Campaign Ethics Challenge
Suzanne Martinez loved libraries. She had always been a big supporter of the public library and was, along with her children, a regular patron. When a spot opened on the city of Hamilton's library commission, she was thrilled to be appointed to a four-year term. Noting a lack of children's programming, she spearheaded a project to bring in authors, increase the number of story hours, and add to the video collection. Her leadership was recognized by the commission when they voted her chair after only her first year on the commission.
When an incumbent city council member decided not to seek re-election, friends and family urged Suzanne to run. "You'd bring energy and great ideas to the council," said fellow commissioner Rod Jamison. "We all would benefit from having a library advocate on the city council."
The other candidate in the race, Paul Hunt, was a planning commissioner with nine years experience and the support of the "old guard" in Hamilton. He campaigned on his knowledge of city planning and zoning issues as well as his professional credentials as a certified public accountant.
As a political newcomer Suzanne had no idea of what to expect in the candidate's forums, but she did her homework and prepared herself to talk about her accomplishments as well as the city budget, development projects, and quality of life issues. In his opening remarks Hunt blasted her for "betraying the citizens of Hamilton" by voting to reduce hours at the public library. "If Commissioner Martinez can't look out for the best interests of the library how can we trust her to look after the best interests of our city?"
Stunned, Suzanne asked for clarification. In fact, the library commission had voted to recommend to the city council that if cutbacks needed to be made at the library, they should not come from staff, programs, or materials, but by reducing the operating hours by closing early on Friday nights. But the ultimate decision rested with the council.
Despite her explanation the charge stuck, and became a theme of Hunt's campaign. Suzanne felt especially stunned by the campaign flyer quoting her fellow commissioner, Rod Jamison. "Paul Hunt knows how to deal with budget problems. He won't solve them by reducing city services."
With just weeks left before the election, Suzanne's campaign manager urged her to go "on the attack." The only solution, he argued was to "play hardball. If he wants to distort your record, you have a right to distort his."
1. Were Paul Hunt's criticisms of Suzanne fair? Accurate?
2. Rod Jamison urged Suzanne to run but is supporting Hunt. How should Suzanne respond to her fellow commissioner?
3. What should she do next? Does she have any other alternatives to "hard ball?"
Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Jun 1, 2000
Government Ethics Stories
Politicians and the press
Punching a journalist impedes democratic process.
Mitch McConnell's leadership quandary
When roles conflict, oath provides direction.
The appearance of impropriety
Congressman calls out donor’s employee.