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The Three Distinct Categories of How to Assess a Candidate

The last column pledged more explanation toward understanding the difference between competing ideologies in free speech, but this one is not going to pick up right where the other left off.

This column will focus on the categorizations of speech at first but broaden the topic to argue why the entrance of a candidate in the race for commission with deep ties to the Chronicle is not a conflict of interest.

What Mike Wright was saying in his blog post that started this conversation is better understood through categorizations that start with the letter “P” rather than the rhetorical concepts of liberating and indiscriminate tolerances described in the last column.

These “P” categories are the personal and the professional. The line not to cross in Mr. Wright’s opinion had nothing to do with principles of free speech at all but rather the line that separated critiques of job performance versus criticisms of who someone is.

In this context, I not only agree, but also I self-censor campaign messaging with an even stricter standard that introduces a third “P” category.

I split candidates into three aspects: the personal, the professional and the political. The difference when someone is a candidate rather than an elected official is that I consider their professional job outside of the public sphere to be off-limits unless there is something that is absolutely vital for the voters to know that will affect that person’s ability to do their elected job. The same goes for the personal.

This code of ethics may sound like it's grounded in civility but that’s not the case. Limiting the topic of debate purely to the political means that any type of messaging within that realm is fair game, even that which can be perceived as negative.

For example, a county commission campaign I managed in 2020 that was in competition against Ruthie Schlabach ran several ads that had a comparison checklist on policy positions and that were highly critical of her pro-sales tax stance.

The ad that seemed to anger her most was one that pointed out hypocrisies in her campaign messaging when she ran a tongue-in-cheek ad about being beholden to special interests (the punchline was that the special interests were her family members) but that the ad was paid for by a political committee, not her campaign, and that committee was funded entirely by corporate entities that would be considered traditional special interests.

Positioning yourself in opposition to someone is not negative advertising to me, particularly not in Republican primaries where many of the candidates share similar policy stances and the voters benefit from knowing what the differences among the candidates are.

Let’s apply this framework to analyzing the district 4 commission election. Just over a week ago, John Murphy joined David Lanier and Philip Nichols in the all-Republican race to replace Commissioner Scott Carnahan. Mr. Murphy has been a long-time employee of the Chronicle in the advertising department. More notably, his wife Trina took over as publisher of the paper following the retirement of Gerry Mulligan.

This raises some obvious questions about objectivity, but does it disqualify Mr. Murphy as a candidate? No.

His marriage falls under the category of personal, which would put it off-limits unless in cases of extraordinary conflict of interest. Any potential conflict would not be from anything in his control, but rather in the hands of those around him. It would be unfair to presume impropriety or penalize him on these grounds.

His professional work involves the Chronicle too, so what about conflicts there? This is a category that raises more grey areas, but none that ever cross the threshold of concern.

I am biased in this opinion, admittedly, although not for the reasons you might think.

John brightens any room he walks into as an easy conversationalist and has helped bail me out by being flexible on advertising deadlines that I missed but he made work.

Despite these strengths in the personal and professional, the political remains a question mark. The categories are distinct enough to adore who he is and admire what he does in his job and still leave plenty of room to question whether or not he is a good fit for the county commission.

If the distinctions among his personal, political and professional life are this clear to withhold my vote then they are also a sturdy enough firewall to buttress him against the potential claims of impropriety because of what he does or who he is married to.


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