The Coppola-Matthes race dissectedDecember 28th, 2011 by Chris Henry
Before we relegate the 2011 Port Orchard mayor’s race to the
category of “water over the dam,” I will take one last whack at the
question of whether negative campaign ads contributed to Tim
5-vote victory over incumbent Lary Coppola.
Coppola came into the home stretch of his campaign with a track record of accomplishments the city has made on his watch, a long list of endorsements from business owners, community leaders and other elected officials, and substantial campaign funding.
Coppola raised and spent nearly $15,000, about three times as much as Matthes.
Matthes’ campaign contributions, most of which came as loans to himself, were below the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission’s $5,000 threshold for detailed reporting, available on the PDC’s website.
An anti-Coppola campaign mounted by People for a Better Port Orchard raised and spent just more than $2,800 on mailers designed to erode Coppola’s credibility.
One flier suggested Coppola exaggerated his role in reducing the city’s crime rate. Another criticized the mayor for requesting (and getting) more than the city had offered for a piece of property he owned on Tremont Street that is to be condemned.
The same flier bemoaned a water rate increase hammered out on Coppola’s watch and slammed the mayor for suggesting to the council early on in his term that the mayor’s position should be full-time, with commensurate compensation.
The council, excepting Fred Chang, agreed. Chang supported the concept of a full-time mayor but said the timing was off given the recession. Chang, head of the lodging tax advisory committee, also objected to the plan at the time to partially fund the increase with hotel-motel tax revenue, which is earmarked for tourism. Chang called the proposal “awkward, although it probably is legal.”
All other council members, except Fred Olin who was absent, voted for the change, which effectively tripled Coppola’s salary.
Although he had no direct say it the matter, and although the new salary was about equivalent to what the Mayor of Poulsbo makes, it created negative PR that has stuck to Coppola’s shoe throughout his term in office.
“He suggested it,” said Nancy Howson, a Matthes supporter. “I didn’t feel good about that. So many people are struggling. I just thought the timing was bad.”
P4P cited their sources, including local news publications and Port Orchard Police Department reports, with links on their website, www.letlarygo.com.
As the fliers came out, Matthes distanced himself from P4P, saying he had neither known of nor condoned their efforts.
donor among the largest donors to the
anti-Coppola group, giving a total of $500. Also donating $500
were Jon Yamamura and Steve Sego, who lists his address as the
residence owned by Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Coreen
Donating $250 was Gil Michael, whom Matthes called “my right-hand guy” on Dec. 6, the night his victory was confirmed.
Chang and Michael also donated directly to Matthes’ campaign. Chang gave $167 of in-kind goods or services. Michael gave $250.
Matthes, on his campaign website, made a point of saying he discouraged endorsements and large campaign contributions that could make a candidate beholden to interest groups, large corporations or people who live outside the city. He had a self-imposed contribution limit of $200 for individuals and $500 for organizations.
“My Grandmother Sylvia always said, ‘If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised if you get up with fleas,’” Matthes wrote in a statement about campaign contributions on his website. “Check out candidates’ websites to see if you can tell who will be given special favors in the future.”
Whether Matthes realized it or not, the literal effect of his limiting campaign contributions and his denial of affiliation with P4P allowed both his campaign and the anti-Coppola group to fly under the radar so to speak.
Had either group raised more than $5,000, detailed records of their contributors and expenditures would have been readily available throughout the campaign on the Washington Public Disclosure Commission’s website.
As it was, the law provided for access to those records as follows: anyone interested could contact the campaign or group in person during the eight business days preceding the election.
All perfectly legal, but the effect, it seemed, was to fuel a rumor mill that turned toxic in the last few weeks of the campaign.
According to Lori Anderson of the PDC, Port Orchard was one of several places around the state where in-person records reviews resulted in ugly confrontations.
Anderson said word trickled down to the PDC that Coppola’s wife Dee was firmly asked to leave the premises of the printing company used by P4P.
And so it went in a race that has driven a wedge between two former allies.
Whether the fliers had any substantive effect on the race remains open to debate.
Significantly, Coppola lost votes in 2011 in the city’s four original precincts (earning 810 votes total), as compared with the support he received in 2007 (1,103 votes), when there was a far smaller turnout.
Voters in McCormick Woods, the city’s newest neighborhood, helped make up the difference (620 votes total in 2011). But it wasn’t enough.
Coppola disparaged the P4P fliers, calling their content “blatant lies.”
Anderson, to whom I sent copies of the fliers, couldn’t comment on Coppola’s assertion. The PDC would dig down into the weeds only if a formal complaint against P4P were filed, which hasn’t happened to date, she said.
A civil suit for damages would be a separate option open to anyone who believes campaign materials have crossed the threshold of the state’s prohibition against materials that are “false,” “libelous” or “defamatory,” Anderson added.
The upshot of any challenge would not change the outcome of the election, Anderson said.
Incidentally, in 2007 the state’s Supreme Court found Washington State’s law prohibiting false political advertising to be unconstitutional. The decision pertained to the case that pitted former Green Party candidate Marylou Rickert of Shelton against the PDC, which fined her $1,000 after deciding she deliberately made false statements about the voting record of state Sen. Tim Sheldon in his 2002 re-election campaign.
The 2009 Legislature reasserted the state’s right to ban false political advertising, but added the provisions that it must be “libelous” or “defamatory,” apparently to mollify free speech advocates. The PDC hasn’t received any complaints about false ads since the 2009 law, Anderson said.
The transition of power at city hall — or lack thereof — has been painful to watch, with public jabs and parting shots from both camps.
I know I’m arriving a little late to this party — weighing in at the 11th hour as it were — but I think it’s safe to say that Port Orchard is ready to move on.
Larry Stokes, who supported Matthes but considers himself a friend of both candidates, put it this way:
“I think we’re lucky we got them both. I would hope Tim and Lary bury the hatchet and Tim relies on him for some advice and so forth and so on, and we all live happily ever after in Port Orchard.