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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

“Reprehensible Misrepresentation”

A conservative adman striving to regain his Willie Horton notoriety produces a death-penalty dud aimed at Obama.


Conservative activist Floyd G. Brown, who had a hand in the 1988 "Willie Horton" attack ad, is seeking funds to show a new spot accusing Obama of being "weak" on Chicago gang killers in 2001 and suggesting he’d be weak on terrorism, too.  Brown bases the claim on Obama’s vote against a bill to make gang killers automatically eligible for the death penalty.
We find that the ad misses the mark. The anti-gang activist who sponsored the death-penalty bill tells FactCheck.org that she doesn’t consider Obama weak on crime despite his opposition to her proposal. Illinois state Rep. Susana Mendoza of Chicago said the ad makes her "sick to my stomach" and "completely mischaracterizes Senator Obama’s position against ruthless criminals."
The record shows that Obama, while not a cheerleader for the death penalty, has supported it for a number of crimes – including terrorism. He voted for an Illinois law in 2003 that includes the death penalty for convicted terrorists.


The ad is the product of a new group, formed last year, calling itself the National Campaign Fund. It has raised just over $50,000 this year and spent most of it on lists of conservative donors, for fundraising purposes. As of March 31 it had only $14,028 in the bank. But on April 16 it posted the 60-second anti-Obama spot on YouTube and started seeking donations via its Web site, ExposeObama.com, to finance the purchase of broadcast time. One of the main figures in the group is Floyd G. Brown, a conservative who is considered a bogeyman in Democratic circles for his role in airing the famous Horton attack ad in 1988 against Michael Dukakis.

The new ad puts Sen. Barack Obama’s record on capital punishment in a false light, but we held off publishing anything about it at first because the ad wasn’t actually on the air and we did not wish to give it wider notoriety. However, on April 23 MSNBC broadcast it for free as a news item in the "Hardball with Chris Matthews" program and has aired it repeatedly since. The spot also has gotten wide notice on the Internet both in mainstream news stories and on conservative blogs. By April 24 the spot had logged nearly 60,000 views on YouTube. So, let’s look at the facts.

"A Tasteless and Reprehensible Misrepresentation"

[TET ]

National Campaign Fund Ad: "Victims:

Narrator: Tamika McFadden- Harris, murdered leaving church choir practice. Cut down by gang gunfire while shielding her six-year-old daughter. Mike Boyd, killed at 15, beaten with bricks after a gang member crashed into his car. Severo Enriquez, just 14 years old when he refused to flash a gang hand sign. He was shot five times in the back. They all died in 2001, in Chicago. The Sun-Times called it "urban terrorism," and demanded action on gang violence. But that same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders. When the time came to get tough, Obama chose to be weak. So the question is, can a man so weak on the war on gangs, be trusted in the war on terror. The National Campaign Fund is responsible for the content of this ad.


The central claim in the ad is that Obama was "weak on the war on gangs" when he voted in 2001 against a bill to make gang killers automatically eligible for the death penalty. The first thing to be said about the claim is that the author of that very bill says the ad is a "tasteless and reprehensible misrepresentation" of Obama’s stand and "completely mischaracterizes" his position on criminals.

The bill’s sponsor is Illinois state Rep. Susana Mendoza of Chicago, who vainly attempted to get it enacted in 2001 after being elected the previous year on the strength of her anti-gang activism. When we asked Mendoza for comment, she said the ad made her "sick to my stomach" and said Obama opposed her bill for respectable reasons:

Mendoza:  The ad completely mischaracterizes Senator Obama’s position against ruthless criminals and attempts to paint him as weak on crime, when I know that to be the furthest thing from the truth. If anyone should be upset about his not voting for HB1812, it should be me, as its sponsor. But, as I said before, I understood and respected then and continue to do so to this day, his reasons for not supporting that particular bill, none of which were because of a weak position towards criminals. … I do not agree in any way whatsoever with the ad and that I find it to be a tasteless and reprehensible misrepresentation of the truth. 

Mendoza, a Democrat, is supporting Obama for president.
The Facts 

Mendoza’s bill, HB 1812, would have made anyone found guilty of a murder committed "in furtherance of the activities of an organized gang" eligible for the death penalty. It passed with large majorities in each house, despite Obama’s vote against it. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, vetoed the bill Aug. 17, 2001. He said in his veto message that the bill was too broad, too vague and too likely to fall on minorities. He said that most gang killers were already eligible for the death penalty anyway:

Gov. Ryan, Aug. 17, 2001: Illinois has some of the toughest laws on the books to severely punish gang-related crimes. In fact, most gang-related murders would qualify for the imposition of the death penalty under the existing eligibility factors in our death penalty statute. Unfortunately, this still has not deterred gang members from killing.

That echoed Obama’s reasons for having voted against the bill. According to the transcript of the May 15 debate, Obama noted that a murderer already was eligible for death if the crime was found to be committed in "a cold, premeditated and calculated" manner and that "should be more than sufficient" to cover a gang killing. And he said he objected to the bill because it was likely to target minorities:

Obama, May 15, 2001: [What] I’m concerned about is that we use this term "gang activity" as a mechanism to target particular neighborhoods, particular individuals for, admittedly, heinous crimes that I think need to be punished to the fullest extent of the law irrespective of where they happen and irrespective of the particular criminal body that they’re working with.

The debate over the Mendoza bill arose after Gov. Ryan had suspended all executions in January 2000 because 13 death-row inmates were found to have been wrongly convicted in the previous 23 years. That total later rose to 17, giving Illinois the distinction of having the highest rate of overturned capital convictions of all 38 states with the death penalty, according to Ryan’s successor, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

A False Implication 

The ad suggests that Obama ignored an editorial cry for passage of the death-penalty bill, but that is not true. The ad’s graphics cite a Nov. 23, 2001, Sun-Times editorial, which indeed demanded action on gang violence, as the ad says. But the newspaper didn’t call for passage of the death-penalty bill. What the editorial actually urged was a local enforcement effort against gangs something like the federal government’s "unrelenting, multipronged attack" against terrorism following the events of September 11, 2001, just weeks earlier. The newspaper mentioned "the questioning of thousands of people and the thorough scouring of bank records" but did not call for any new legislation.

Furthermore, Obama’s vote took place on May 15, months before the Nov. 23 editorial appeared. In fact, the bill was dead by the time the editorial was published. Mendoza’s efforts to override Ryan’s veto had failed, and the records of the Legislature show the "veto stands" as of Nov. 15. So the ad’s suggestion that Obama ignored an editorial outcry is wrong.

Death Penalty for Terrorists

The ad questions whether Obama "can be trusted in the war on terror." In fact, he has supported the death penalty for terrorists. In 2003, after a commission appointed by Ryan had made numerous recommendations for changes in the way the death penalty was administered, the Legislature adopted many of them, such as allowing judges to rule out a death sentence for someone convicted solely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, accomplice or single witness, and allowing the state Supreme Court to overturn a death sentence that was "fundamentally unjust." But the new law, Public Act 93-0605, also retained most of the existing factors that made murderers automatically eligible for capital punishment, including terrorism. Specifically, the law says that the death penalty may apply if "the murder was committed by the defendant in connection with or as a result of the offense of terrorism." Obama, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, was among 10 Senate sponsors of the bill and also was among 57 state senators who voted for the bill April 3, 2003. (There was only one vote against it.)

Obama’s signature contribution to the death-penalty debate in Illinois was his successful sponsorship of a bill requiring the video recording of all homicide interrogations, a measure aimed at reducing the possibility of coerced confessions. He said, "I think the videotaping of interrogations and confessions is both a tool for protecting the innocent as well as a tool for convicting the guilty." It passed unanimously in the Senate, and by a vote of 107 to 7 in the House.

Obama recently summed up his views on the death penalty in an interview published in the Nov. 29, 2007, issue of The New Republic magazine, explaining why he did not want to advertise his support for the death penalty in limited cases in his U.S. Senate campaign against an election opponent who was entirely against it:

Obama: [My] own views on the death penalty are very complicated. I’ve said that in theory I don’t object to the death penalty for heinous crimes  – terrorism, mass murder, child killers. But, in its application, it’s been racially biased, highly unreliable, inconsistent. So for me to try to pretend that I was a cheerleader for the death penalty, simply to score a political point, that wasn’t reflective of my views.

Footnote: For those unfamiliar with the controversial  Horton ad, it can be viewed on YouTube.  It was sponsored by the "Americans for Bush" arm of the "National Security PAC," of which Floyd G. Brown was political director. Some credit the ad with a large role in the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis by George H.W. Bush in 1988. The accuracy of the ad has been disputed, but we need not go into that here.

–by Brooks Jackson and Emi Kolawole


Clarification April 30:  We originally referred to Rep. Medoza as "Chicago state Rep." which was confusing. She is an Illinois state representative from a Chicago district.


Editorial. "Urban terrorism no less a threat." Chicago Sun Times, 23 Nov. 2001.

McKinney, Dave. "No execution of gang killers." Chicago Sun Times, 19 Aug. 2001.

Press release. "Blagojevich signs final piece of major death penalty reform package; New laws address serious flaws in Illinois’ capital punishment system," 20 Jan. 2004.

Federal Election Commission. Filing FEC-336090. Washington: GPO, 2008.

HB 1812 Enrolled. State of Illinois 92nd General Assembly Legislation. 24 Apr. 2008.

Ryan, Governor George H. Letter from the Office of the Governor. 17 Aug. 2007. 24 Apr. 2005.

Regular Session Senate Transcript. 15 May 2001. State of Illinois 92nd General Assembly Regular Session Senate Transcript. 24 Apr. 2008.

Senate Bill No. 472 Third Reading. 3 Apr. 2003. State of Illinois 93rd General Assembly Senate Vote. 24 Apr. 2008.

Bill Status of SB0472 93rd General Assembly. 25 Nov. 2003. Illinois General Assembly. 24 Apr. 2008.

Public Act 93-0605. Illinois General Assembly.

Senate Bill No. 15 Third Reading. 3 Apr. 2003. State of Illinois 93rd General Assembly Senate Vote. 39 Apr. 2008.