Monday, July 17, 2006

Nebraska Democrats Get Clever

by Kyle Michaelis
A full-page advertisement was taken out in the Sunday Omaha World-Herald, paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party (click for higher resolution). It highlights the on-going debacle of billionaire-to-be Pete Ricketts' attempting to avoid paying $6,000 in property taxes on his million dollar home while spending upwards of $6 million on his vanity campaign for the U.S. Senate:

Although somewhat amusing - guess what - I'm not a fan. While I'm sure those who put the ad together are very proud of themselves for being so clever and those (like myself) already inclined to mock Ricketts with comparisons to Lex Luthor and Richie Rich probably enjoyed it as well, I don't see it helping one iota towards securing Sen. Nelson's reelection. In fact, I'd suggest that it may needlessly open an opportunity for the Ricketts campaign and could blow-up in Nelson and the Democratic Party's face.

Hopefully, I'm being overly-caustious when I say that. This whole pattern of property tax avoidance on the part of Pete Ricketts is pretty damn pathetic. The six thousand dollars he doesn't want to pay - which goes directly to local schools and finally reflects what he paid for his house 7 years earlier, before recent improvements to the property - isn't going to elicit much sympathy from the average Nebraska home owner who's been paying the full value on his or her home plus inflation all that time.

But, let's face it - a lot of Nebraskans are pissed off about recent hikes in their property assessments. Lancaster County has seen a near-record number of appeals this year, and you know Pete Ricketts isn't alone in Douglas County either. By attacking Ricketts in the broad sense this ad entails - for not paying his 'fair share' - the Nebraska Democratic Party could be said to be attacking every home owner who's filed an appeal - not to mention a whole lot more who thought about it or would have done so if it weren't so much hassle.

For a party that has taken such a beating over the last few decades for being tax-happy, does that really seem like a smart idea?

That's my problem with the ad - more than just forsaking the moral high ground and precluding me from ever again condemning Ricketts' negative attacks without testing my internal hypocrisy detector - it also fails to target that which is truly objectionable about Ricketts' behavior: not the fact that he doesn't want to pay more taxes than he has to (a desire shared by most Nebraskans) but the pettiness of fighting a fair valuation while spending so extravagantly on his Senate campaign.

By being cute, the ad may well make more of an impression, but I'm not at all convinced it's going to be the impression that was desired.

I think the majority of readers who saw this ad probably found it mean-spirited and childish. Those who will find it clever are not likely to be the persuadable Independents and Republicans Ben Nelson needs and has so far demonstrated his ability to hold. Amongst these voters, in fact, I would contend that this ad is not only too unfocused to be effective but also might be vaguely insulting.

If played correctly, this could have been one of those festering wounds in the Ricketts campaign that lingered from here until November - inviting a steady flow of criticism for being a Dead-Beat Billionaire who continues to burn millions upon millions of dollars on this campaign but wouldn't pay a few thousand in reasonable taxes to support local education.

By going high-profile with this attack - seeking to turn a festering wound into a killing blow - I'm inclined to think the NDP has overplayed its hand. It might have even given Ricketts an angle whereby he can cast himself as the champion of lower taxes he'd love to be thought of as.

Ricketts has broken no law. He's taken advantage of his rights as a citizen and a taxpayer - one with enough financial resources at his disposal to defend himself as such. I just hope, for Nelson's sake and Nebraska's, that Ricketts isn't able to use that fact to establish his first real connection with voters. Otherwise, I fear the potential is here for this going-nowhere campaign to gain some actual traction, perhaps even building a semi-legitimate message relating his private battle to most Nebraskans' concerns about high taxes and government waste.

And, look....Nelson and his fellow Democrats (as Ricketts would repeat over and over again) just don't get it. "They think the government is entitled to our money - as much as they can get their hands on, without question."

Of course, the Nebraska Democratic Party has never sought my approval for its advertising, and that's probably for the best. I have no track record to back up my criticisms as legitimate. I've never claimed to have the stomach for campaigning, and I should be careful before suggesting that the vague ideals to which I grasp are going to win elections. More than that, I probably have a tendency to overthink things and to grossly overestimate the degree to which an average Nebraskan's response is likely to reflect my own.

Hopefully, my concerns here are ridiculous. Hopefully, voters like this sort of bold advertising and respond favorably to its use of humor - accepting it as funny rather than childish and mean-spirited. Hopefully, Ricketts is forced to pay his "fair share" of property taxes and never recovers from this embarrassing act of civic irresponsibility. But, I'm not willing to take these things for granted.

"Good for Me (not Thee)" - be it escalating how personal the attacks get in this race or even opening the door for Ricketts to establish his conservative credentials - I hope these gentle words of Seussian sarcasm do not prove prophetic in our political reality. It would, indeed, be a tragedy if that Cheshire grin planted on Ricketts' face in the above illustration ended up hiding the last laugh.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree. There's nothing in the ad that is inaccurate or misleading. Unlike Ricketts' tv spots, the NE dems did not have to invent an issue or quotes. by that standard alone, this could hardly qualify as negative.

This isn't about someone wanting to reduce their property tax. It's about Ricketts' pathological desire to do what's best for him at the expense of others. I think the ad makes this point well.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


You don't think there's anything misleading - let alone, NEGATIVE - about the suggestion that Ricketts has cheated on his taxes? Being a selfish bastard who only wants to pay as much as he absolutely has to in taxes doesn't make him a cheater. A Republican? A capitalist? A rational person? An American? The case could be made for any of the above, but "cheater" is quite the stretch on the facts available.

I'm happy to agree to disagree. Obviously, we have different standards for these sorts of things. Personally, I can't fathom calling this anything but a negative campaign ad....even if it is playfully done. Of course, I'm not saying such ads are never called for - I'm not that naive. But I would prefer they be more focused than what we have here.

Maybe I just don't get the issue at hand. If this isn't about Ricketts' property taxes and is really about some supposed "pathological" narcissism, this ad must contain a level of subtext I simply can't comprehend.

"I get to pay less ... so you can pay more"??? Isn't that idea the driving force behind our entire system of taxation? Framed this way, it sounds pretty harsh, but no one's paying H&R Block to increase their share of the tax burden.

I just hope I'm playing Devil's Advocate on this....not actually playing the Devil himself.

Anonymous TedK said...

I don't see a big problem with this ad. It will get attention, and that is often half the battle. Most people have been deceived into thinking all tax cuts are good. What they don't reailize is that most of the tax cuts went to the ultra-rich, while governement expenses have gone up. The poor suckers who voted for Republicans and their tax cuts will eventually end up paying much higher taxes and/or get a decrease in needed and wanted services. The ad nicely identifies the point that I will pay more when the rich guy gets an undeserving tax break. Democrats will become viable in this state if we can get this view to take hold. With a stagnant economy, taxes are a zero-sum game.

Anonymous Grendel said...

I like the ad. One thing I think it does well is play to people's sense of fairness. Nobody likes a cheater, not even Republicans. Look at the outrage that Hergert's shenanigans generated. It’s fine for a candidate to advocate for lower taxes, but to weasel out of paying your fair share when I still have to pay mine is not. I think the ad effectively points out that Ricketts thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Were I a law and order Republican, this might stick in my craw a bit. But hey, I’m not a political analyst, so maybe I’m way off base.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Good points, Ted and Grendel. I really appreciate those who responded more positively to the ad than myself sharing why. I had a very negative gut reaction to it originally but am trying to keep an open mind about its value. It's just too bad that I have to insult the NDP's hard work to start that discussion.

I'm just one guy with an opinion - no more valid than those above or below.

Anonymous nepolwatcher said...

Kyle I think you are missing the main point of the ad.

Nebraska law says that houses have to be evaluated at no less than 92% of the fair market value. Ricketts argued for a 50% tax assessment, was awarded a 75% assessment - well below that required by law - and he went back and complained again after that.
Clearly Ricketts is a man of privledge and he uses that privledge to better things for himself. All well and good, but certainly not a Nebraska value.
He sought a special deal, got one, then tried to get another one. All over a measley $6,000. after spending $5 million on the primary.
And, think abut this: $6000 is 60% of the income of someone working for the minimum wage - and Ricketts opposes raising the wage. He's trying to save for himself 60% of what he expects others to live on for a year.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy this ad on so many levels I can't even begin to describe them all! First and foremost, it subtly points out one of the most important differecnes between a democrat and a republican ... a democrat recognizes that being a good neighbor can extend to paying one's fair share when it comes to taxes. Democrats reject the idea that all taxes are evil and therefore one must do all they can to escape paying the bill.

Finally on a personl note, I am afraid I find your argument to be too much like an apology for being a democrat. This is one democrat who will never apologize for the values I have and will take advantage of every opportumity I have to point out those values. I beg of you to recall what Adalhi Stevenson once said ... "when the republicans quit lying about the democrats we will quit telling the truth about them." RESIST ... never duck the fight!

Blogger Daily Bulldog said...

You guys are out of touch...most folks do and will appeal their tax assessment. In other words, "just pay your taxes as the government dictates to you and shut up." Sounds rather facist, doesn't it? This negative, Barry-Rubin-east-coast-insulting stuff is why the NDP is in woeful shape, at least since Rubin took over. Why bring in someone who lost a Kennedy race in Maryland to work in Nebraska?? My dad is among a lot of longtime Ds who either switched or hardly ever vote D. Who does the NDP have on the ballot this fall for NE AG, Treasurer and Secretary of State??

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, I had the same reaction. I believe that this ad affords Pete Ricketts to say, "why is it that we have to go out and engage in a process to reduce our taxes?" He will say he learned as a businessman and the foot of his Dad that fighting to lower taxes is something you are more qualified to accomplish than Ben Nelson. Some say it was Ricketts out of control, I say he did it to bring property taxes into the Senate race. A place that Ben Nelson lost an edge to Chuck Hagel in 96.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd just like to see someone actually come out and tell the people of Nebraska and the United States that, until we've paid off the incredible debt the Republican Party has saddled us with, there can be no further promises of tax cuts.


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