An anonymous tipster sent us a note and some documents Friday at 3:45 p.m. -- shortly before quitting time, well after last week's paper went to bed and just a few days before Tuesday's election. The tip, as you all now know, was that Ryan Sundberg, candidate for supervisor from the Fifth District, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in December of last year. According to the court records sent, Sundberg's blood alcohol level at the time of arrest was .16 -- double the legal limit.
When you're as creaky and jaded and world-weary as I am, there was no mystery as to what was happening here. The tipster told us that he was someone "who helps journalists do their jobs," but it was pretty plain that the opposite was in fact the case: He wanted journalists to help him do his. This was a calculated smear job, aimed for maximum impact. Blog pundits at the Humboldt Herald, which printed the story a couple of hours later, would later reason that a true smear campaign would have dropped this bomb much earlier, in time for it to affect the absentee vote, but this reasoning is flawed: Most people still vote at the polls, especially if they're wavering, and if you want to smear a candidate then you want to do it while voters are still in the early phases of the Seven Stages of Grief. (The Times-Standard ran a fairly complete story on Sunday.)
So there we were Friday afternoon with a choice to make: Hold our noses and play along by throwing the thing up on our blog, or abstain. It was my call to make, and I made the latter. I'm not sure if I was right, but I'll give you my reasoning.
First, it should be said that there has been no love lost between the Journal's editorial staff and the Sundberg campaign. Sundberg himself always been decent with us, even though his positions on the issues were sometimes maddeningly vague. But Sundberg campaign manager Rich Mostranski pissed us off to no end, first by insisting that we only communicate to Sundberg through him (a stricture that the candidate himself ignored, happily), and secondly by insinuating that the debates we moderated on KHUM radio would be somehow tainted by the fact that those airwaves are owned by one of his opponents, Patrick Cleary. Everything else aside, our baser selves would have been happy to see Mostranski lose yet another election. That's about the sum total of our personal stake in this thing.
But I made the decision not to play for one reason: I could not see how it was relevant to the question at hand. America, as we are all aware, is full of nasty and stupid and irrelevant politics. Believe it or not, some people still think it important whether or not someone is a Christian, or whether or not they believe in evolution. We must all be vigilant to stop ourselves from sliding into this nonsense. To my mind -- again, I could be mistaken -- the late-breaking Sundberg expose fell into that category. Drunk driving, especially at the level that Sundberg was recorded at, is an inarguably heinous act. Still, I could not and cannot see how having once committed it, or having been arrested for it, might affect any vote Sundberg might be expected to take, were he elected. If you have a for-example, I would sincerely love to hear it.
There is a reasonable counterargument, which is this: It's not my place to judge what the voters, or readers of our blog, might make of Sundberg's arrest. Our job is to put it out there, and to let the voters decide. I still believe this is flawed. For instance, what if a candidate for office is gay, and chooses not to feature that in his/her campaign for whatever reason? Do I run with that information regardless? Inarguably, it would play some role in whether or not certain voters vote for that candidate. You will say that a candidate's sexuality is not as important as a candidate's criminal record, and you will be absolutely right. But the question is: Do we -- the Journal's editorial staff -- play some sort of curatorial role in what is important and what isn't in an election, or don't we?
If this weren't so clearly a hit job that sought to make tools of the Journal and the electorate -- if it had come out months ago -- then my response certainly would have been different. Shame on Sundberg for not being more upfront about it earlier, a self-defeating move if ever there was one. And though our omnipotence is greatly exaggerated in these ages of budget cuts and such, shame on we in the media for not ferreting it out sooner. But if the choice was to join a lightning round shock-and-awe campaign against the Fifth District electorate or not, then my decision was to not. Reasonable people may disagree.