In the wake of Citizens United and efforts to stamp out big money in national politics, many folks in Portsmouth worry that big money is trying to influence our local city election.
Former Mayor Steve Marchand, now a paid political operative, is orchestrating a fancy PR campaign pushing a slate of eight City Council candidates. But three of his endorsed “Great 8”– incumbent City Councilors Chris Dwyer, Brad Lown and Eric Spear– were in the 5-4 anti-transparency majority that cast two crucial (Dec. 8, 2014) second reading votes against extending conflict of interest/financial disclosure requirements to the City Manager and land use boards (as the City Charter specifically requires). Asked at a recent forum whether he’d make the city comply with its own financial conflict of interest requirements, Marchand endorsee Gibson Kennedy said a flat “No!” Jack Blalock and Joshua Cyr waffled; Rebecca Perkins said she wouldn’t include the land use boards. Only Nancy Pearson of all Marchand’s endorsees said “Yes.” (Josh Denton, not on his list, was noncommittal).
“With all the turmoil involving financial conflict-of-interest and the police, Portsmouth city government needs more financial transparency– not less,” an observer said. “Who’s paying for this campaign? Is big money trying to transform our city politics? Citizens need to stand up to demand transparency in compliance with our City Charter and local city campaign finance reform so we know who’s financing our local city elections. That’s what this election is all about– financial transparency across city government.”
WHY ISN’T THE HERALD TELLING US?
Marchand—a paid political and PR strategist who offers his contacts and expertise to commercial real estate and other clients– sits on the Portsmouth Herald’s Community Advisory Board and the Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee. Because the Herald is endorsing candidates, many feel that’s a conflict of interest for the newspaper at the very least. Meanwhile, One Portsmouth, Marchand’s website, describes what it’s doing as a “grassroots” campaign. But these days, so-called “astroturf” PR campaigns also mimic grassroots efforts on behalf of paying interests. “Who is financing this ‘grassroots’ campaign while unpaid grassroots efforts that we know are real like the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers and Portsmouth Now! and a bunch of earnest, hardworking citizen volunteers come under attack?” objected the local observer. “Campaign signs and mailers are expensive. Who is paying all the bills?”
The Portsmouth Herald, now owned by a giant corporate hedge fund that owns hundreds of American newspapers, has a near-monopoly on Portsmouth’s daily news menu. But it has been just about silent on these questions. “The newspaper should look itself in the mirror and demand financial transparency across our city government– not just the police,” the onlooker said. “It should also report the facts. Will the Herald give city voters information about the financing behind a City Council campaign orchestrated by a Herald board-member it obviously has access to? Or will the city’s lone daily newspaper let city voters go to the polls lulled by sunny PR but uninformed about what’s really going on?”