A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Mudslinging in Mississippi

Ads rifle through candidates' past relationships, tax returns and city budgets; facts left crumpled on the ground.


Summary

Accuracy apparently hasn't been the top priority of the groups flinging ads onto the airwaves in Mississippi's 1st congressional district, where voters will pick a new House member in a special election on Tuesday. Here's what we found in this preview of the tone and types of tactics we might expect to see in other races later this year:

  • A false claim by conservative group Freedom's Watch that Democratic candidate Travis Childers would "raise taxes $2,600." The figure is based on an outdated analysis of a specific Social Security reform that Childers  never endorsed.
  • A Republican party ad said Childers "defended" a convicted felon, though all he said was that "people are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty," and that was before the man was even tried.
  • A series of attacks by the Democrats' congressional campaign committee on Republican Greg Davis for raising property taxes. There's no mention of the fact that the taxes were approved by a majority of the board of aldermen. One of them was even adopted by voters as a ballot initiative with 72 percent approval.
  • Charges, again by the Republican party, that Childers has been fined for late tax payments and has unpaid taxes amounting to thousands of dollars. Actually his returns are up to date, and while he did have to pay penalties, some were as little as two cents.

Analysis

Republican Greg Davis and Democrat Travis Childers are competing to fill the months remaining in the House term of Rep. Pete Wicker, who was appointed to the Senate. The airwaves have been filled mainly by the National Republican Congressional Committee and its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as conservative group Freedom's Watch. At least 11 different TV ads have aired in the last two-and-half-weeks alone. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday, May 13th.

Social Security Scam
 

The conservative group Freedom’s Watch has run ads against Childers linking him to Sen. Barack Obama and misrepresenting Childers’ position on Social Security taxes.

[TET ]

Freedom's Watch Ad: "Childers Taxes"

Announcer: When it comes to taxes Travis Childers and Barack Obama think alike… they both want to raise them. Obama and Childers propose raising Social Security taxes, and costing many Mississippi families as much as $2600 a year. A $2,600 tax increase! And, experts say that the Obama/Childers tax increase would cost us jobs. Tell Travis Childers, Mississippi cannot afford higher taxes. Freedom’s Watch is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Freedom’s Watch: When it comes to taxes, Travis Childers and Barack Obama think alike… they both want to raise them. Obama and Childers propose raising Social Security taxes, and costing many Mississippi families as much as $2,600 a year. [/TET]

That’s false. First, the $2,600 figure comes from a 2005 Heritage Foundation article on the effects of raising the cap on personal income subject to Social Security taxes from $90,000 to $140,000, a hypothetical proposal floated by the American Association of Retired Persons. Heritage said that:

Heritage: Raising the cap to $125,000 would directly increase taxes for 7 million middle-class families. Going to the $140,000 advocated by the AARP would cost many of these families even more. At up to an additional $2,650 in taxes per year.

As we've noted before, the cap is pegged to inflation and has since risen to $102,000. Because the difference between $102,000 and $140,000 is less than the difference between $90,000 and $140,000, the outdated $2,650 figure is too high. And it's not clear how many Mississippi families would be affected by such an increase in the cap. The Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey put Mississippi’s median household income at $34,473 and the median family income at $42,805. Both figures are the lowest in the country.

More importantly, Childers and Obama don't "think alike" on the issue. While Obama has explicitly said that he would favor increasing the cap, Childers hasn’t. A writer for the Commercial Dispatch reported that Childers "suggested changing the 'cap' on income," but no further clarification was offered. And Childers has, during the course of the campaign, issued a statement saying he is "against raising Social Security taxes.”

In a different, and even more misleading, ad, Freedom's Watch took this misinformation and stripped out the link to Social Security, claiming simply that "Childers supports raising our taxes as much as $2,600."

Taxing our Patience

[TET ]

NRCC Ad: "Problem with Taxes"

Announcer: Travis Childers has a problem with taxes… he doesn't pay his on time. Over 130 times Childers has been fined for being delinquent on his taxes. 130 times. Even worse, as of this year Childers had 11 unpaid tax bills, and still owes thousands in back taxes. If we can't trust Travis Childers with his own taxes… why would we ever trust him with ours? The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this ad. [/TET]

The NRCC hit Childers for his tax record, saying:

NRCC: Travis Childers has a problem with taxes… he doesn't pay his on time. Over 130 times Childers has been fined for being  delinquent on his taxes. 130 times. Even worse, as of this year Childers had 11 unpaid tax bills, and still owed thousands of dollars in back taxes.

Part of this is true. Documentation provided to FactCheck.org by the NRCC does show that Childers has been penalized more than 130 times for late local tax payments. We're not excusing delinquent taxes, but readers might want to know that some of the penalties were as little as two cents, and 34 of them were less than $1. The largest penalty of the 134 that Childers had to pay was $141.10, and the grand total of the 134 penalties together was $1,294.99.

The NRCC ad also claims that "as of this year Childers had 11 unpaid tax bills, and still owes thousands in back taxes." But that hasn't been true since before the ad started running. Earlier this year Childers had unpaid tax bills that did amount to thousands of dollars. The 11 tax bills specifically mentioned in the ad totaled $5,122.87. However, those bills were paid before this particular ad began airing on television. A deputy clerk for the Prentiss County Chancery Office told FactCheck.org that Childers had paid all of his taxes by mid-April. The NRCC ad in question first aired May 2, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks televised ads in all Mississippi television markets.

Excusing a Felon?

[TET ]

NRCC Ad: "Above the Law"

Announcer: Laws are for all of us. Except, apparently Travis Childers. His longtime business partner is a convicted felon who tried to bribe a Mississippi judge, rather than criticizing he defended him. Even worse, Childers has been fined over 130 times for being delinquent on his taxes. And he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes. We don’t need another politician who’s above the law. We don’t need Travis Childers. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this ad. [/TET]

Another NRCC ad says Childers' "longtime business partner is a convicted felon who tried to bribe a Mississippi judge, rather than criticizing him, he defended him." But it has been six years since Childers bought his then-partner Joe Langston out of their business, contrary to the ad's implication that they're still working together.

 And it was well before January 2008, when Langston pleaded guilty to charges of trying to bribe a judge, and even before the trial started, that Childers told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, "People are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but high-profile people sometimes don't have that luxury." At the time Childers made that statement, Davis wasn't a convicted felon.

Distorting Davis
 

The DCCC, not to be outdone, has concocted some distortions of its own in a set of ads targeting Davis' work as mayor of Southhaven. One ad said that as mayor, Greg Davis "doubled spending" and "raised property taxes four times."

[TET ]

DCCC Ad: "Davis Record"

Announcer: The United States Congress. What bothers you the most? Wasteful spending? Greg Davis doubled spending as Mayor of Southhaven. Does it bother you they keep raising taxes? Greg Davis raised property taxes four times. Say one thing and do another? Greg Davis promised water rates wouldn’t go up… then raised them anyway. Greg Davis, with a record like that he’ll fit right in. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

There's more to this story. The city's spending did go up, but consider that the city's population nearly doubled during Davis' tenure. And while property taxes did go up four times, Davis couldn't do that on his own, and the increases were pegged for specific projects. As the North Mississippi Daily Journal reported:

Daily Journal: Southaven property taxes have increased four times since Davis became mayor. Statistics also show Southaven's population increased from 26,774 in 1998 to 43,795 in 2007. The city's budget increased from $21 million in 1998 to $74.3 million in 2007 … increases were for a new library and 10 new policemen, as well as a two-phased mega-recreational facility.

We talked to the city's administrator, Chris Wilson, who filled us in on the context of the city's tax code changes. One of the four property tax increases replaced a monthly garbage collection fee, so its effect on payments by residents was nearly neutral. And this change was even put up as a ballot issue that received 72 percent approval at the polls.

The other three were passed by a majority of the local Board of Aldermen, and the money was explicitly designated for approved projects. One was for construction of a 17 field state-of-the-art little league facility, home of Dizzy Dean Baseball World Series. Another was pegged for softball parks. And the last added a new library and 10 policemen.

In this ferocious campaign, the candidates have had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. With a few days yet to go, we'd keep an eye on the plumbing. 

– by Justin Bank and D'Angelo Gore

Sources

Brumfield, Patsy, "Davis, McCullough take off the gloves," Daily Journal. 5 March 20008.

Gaskill, John, "Southhaven takes back control of water system; mayor says rates won't change," The Commercial Appeal. 1 Oct 2001.

"Board votes to raise utility rates," The Commercial Appeal. 21 Aug 2002.

Transcript, "Meet the Press: Interview with Barack Obama," NBC. 11 Nov 2007.

"Changes approved in utility fees," The Commercial Appeal. 5 Sept 2002.

John, David C. "Raising the Social Security payroll tax cap does not fix Social Security," Web memo #667, Heritage Foundation, 16 Feb. 2005.

Mamrack, Kristin, “Chancery clerk wants to move up to Congress,” Commercial Dispatch. 8 Feb 2008.

Davis, Lisa K., "Social Security: AARP," Washington Post Transcript. 4 March, 2005.

Travis Childers’ 134 Tax Bills with Penalties. Landroll Receipt and Collection Inquiries. Prentiss County Chancery Office. Provided by the National Republican Congressional Committee

Travis Childers’ 11 Unpaid Tax Bills for 2007. Ladnroll Receipt and Collection Inquiries. Prentiss County Chancery Office. Provided by the National Republican Congressional Committee