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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More California Fact-Twisting

A new wave of distortions via TV and mail in a "bleak" special House election.


Republicans aimed more distorted attacks at Democrat Francine Busby in the June 6 special House election to fill the seat vacated by convicted GOP congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to accepting bribes.

A National Republican Congressional Committee ad misleads viewers by saying Busby “could bring back the death tax,” when in fact she has publicly supported permanent repeal of the federal estate tax for years, a fact known to Republican opposition researchers.

The NRCC also sent a glossy mailing comparing Busby to “irresponsible” and “dangerous” teenage drunk drivers. The GOP mailing repeats misrepresentations of her record as a school-board member. It says she praised a teacher accused of involvement in child pornography when in fact – as we have pointed out earlier – she had voted to fire the teacher and said she was “shocked” at his arrest.

A Democratic ad aimed at Republican candidate Brian Bilbray also misses the mark. It faults ex-congressman Bilbray for missing a vote in 1999 “to give California families an average tax cut of $700 dollars a year.” The ad fails to mention that 95 per cent of House Democrats voted against the tax cut, and Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed it.

The nasty tone of this special election was described as “bleak” by a Congressional Quarterly reporter. It may offer a preview of what’s to come in dozens of close House elections in the Fall.


On May 12 the NRCC released two ads attacking Democrat Francine Busby’s position on taxes, accusing her of favoring an increase in gasoline taxes in 2004 and of taking a position that would “bring back the death tax.”

“Gas Tax”

Announcer: Why is Francine Busby running a negative Campaign? Because she doesn’t want to talk about her record on gas taxes. In 2004 Busby said she’d raise gas taxes. Busby’s even been against making the tax cuts permanent. That could bring back the death tax on small business and even bring the marriage penalty back. Francine Busby: a taxing liberal who would cost us too much in Congress.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Estate Tax Repeal

One of the ads deliberately misleads viewers about Busby’s position on the estate tax. As Republican opposition researchers are well aware, Busby has publicly and consistently favored permanent repeal of the federal estate tax for a number of years. The GOP implies the opposite.

The ad says Busby is “against making the (Bush) tax cuts permanent,” which is correct. But it adds: “That could bring back the death tax…” In fact, Busby answered “yes” both in 2004 and 2006 when asked by Project Vote Smart, “Do you support permanent repeal of the federal estate tax?” The NRCC ad’s suggestion that Busby would bring the tax back is a deliberate misrepresentation.

What she said was that she opposed extending all the Bush tax cuts because of the federal deficit. At a candidate debate in early May she said making them permanent “would be irresponsible, until we start talking seriously about trying to balance the budget.” She also said, “If we are going to have them, they should go to working families…and not to the wealthiest.”

“Clear Difference”

Announcer: For Congress, the difference on taxes is clear. Brian Bilbray: a proven tax cutter. He’s against raising the gas tax. And Bilbray is against the marriage penalty tax. And Francine Busby? Busby doesn’t think married couples should pay the same taxes as single people. And in 2004 Busby said she’d raise the gas tax. That’s wrong. On taxes it’s clear.  Brian Bilbray is on our side.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Increase the Gas Tax?

Both NRCC ads say Busby favored an increase in gasoline taxes. It is true that she once signed a Project Vote Smart questionnaire saying she would “slightly increase” the gasoline tax. That was in 2004, when the average price for regular in California was bouncing between $2.40 and $1.63 per gallon. Now that the price has reached $3.33 she has backed off, giving no answer to the gasoline tax question in the 2006 Vote Smart questionnaire.

Distorted Claims

The NRCC also hit the district with a mailing comparing Busby to “dangerous” and “irresponsible” drunken teen drivers. It recycled some grossly misleading claims made in a TV ad we de-bunked earlier. Congressional Quarterly’s Rachel Kapochunas was the first to report the mailing, saying it “further soured” a political campaign that “has been pretty bleak from the get-go.”

The latest NRCC distortion features photos of two young men, a glass of beer and a wrecked auto, with the words “teenagers can be irresponsible, even dangerous . . . Politicians are even more irresponsible than teenagers.” It again mischaracterizes Busby’s actions as a member of the school board in the San Diego suburb of Cardiff . They are the same claims made in a television ad the NRCC released late last month – an ad we analyzed in a May 1 article. We summarize here:

  • Praise for Porn Suspect: The mailing says Busby showed “bad judgement” by praising a teacher arrested on suspicion of child pornography. In fact she said she was shocked by the investigation, and had voted earlier to remove him from the school and strip him of his teaching license.
  • Teacher Layoffs: The mailing accuses her of “poor management” for sending layoff notices to 23 teachers. In fact only five teachers were laid off, and the student-to-teacher ratio in Cardiff changed imperceptibly.
  • Pay for “Bureaucrats”: The mailing says she voted to give a 3 per cent pay raise to school “bureacrats” but not to teachers. In fact, teachers and staff got the same 3 per cent pay raises.
  • “Irresponsible Spending:” The mailing accuses her of “irresponsible spending” because the annual deficit increased under her tenure. Not mentioned is that the affluent school district ended each year with a comfortable cash balance.

When Democrats Attack

The Democratic response is not so much misleading as it is hypocritical. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad released May 14 criticizes Republican candidate Brian Bilbray for missing a “key” vote on a tax cut that Democrats almost unanimously opposed at the time.


Announcer: In 1999 Congressman Bilbray took a special interest paid trip to Australia .

Kangaroo: “G’day Mr. Bilbray.”

Announcer: Bilbray skipped a whole week of work, missing 34 votes.

Kangaroo: “Surf is great this time of year mate!”

Announcer: Bilbray even missed a key vote to give California families an average tax cut of $700 dollars a year.

Kangaroo: “Pretty spiffy you can skip work to hang out with special interests ey?”

Announcer: Brian Bilbray, such a good friend to lobbyists he became one himself. Isn’t it time for a change?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Specifically, the ad says Bilbray “missed a key vote to give California families an average tax cut of $700 a year.” In fact Bilbray’s vote on final passage of the Financial Freedom Act of 1999 was not all that “key,” since the measure passed the House quite comfortably, without his participation, by 221-206. But more importantly, the Republican-sponsored cut this Democratic ad now praises was opposed by 95 per cent of all House Democrats, and failed to become law only because of a veto by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Furthermore, Bilbray did vote for the bill when it first passed the House, before being sent to a Senate-House conference to work out the final version.

Special Interests

The ad, featuring an animated kangaroo with an Aussie accent, faults Bilbray for a “special-interest paid trip” to Australia. It is true that Bilbray and his wife took a four-day trip to Australia in August 1999 for a trade conference, missing a week of votes in Congress. Bilbray said the trip was paid for by the Australian American Business Leaders Forum, which Bilbray told the San Diego Union-Tribune is “a business group pushing for U.S.-Australian trade enhancement.”

– by Brooks Jackson, James Ficaro and Emi Kolawole



Watch NRCC Ad: “Gas Tax”

Watch NRCC Ad: “Clear Difference”

Watch DCCC Ad: “Australia”


Supporting Documents

View the NRCC MailingView Busby’s 2004 Project Vote Smart Questionnaire


William Finn Bennett, “50th candidates duke it out,” North County Times, 6 May 2006.

Edward Sifuentes, “Busby says she aims to change ‘culture of corruption,'” North County Times, 10 May 2006.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen, “Bilbray has no record of who paid Aussie trip; Congressman failed to list item on financial statement,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Oct 2000.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen, “Bilbray in dark on who paid Aussie trip,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 Oct 2000.

“Francine Busby 2006 National Political Awareness Test,” Project Vote Smart.

“Francine Busby 2004 National Political Awareness Test,” Project Vote Smart. (See “Supporting Documents”)

House Roll Call Vote 106th Congress – 1st Session H.R. 2488 (On Agreeing to the Conference Report of the Financial Freedom Act of 1999)  Vote. 379 5 Aug 1999.

House Roll Call Vote 106th Congress – 1st Session H.R. 2488 (On Passage of the Financial Freedom Act of 1999)  Vote 333 22 Jul 1999.