show they’re effective. So, if some candidates don’t sign, then the ones that do sign may be handcuffing themselves if they can’t push back against negativity.”

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