Originally published August 6, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated August 6, 2012 at 3:12 p.m.
Ryann Grochowski is a reporter with KPBS' media partner, Investigative Newsource
Carl Luna, professor of political science, Mesa College
Why would a Republican candidate appear on a campaign flier that endorses a Democratic President? The Investigations Desk takes a closer look at why Gary Kreep appears on campaign mailers with Barack Obama. Kreep, who won his race for Superior Court Judge, has serious doubts about whether Obama is a U.S. citizen.
In a huge election year like this one, every candidate wants to make a personal connection. And one of the major ways they do it is by stuffing your mailbox with fliers about topics you care about -- with their name and picture.
You saw this in June and will again in November. And the experts warn: Look closely.
One of the most notorious of political advertisements is the slate mailer. It can be confusing. It can be deceptive. It’s been part of the California political landscape for decades and it is perfectly legal.
Slate mailers list a bunch of candidates and leave the impression that they all stand together on a particular party or issue. Often, that’s not the case.
Take Superior Court judicial candidate Gary Kreep, who won a close race in June against prosecutor Garland Peed. Kreep, a conservative, self-described constitutional lawyer who believes President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, paid to appear on slate mailers, some featuring Obama. Kreep reported paying several slate mailer organizations about $30,000 before the June primary. It was the bulk of his advertising budget.
Other local judicial candidates also spent money to appear on slates, a way to stretch their campaign dollars.
Slate mailers are as much a part of the election season as red, white and blue bunting. They’re cheap, they’re targeted and they work, according to Allan Hoffenblum, a former slate mailer producer. He got into the slate mail business about four decades ago, and, as he put it, “made a huge sum of money” from them.
“These judges use them because it’s about the only thing that they can afford,” Hoffenblum said. Even incumbent judges can’t raise the kind of money they would need for customized mailings, he said.
“You can get your name on a slate card, with a persuasive message, for something like three cents, a nickel, at the most maybe a dime (per card),” Hoffenblum said. “They’re very cost effective for candidates.”
Slate mailer basics
State and local Democrat and Republican groups usually distribute slate mailers listing their endorsed candidates. But most are what Hoffenblum calls “buyer beware” mailers. They are produced by for-profit organizations who often try to make the flier look like it’s sanctioned by a specific political party by decorating it with elephants, donkeys or portraits of Ronald Reagan.
“They usually have a fireman, a dog, a puppy, a baby or a flag on it, to make it look very patriotic,” said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College. “The hope is that voters who haven’t made up their minds will look at that and say ‘Hey, my choices are made for me.’”
At a quick glance, it appears all these candidates stand together with the official-sounding organizations that send them out -- organizations like the Coalition for Literacy, Budget Watchdogs and Woman’s Voice. A closer look shows many of these mailers are put out by the same company. Landslide Communications in Irvine, for example, publishes the California Public Safety Voter Guide, Woman’s Voice, National Tax Limitation Committee mailer, and more.
Here’s how it works: candidates pay a fee -- usually a couple thousand dollars -- to appear on a given number of mailers. The producers fill the open, unsold spots with a range of other candidates. An asterisk designates the candidates who paid to appear on the mailer.
Slate mailers may often be controversial but they have few regulations.
“It’s really kind of an exercise of the free market,” said Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement of the state’s Fair Political Practices Organization.
Slate mailer producers -- there are currently more than 90 active in the state -- must file financial statements regularly with the secretary of state, and each mailer must display a disclaimer:
“Appearance in this mailer does not necessarily imply endorsement by others appearing in this mailer, nor does it imply endorsement of or opposition to any issues set forth in this mailer. Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate designated by an * (asterisk). Not paid for or authorized by candidates not designated by an * (asterisk).”
Slate mailers have the potential to confuse voters, especially those who do not notice or read the tiny disclaimers. It’s up to the discretion of the mailer producers as to which candidates to include to fill out the slate.
“They could put (San Diego mayoral candidate) Carl DeMaio on with Lady Gaga,” Luna said.
An example is the Coalition for Literacy’s “Election Digest.” This slate mailer, produced in Torrance, has candidates who purportedly support literacy efforts in schools and prisons. Obama and Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein top the list. Their names are not designated with an asterisk, so they did not pay to appear.
But Kreep, who didn’t respond to several requests for an interview, did -- and that’s how he ended up on a slate card with a President he believes is unqualified.
“Now, nowhere on that little mailer does it say ‘Barack Obama loves Judge Kreep,’ but voters will make that inference,” Luna said. “And that’s where you can get into some trouble with these sorts of mailers, in terms of them looking very legitimate to the average voter.”
If a voter doesn’t take a close look at the mailer’s fine print, that nuance can be lost. Nadine Scott, an Oceanside resident and active participant in her local Democratic club, said the slate mailers confused many people.
“It’s just an outrage that someone like that could appear to be endorsed by Democrats, and undoubtedly he had a pretty strong Democratic vote because judgeships aren’t a really well-known candidate,” Scott said.
There are plenty of slate mailer organizations that cater to both political parties. Republican candidates sometimes buy space on Democratic-leaning slate mailers and vice versa, said Tony Krvaric, chair of the county’s Republican party.
“What is important to know is that these aren’t Republican or Democratic whatsoever,” Krvaric said. “It’s just a business anybody can set up.”
That leaves the voter to discern whether a candidate is worth his or her vote.
“Don’t base your vote just on a slate mailer any more than you base your choices on what you’re going to buy on a late-night infomercial,” Luna said. “Do some research, look at what each candidate wants to stand for.”
Voters will undoubtedly get the chance to research in the months to come. With many competitive national races, Luna expects slate mailer use to increase.
“Coming up with the November election,” he predicted, “you will get as many of these in the mail as you get credit card advertisements.”