Mayoral candidate Ed Murray and his boosters have been in hot water for stretching the truth lately. Murray claimed in a TV debate last week that Mayor Mike McGinn didn't create the Community Police Commission (the mayor did create it). Last month, Murray claimed violent crime is up across the city (even though violent crime is mostly down). An endorser at one of Murray's campaign press conference even declared the economy was nosediving under McGinn when it's actually on an upswing. Those sort of cynical messages may be the stock-in-trade of politics, but this week, a pro-Murray PAC spent $63,000 to put a particularly egregious claim before voters with a new television commercial that uses battered women to smear Mayor McGinn. The pro-Murray commercial blasts the mayor for eliminating the city's domestic violence office and essentially blames the mayor for a 60 percent rise felony domestic-violence charges.
That would be terrible—if true.
I wrote briefly about the ad on Wednesday, but my research since then into the city budget, women served by the city, and DV prosecutions reveals just how manipulative—and wrong—this message is.
Domestic violence services were not eliminated, as the ad implies; they increased by all metrics. In fact, the city increased funding by 19 percent for domestic violence services over the last three years (up $800,000 this year); the city's domestic-violence case workers helped 5 percent more women (more than 400 additional women last year than in 2010); and the rise in those felony charges is partly tethered to the fact that state law changed. The first three years after the law was expanded to include strangulation, the new felony charge was used 774 times in King County, according to the chief domestic-violence prosecutor. This parcel of data, which I detail down below, shows that domestic violence enforcement and prevention looks stronger than ever in recent years. And it reveals the pro-Murray commercial as the biggest whopper yet.
- THEY SAY TAKE IT OFF THE AIR: Leading a press conference in Mayor McGinn's campaign office Thursday was Patricia Hayden, co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition, along with Someireh Amirfaiz, Dr. Sutapa Basu, Maria Batayola, and other experts on domestic-violence and human trafficking.
"We suggest that you take that ad down as it does not speak candidly to the truth," said Patricia Hayden, co-chair of Seattle Human Services Coalition, speaking at a press conference Thursday on behalf of domestic-violence and human-trafficking prevention leaders.
The women argued that the ad actually does harm by sending a message that the city has no services to help abused women, when, in fact, case workers are standing by. "We shouldn’t make women’s lives a campaign issue," argued Dr. Sutapa Basu, director of the Women’s Center at the University of Washington. Several of the women called it a "deceptive" attack.
So what's the pro-Murray PAC argument?
The mayor and city council technically did eliminate the Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention Division in 2011 when they folded it into another division in the city's Human Services Department. In doing do, the city also laid off the division's director, Terri Kimball, and asked her to re-apply for a new position. Kimball didn't re-apply for a job, city officials say. But she did appear in the ad to claim, "To McGinn, domestic violence just wasn't a priority."
But Hayden warned: "It is dangerous to link the exit of one city employee to a rise in domestic violence."
Still, this tactic will probably work. A consultant for the ad was reportedly Tim Ceis, dubbed "the shark" as chief of staff for former mayor Greg Nickels (ousted by McGinn four years ago), and he's known for hardball politics. The ad exploits McGinn's low rating among women in recent polls, and Ceis knows that hit pieces from outside groups are a classic last-minute election technique. While the official Murray campaign runs positive ads that feature smiling politicians who endorse him, this PAC juxtaposes those images with a rotation of their negative ads (which Murray can claim he's not responsible for). Playing negative may be particularly important for Murray, who hasn't stood for much—even his boosters at the Seattle Times editorial board complained that "details are needed to back up gauzy talk." But this campaign strategy doesn't attempt to clarify Murray's agenda or demonstrate he will be a competent mayor, just convince voters that McGinn is incompetent on women's issues.
Well-funded smears are nearly impossible to fight: It takes only a 30-second, slick commercial backed by big spending for air time to spread simple message to a mass audience, but it requires lots of reporting and words to deconstruct it.
Since we're here, let's look at the facts:
Funding Increased: Despite the ad's claim, there never was a "domestic violence office." There was a Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention Division, which now does the same work in the Community Support and Self Sufficiency Division. The offices never vanished. Again, the domestic-violence work, and the case-workers' jobs, was protected and remained in the same department, but it occurred under a different name. Funding for that for domestic-violence work increased overall under McGinn. It was $4.2 million in 2010, down to slightly $4 million in 2011, respored to $4.2 million 2012, and then up to what appears to be record level of $5 million in 2013. As Dr. Basu argued, the city was trying to streamline administration and break down silos between services. "It is not about the title [of the division] but about efficiency in delivering services to women in need," said Basu. And the city has delivered more.
Case Workers Helped More Women: In McGinn's first year, operating with a budget set by the Nickels administration, domestic-violence case workers helped 8,424 women. That number increased to 8,801 women in 2011 and 8,856 in 2012. According to Human Services Department projections, this year case workers will help between 9,000 and 9,200 women.
Stronger Laws Led to More Charges: The pro-Murray ad refers specifically to one type of felony, aggravated assault related to domestic violence. The legislature in 2007 expanded the law that covers that crime to include strangulation. "Before the law changed, the act of strangulation, although an incredibly common form of inter-partner violence, was a misdemeanor," says David Martin, who has supervised the domestic violence unit for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office for the past 12 years. After the law took effect, he tells me, "There was an increase in the number of felony assaults in the second degree as domestic violence charges, and the reason is that we we took cases that were previously charged as misdemeanors." Martin says it took a while for police to grow familiar with the new law, but then use of the charge surged. It took effect in July of 2007, a year when the strangulation charge was applied in 70 cases in the county. Felony strangulation DV charges in King County rose to 185 the next year, up to 201 the next, 238 by 2010, and then 80 in the first five few months of 2011. The legislature expanded the law in 2011 to include suffocation. Due to a switch in computer systems, Martin says he could not provide complete data for the following two years. He couldn't provide strangulation-charge data specific to Seattle the last two years. But the trend is obvious: This change in law resulted in snowballing felony prosecutions for domestic violence—exactly the charge that the pro-Murray camp cites as rising. "Specifically strangulation was the second most common domestic-violence felony charged" in the most recent two quarters of 2013, second only to violating a court order, Martin says.
In short, there is more money now, more assistance now, and abusers getting the felony charges they likely deserve. "This tool is being used by police and prosecutors for its intended purpose, which is to hold batterers accountable," Martin says.
So I asked the PAC behind the commercial: "Do you stand behind the ad?"
"Absolutely," said spokesman Dean Nielsen. "Mike McGinn needs to run on his record, and he's upset about being held accountable." Nielsen was speaking on behalf of the pro-Murray independent political action committee behind the ad called People for a New Mayor. Given that the data don't support the message, how do they justify it? Neilsen says the piece cites an article in the Seattle Times; however, that article provides crucial details his ad doesn't: that funding and services continued. Just last night the Seattle Times even acknowledged that the ad was "mostly false."
Nick Hanauer, listed as one of the ad's prime sponsors, refused to comment.
For his part, Murray also refuses to comment on the claims in the ad—which features him smiling—and instead his campaign sent me links to articles. But many of the articles (such as here and here) include key information that the ad omits: that funding continued, that the domestic violent divisions was folded into another division but its work continued, and that experts widely speculated that the recession had exacerbated domestic tensions that led to violence. Still, campaign spokesman Sandeep Kaushik gushed, "I'm happy to comment on Mayor McGinn's dismal record of bad decisions on domestic violence."
If you're still reading this long post—you are very patient—I'll explain why I'm writing at this length for a routine campaign fact-check. I do intend to vote for McGinn, that's true. But part of the reason I'm voting for him (I originally leaned toward Murray, actually) is because Murray and his backers have turned me off by fudging facts and fear mongering. For the record, there is a good debate to be had about keeping the name of the DV division, but in the end, more women were served and the city's services are quickly located with a Google search. But this ad isn't promoting a helpful debate.
Managing police and fighting crime is the paramount duty of a mayor, and it's among the most studied, carefully tracked work of a city. We have the data to make informed decisions that make us safer. We don't want politicians to mislead us into believing crime is spiking everywhere, which can lead to mis-deploying limited resources in ways that make people feel good but may actually make certain parts of the city more dangerous. We don't need to politicize a police-reform commission that relies on accurate data to make the best recommendations. And we absolutely do not need to stage dishonest smears as part of a mayoral power-grab that uses battered women as props, particularly when it sends a message that services don't exist when they do exist. Stoking terror promotes silence and complicity among victims and boldness among predators. We have data and no one should be tasked more with using it accurately than the mayor, who is in charge of the police force. Fault McGinn for ways he's handled the cops—I have repeatedly—but if Murray is to prove he can be a better mayor, he needs to stop being part of this problem. What we see from Murray's backers (who will become his henchmen at City hall if he's elected) and his own tacit endorsement of the ad, if he remains silent, is that Murray will set aside facts to scare people into supporting him, fabricate narratives that hurt his enemies, and deceive the public to be fearful or feel good at his own political convenience. That was the George W. Bush tactic that justified a war we didn't need. But it doesn't make us safer. It's dangerous.