The 1988 presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis made more than its fair share of missteps. Still, it is not a stretch to say that the Dukakis dream died the day Vice President George H.W. Bush first mentioned the name Willie Horton.
Two years earlier, Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, had assaulted a Maryland couple. He knifed and beat the man and raped his fiancée while on a weekend furlough program from a Massachusetts prison. By the end of the ’88 presidential campaign, Republicans had made good on the pledge of Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, to make Horton a household name. The GOP ad campaigns featuring Horton’s black “thug”-shot became a symbol of soft-on-crime Democrats—and an effective exercise in campaign fear mongering.
Now the GOP is at it again in Massachusetts. Democrat Deval Patrick, the black former chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Clinton, appeared to be coasting to victory in his gubernatorial campaign against Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey. After the September primary, Patrick boasted a lead of more than 30 points in some polls. And Healey was making little headway portraying herself as a change agent given that four GOP governors-including incumbent Mitt Romney, who isn't seeking re-election so he can focus on his presidential aspirations—have held the top job on Beacon Hill since 1990.
So in recent weeks, the GOP’s turned to “Willie Hortonizing” Patrick. He’s been linked—through both Healey-endorsed Republican ads and anonymous new leaks—to three convicted criminals, one a family member. The names the GOP wants voters to remember in November are Carl Ray Songer, Benjamin LaGuer and Bernard Sigh. The plan might be working: a recent poll shows Patrick’s lead has shrunk to 13 points. And Healey, who has a Ph.D. in criminology, is married to one of the wealthiest businessmen in the state, providing her with seemingly unlimited resources to keep up the fire. (Asked about their ad campaigns, Stuart Stevens, a Healey campaign consultant, said, “There are legitimate differences on crime and we’re going to talk about them.”)
Who are these three men?
Carl Ray Songer: Songer was convicted of murdering a Florida state trooper in 1973. Patrick handled the 1985 appeal as a lawyer with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (He argued that, in the penalty phase of the trial, the jury didn’t hear crucial arguments before it issued a death sentence.) The appeal was successful; Songer is serving a life term. This seems to be a clear-cut case of Patrick doing his job—and doing it well. Still, an ad for Healey confuses. Its tag line is: “While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop killers, do we really want one as governor?” Grammarians will note the ambiguity of “one,” which makes it unclear whether the lawyer or the cop-killer is running for governor. Moreover, by using Songer, who is white, for its first attack, the GOP should dodge the racist accusations that dogged the Horton ad campaign.
Benjamin LaGuer: LaGuer was a young, black man of Hispanic origin convicted in 1984 of raping a 59-year-old woman for more than eight hours. In calls and letters to prominent civic leaders and journalists, he said he was a victim of mistaken identity. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel rallied to the cause, as did John Silber, then president of Boston University. Patrick wound up writing letters on LaGuer’s behalf to the Massachusetts Parole Board. And he wrote a check to help secure a DNA test for LaGuer (which confirmed his guilt). But when reporters asked about it, Patrick’s memory became hazy and he recalled writing only a single letter. A TV ad asks: “What kind of person defends a brutal rapist?” Patrick told reporters the attack was a “cheap shot”—but apologized at a campaign appearance “to anyone who feels we didn’t come forward with all the facts” about his efforts on LaGeur’s behalf.
Bernard Sigh: The Boston Herald reported last Friday that in 1993 Patrick’s brother-in-law, Sigh, was convicted of raping his wife, Patrick’s sister, and was now an unregistered sex offender living in Massachusetts. The story is true: Sigh served a short prison sentence, reconciled with his wife and moved to Massachusetts. Patrick told reporters the couple are now deacons in their church and counsel other couples. Most distressingly for the family, Patrick said, their two young children were unaware of their parents’ history. The Healey campaign denies having any hand in the story.
Dukakis said recently that the smears were worse than anything done to him; Sen. Edward Kennedy, appearing with Patrick last week, decried the ad campaigns as “gutter politics.” And at a fundraiser for Patrick in Boston last Monday, Clinton deplored the tactics in a speech. He said, “They don’t do that unless they think they’re going to get a big whuppin’ laid on.” Still, Patrick finds himself on the defensive. It’s a sign of how effective Healey’s latest attacks have been when a man who grew up in the Chicago projects has to compare crime creds with a suburbanite from the state’s affluent Prides Crossing neighborhood of Beverly, MA.