Complaints arise in governor's race over incumbency advantages
It's no secret that incumbency gives politicians certain advantages that many of their challengers can't match. Sometimes it's simply a higher public profile. But where to draw the line on using the advantages of office has become an issue in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, which includes two state officeholders - Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch. The Republican Party on Wendesday asked for an investigation into Hatch's use of state letterhead on campaign materials, as well as his campaign's use of reports produced by the attorney general's office. Hatch says Republicans are trying to cover up Governor Tim Pawlenty's attempts to use his office for political gain.
St. Paul, Minn. — Standing outside of Attorney General Mike Hatch's office, Republican Party Chair Ron Carey held up reports produced by the office that ended up on Hatch's official campaign website. The reports on the campaign site don't include any mention of the attorney general's office even though the original reports did.
Carey also said Hatch referenced his running mate, Judi Dutcher, in a press release on state letterhead and wrote a complaint to the Minnesota News Council on official letterhead that references his campaign for governor.
Independence Party Chair Jim Moore also questioned Hatch's use of the letterhead last week. Carey says he's asking the legislative auditor to investigate whether Hatch's action violate the state code of ethics.
"It is becoming increasingly clear to us at the Republican Party and apparently to those at the Independence Party that Mike Hatch has made his office, his official taxpayer funded office, into a shadow campaign headquarters," Carey said.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles says he was already looking into Hatch's office before the first complaints were publicly raised last week. The legislative auditor ensures that taxpayer money is spent only on authorized public purposes.
Nobles says there are laws restricting public office holders from linking to campaign information. He says the law doesn't have any restrictions on campaign sites.
Nobles says it can be difficult to determine when statewide office holders are taking advantage of their incumbency.
"They have officials functions to perform," Nobles noted. "For example the governor addressing the issue of meth offenders and having a proposal for them to be registered, that's very much within his purview as governor. Now is that part of his campaign initiative? That's a difficult judgement sometimes to make."
For his part, Hatch says he's allowed to put any publications on his website without restrictions. During an event at Farmfest near Redwood Falls, Hatch said the concerns about using official letterhead for political purposes is a smokescreen by the Republican Party to protect Pawlenty. Hatch says Pawlenty is the candidate who is using his office for political gain.
"I find it a little galling that the governor flies around the state plane holding political press conferences, as he has done for the last three times," Hatch said. "We're talking tens of thousands of dollars and I'm a little galled that the chair of the Republican Party would stand up and point out the fact that I'm putting up government publications on the website. I have every right in the world to do that."
Hatch was referring to the governor's statewide fly-around earlier this week to announce an executive order related to health care. The DFL Party says it filed a data practices request to see how much Pawlenty's trip cost state taxpayers.
Pawlenty says his office has a track record of travelling across the state when he makes major announcements. He says he's careful to make no mention of his campaign when he's on official business.
"The state's business doesn't come to a halt because there's a campaign, I still have to be governor," Pawlenty said. "We still have to develop the budget for next year. We still have to keep government running and if there are improvements, we think we should be able to communicate that and announce it."
Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson could not be reached for this story. But IP chair Jim Moore says he hopes Hatch and Pawlenty will draw a clear line between the public's work and stumping for votes. Moore says he thinks both Hatch and Pawlenty are using their offices for political purposes. He says it's unfair when incumbents can combine their campaign funds with with office staff, resources and travel budgets.
"We just want to point out that we're at a severe disadvantage if incumbents are utilizing their office to get the message out as opposed to their campaign staff," Moore said.
Moore called the GOP's request to investigate Hatch a "fishing expedition" and doesn't think the Independence Party will sue or make any any formal complaints on the issue. He hopes the media and the public will hold the candidates accountable if they cross the line.
- All Things Considered, 08/02/2006, 5:24 p.m.