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Haugen attacked on campaign spending by GOP head Esser

Republicans are still stoking the coals left from last week’s campaign cookout; a “telephone town hall” held to hold Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen’s feet over the ferry fire.

Earlier this week, state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser again accused Haugen of using taxpayer money to finance a campaign event. The claim follows last week’s telephone town hall organized by a Republican-funded political action committee that took Haugen to task over the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry crisis.

Haugen had a simple response to the latest Republican attack.

“It is bogus,” she said.

“This is all political. They’re trying to undermine me,” Haugen said.

The latest missive aimed at the incumbent 10th District lawmaker came Monday. The head of the state Republican Party again accused the Camano Island Democrat of using public funds on her campaign.

In a press release issued June 23, Esser criticized Haugen over an upcoming meeting of the Senate’s Ways & Means Committee at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon.

“Sen. Haugen and the Democrats have no shame in using hard-earned taxpayer money to pay for what is little more than a staged campaign event,” Esser said.

Officials with the Haugen campaign said Esser’s latest charge was again missing a vital component: the truth.

“In his rush to remind voters why they are sick of Republican attacks, Luke Esser should at least check the facts: Sen. Haugen isn’t even on the Ways & Means Committee,” said Christian Sinderman, a consultant to Haugen’s campaign.

The meeting on June 26 is one of many being held around the state that will give lawmakers on the committee the chance to hear from constituents about property taxes, Sinderman said.

“There have been committee meetings held around the state over the past couple of months, including Spokane, Seattle, Kennewick, Renton and Vancouver. This meeting — held in the 40th Legislative District — is part of a series of hearings that allow people across the state to have their voices heard. Is Esser arguing that committee meetings should only be held in Olympia, so they are less accessible to citizens of Northwest Washington and only the lobbyists have a voice?” Sinderman asked.

Esser earlier accused Haugen of using public funds to set up a campaign office, a charge Haugen strongly denied. Esser offered no proof of improprieties, and officials with the Public Disclosure Commission, the state’s campaign watchdog, said no complaints on Haugen have been filed with the commission.

Esser did not respond to a Record request for additional comment.

Haugen said the attacks are part of a Republican campaign that has targeted her re-election bid.

“The Republicans play that way, they play dirty tricks,” Haugen said, admitting the tactics may work with some voters. “After a while, a certain amount of mud sticks.”

Last week, a Republican-financed political action committee called the Leadership Council hosted a telephone town hall that was devoted to problems with the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry run.

As chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Haugen has faced repeated Republican browbeating on the ferry issue.

Brent Ludeman, a Republican operative who heads the Leadership Council, conducted the telephone town hall to again draw attention to the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry issue.

Ludeman said the phone-in event drew roughly 1,800 participants. They listened to a panel discussion featuring Rep. Doug Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican from the 42nd District, and Sen. Cheryl Pflug, a Maple Valley Republican who represents the 5th District.

Ludeman said a majority of callers — 53 percent — said Haugen was “very responsible” for the delays and problems with replacing the Steel Electric ferries on the Keystone route. He also noted that 35 percent of the callers would be willing to pay 50 cents more for reliable ferry service.

Ludeman said most of those who called in were from North Whidbey, 43 percent, while 32 percent said they lived on the South End and 25 percent said they lived in the Coupeville area. A total of 46 percent said they rode the Keystone ferry and 54 percent said they ride the Clinton ferry.

“It was fairly obvious that voters in the district want change,” Ludeman said. “They think that Sen. Haugen has failed on this issue and that she needs to be held responsible.”

Ludeman said the poll was not scientific.

Most of those who listened were prompted to participate. They were contacted via an autodialer that asked them to stay on the line; only 30 or 40 people called in to participate without prompting, Ludeman said.

The phone numbers of voters who were contacted were pulled from a list of Island County voters purchased by the campaign, and the Leadership Council paid for the telephone town hall.

The Leadership Council has also paid for the Web site www.electricferries.com that was set up to criticize Haugen for the problems with the Steel Electric ferries that have been used on the Keystone route for decades.

Ludeman said the group focuses on issues important to Washington state businesses.

According to records on file with the Public Disclosure Commission, the Leadership Council has collected more than $370,000 through June to spend on the 2008 election.

The council has spent thousands of dollars on political consultants, temp workers, campaign software and bulk mailing costs for the 2008 election.

Ludeman, who previously worked as a policy analyst for the Senate Republican Caucus before taking over as executive director of the Leadership Council in May, has been paid at least $9,000 for his work for the council since December, according to campaign records on file with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Major donors to the Leadership Council include tobacco giant Philip Morris, Wal-Mart, Puget Sound Energy, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Issaquah developer George “Skip” Rowley Jr., Vulcan Inc., Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lily & Co., as well as numerous political action committees that represent special interests including beer distributors and auto dealers, communications firms and state employees, the banking industry and timber companies.

Ludeman said the telephone town hall cost approximately $2,000 and was conducted by Conquest Communication.

Conquest Communication is a Richmond, Va.-based company that offers automated phone calling services, as well as letter-writing campaigns and volunteer recruitment, according to the company’s Web site. Its clients have included the Republican National Committee, the US Family Network, the National Right-to-Life Committee and presidential hopeful John McCain.

Haugen said the telephone town hall was highly choreographed. Supporters of her campaign who called in and wanted to ask a question were prevented from having their voices heard by those who were hired to screen calls.

“There are many people I know who called in, and they would not be let on,” Haugen said.

The whole operation was a political stunt, she said.

“It was a total setup,” Haugen said. “It was totally political I think anybody who listened in to it, I am sure, was not impressed.”

Haugen added that Pflug is no expert on the ferry issue.

“She has never attended a meeting dealing with ferries and yet  she considers herself an expert on ferries,” Haugen said.

“The Leadership Council is a pure political arm of the Republican Party; there is no question about it,” she added.

Haugen has served in the Senate since 1992. She is facing two opponents in the August primary — Oak Harbor Republican Linda Haddon and America’s Third Party candidate Sarah Hart — and many Republicans view Haugen as vulnerable.

That may not be the case, said Sinderman, her campaign consultant.

Sinderman said a poll conducted earlier this month of 400 voters across the 10th District shows Haugen with a lead of 49 percent to 29 percent.

“That’s a great place for an incumbent but we are taking nothing for granted — especially with the Republicans engaging in some of the most shrill attacks in recent memory against Mary Margaret,” he said.

Brian Kelly can be reached at 221-5300 or bkelly@southwhidbeyrecord.com

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