A once-in-a-generation opportunity for Democrats to grab a congressional seat in the heart of the Valley is quickly becoming one of the nastiest races of the 2012 cycle.
The three-way Democratic primary in the 9th Congressional District between Andrei Cherny, David Schapira and Kyrsten Sinema has been defined lately by a spate of vicious attacks. Even some veteran Democratic operatives are taken aback by the ferocity of the race.
Paul Ulan, of the firm Primary Consultants, said the three candidates should avoid bloodying each other to the point that it will hurt them in the general election.
“You knew that there were going to be fireworks. I’m a little surprised it’s gotten this ugly, this fast. It’s gotten personal,” Ulan said. “It’s May. … If you’re seeing this now, it’s only going to get worse.”
Most recently, Schapira and Sinema have repeatedly blasted Cherny over a racially insensitive campaign ad from his 2002 race for the California Assembly. The flyer, which attacked his Democratic primary opponent as soft on crime, depicted a young black man pointing a gun at the reader with one hand while making a gang sign with the other. The phrase “Gangs, Graffiti, Rapists & Thugs” is emblazoned across the front of the ad.
A joint statement by Schapira and Sinema said Cherny must end “his brand of sleazy campaigning and focus on the real issues.” An earlier Sinema statement said Cherny’s 2002 ad was described by others at the time as “blatant race-baiting” and “despicable.”
Schapira and Sinema helped organize a press conference on May 8 by their campaign surrogates to denounce the mailer and demand that Cherny apologize, though he’d released a statement the previous evening saying he regretted using the image that appeared on the flyer. Two Sinema supporters – the Schapira supporters didn’t show up – accused Cherny of using “race to divide people” and urged him to avoid such tactics in his CD9 campaign.
“This image was used to scare white voters in an upper-class white area. This is a campaign ad that uses race to divide people to create fear. This ad is just plain wrong,” said Rep. Katie Hobbs, who endorsed Sinema.
In responding to criticism of his 2002 mailer – as well as a press conference held by two Sinema supporters denouncing the ad – Cherny and his supporters let loose with a barrage of invective against his two opponents. Rep. Ruben Gallego called the attacks “gutter politics” and Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski said it was “the most disgusting kind of politics I’ve ever seen in the Democratic Party.”
Cherny’s rival campaigns accused him of planting anti-Sinema articles in conservative blogs and intentionally distorting her record. Cherny campaign manager Seth Scott denied allegations that he leaked a story to the conservative blog Washington Free Beacon that criticized Sinema as anti-Israel.
Each campaign insists it’s the others, not themselves, that have gone negative.
Rodd McLeod, Sinema’s campaign consultant, said the negative campaigning began when Cherny criticized Sinema for her opposition to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He said Cherny’s accusations that Sinema – whom he said supported going after Al Qaeda terrorists but opposed invading Iraq – was in the “radical minority” is a “classic right-wing attack campaign.”
Sinema responded to Cherny’s criticism of her position on the wars with a statement from campaign chairman Sam Coppersmith comparing Cherny to former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.
“This is typical Republican trash talk from someone who is desperate to get elected. You’ll probably hear lies like that used against President Obama this fall – but did you expect to hear them from a Democrat?” Coppersmith said in the press statement.
McLeod said Sinema had held her tongue, but the breaking point was the Cherny campaign’s attack on her opposition to the wars, which triggered Coppersmith’s response. He reiterated his accusations that Cherny’s campaign planted stories in a conservative blog and noted that Cherny initially told the Arizona Republic that his 2002 mailer was accurate and fairly represented his opponent’s views, only to say he regretted the ad a week later.
“Mr. Cherny has decided to run a campaign that is underhanded and full of false, negative attacks,” McLeod said. “There’s just one candidate who’s had to apologize for his behavior. It took him 10 years, but he did apologize.”
Scott said Cherny was simply pointing out a policy difference with Sinema, not going negative on her.
“I don’t think that they can legitimately point to something we’ve done that doesn’t discuss an issue and policy difference,” Scott said. “We’re not going to engage in character assassination the way they have.”
In his statement, Cherny said he understands why some people were offended by the image he used in his mailer. As to the appropriateness of the image, Scott only said, “That’s for other people to judge.”
Schapira has joined forces with Sinema against Cherny, but thus far has largely managed to stay out of the other campaigns’ crosshairs. D.J. Quinlan, Schapira’s campaign manager, said the harshest statement Schapira made about his opponents prior to the joint statement with Sinema was to poke fun at his rivals for moving into CD9 for their campaigns.
Quinlan placed the blame for the negativity of the race squarely on Cherny’s shoulders. He said the press release comparing Cherny to Cheney was “pretty tough,” but said there’s a difference between attacking an opponent and simply responding to an attack.
“I think the overwhelming majority of it is coming from one campaign,” Quinlan said.
Scott said the other campaigns are attacking Cherny, the runaway fundraising leader in the race with a whopping $430,000 raised in the first quarter of 2012, because of his strong position in the primary.