I.F. voters rebuke negative campaigning

Campaign signs for mayoral candidates Barbara Ehardt and Rebecca Casper are seen along 17th Street in this Nov. 29 photo. Mayor Rebecca Casper won a second term following Tuesday’s runoff election despite being targeted by a plethora of negative ads. John Roark / jroark@postregister.com

Many Idaho Falls residents issued a collective sigh of relief after Tuesday’s mayoral runoff election. Not because of the result, necessarily — because campaigning was over.

The election was characterized by an increase in spending, much of it from the anti-Casper Businesses for Growth political action committee.

In a departure from the positive, candidate-championing ads typically produced during election cycles in small- to medium-sized towns, the PAC went negative.

In a crowded five-candidate field, it produced billboards proclaiming the city should elect “Anyone But Casper.” Other advertisements featured false claims about the incumbent mayor.

After several months of mudslinging, Casper said Tuesday’s 12-point victory shows Idaho Falls residents don’t appreciate that type of politics.

“Voters sent a message that negativity is not how they want to be informed — they want positive, constructive messages,” Casper said Tuesday night. “I don’t think Idaho Falls residents are afraid to deal with hard issues; they just want a more constructive approach, and we tried to be positive and fact-based. That seems to have been rewarded.”

Businesses for Growth spent more than $31,000 on the election, in the same ballpark as Casper, who spent $38,000, as well as challenger and City Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt, who spent $32,000.

The PAC originally purported to represent a number of Idaho Falls employers — “Businesses for Growth looks forward to the continued discussion on the issues that businesses are concerned with,” chairman Adam Frugoli wrote on Facebook.

But the PAC was largely funded by corporate entities and LLCs associated with three men: former Bonneville Republican Chairman Doyle Beck, Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot and attorney Bryan Smith.

The PAC expressed concerns about governmental transparency and city employee morale. It also took issue with annual tax levy increases approved by the city council under Casper’s leadership.

“Hire Casper? = Higher taxes,” a billboard ad said before the general election.

About three weeks before the runoff, the PAC made a new claim: Casper spends too much time traveling.

A Facebook post accompanied by a stock image of a woman lounging by a pool asserted Casper was away from Idaho Falls for nearly a third of her tenure.

“It begs the question: How can she effectively govern the city when she isn’t even here?” the post said.

The PAC’s assertion — that Casper spent 32 percent of her time out of town — was artificially inflated, a Post Register analysis showed.

Businesses for Growth included travel days during weekends when adding up the total number of travel days, but excluded weekends from the total number of days in Casper’s term.

Consistent calculations suggest Casper spent 22 percent of her term traveling if weekends are included, or 25 percent without weekends.

Casper also defended her travel by referencing extra work related to Idaho Falls Power, a municipal department, and Idaho National Laboratory, a major regional employer for which she advocates.

Later on, the PAC took out ads suggesting Casper spent millions of dollars on water meters.

“Really, Mayor Casper?” a billboard asked. “$87 million for water meters!?! We could have had a new high school!”

Cities cannot pay for schools; school districts are separate public entities. Apart from that, the city never spent such money on water meters.

The $87 million figure stems from a water infrastructure plan the city commissioned in 2015. The report addressed ways to curb growth in water demand, including installing water meters, which was estimated to cost $87 million.

The plan was adopted into the official city record, but hasn’t been implemented.

After the general election, Businesses for Growth began producing ads that also were supportive of Ehardt. Ehardt eventually distanced herself from the PAC and said she had no control over its messaging, but there were common areas of concern.

A Businesses for Growth Facebook video asked “Has political correctness gone too far?” Ehardt repeatedly discussed the same topic during a Compass Academy debate on Nov. 30.

The video said Casper told department heads to have holiday, not Christmas, parties, and it said she advised city staff to tell each other “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” among other things.

“Only Idaho Falls goes to that extreme,” the video said.

Casper responded on Facebook.

“Sadly, the political PAC opposing my candidacy is continuing to spread half-truths and misinformation to upset and confuse local voters. I personally believe they have gone way too far this time as the God I worship is being used as a campaign tactic,” she wrote.

Holiday parties are intended to avoid promoting a specific religion with public funds, Casper wrote while claiming city staff haven’t been told what to say.

“We print ‘happy holidays’ to include those in our midst who do not celebrate Christmas. It also allows us to include New Years, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc. with one phrase rather than many,” she wrote. “It is kind, and it is respectful. … Why would anyone want to knowingly give offense to or exclude people?”

The majority of campaign-related letters to the editor and guest columns submitted to the Post Register were critical of Businesses for Growth.

One column joked that Beck, VanderSloot and Smith would be included on Santa’s naughty list, while another writer slammed the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee, which has several members in common with the PAC.

“Their members … have strived to remove the current mayor from office not through honest and respectful dialogue, but through cruel personal attacks and twisting of truths so blatantly that only the most unkind and heartless would condone such behavior,” he wrote.

City Councilman Ed Marohn, who did not run for re-election in November, also submitted a guest column regarding the tactics exhibited during the election.

“Political extremism has no place in city government,” he wrote.

It appears voters took to the polls in support of Casper’s positive messaging, which included the slogan “Better Together.” She referenced as much at the beginning of her victory speech Tuesday night after all the votes were counted.

“It’s been a very interesting campaign to say the least,” she said. “… We had an unprecedented degree of negativity and misinformation swirling around our community. Fortunately the decision we made to run on the fact that Idaho Falls is better today than it was four years ago was a solid one.”

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.