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A dirty trick that worked

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Truth is a mighty hammer which, fixed to the handle of false intent, can strike down the innocent and render itself misshapen.

The Hon. Jill Rangos, Judge of the Court of Common Pleas -- still, and for the next 10 years -- can testify authoritatively to how this sort of thing works.

Her campaign signed off on an attack ad that painted a rival, Alan Hertzberg, as a deadbeat dad. The ad arguably stripped away the 3,500 votes Hertzberg needed to win a judicial seat, clearing the way for Rangos. On election night, prize in hand, Rangos disingenuously professed her opposition to the ad that had just won her the job.

"I was not in favor of doing it," Rangos said.

This remark provides one of those momentary quandaries. She could be lying or she could be telling the truth, but it doesn't much matter. She is either a cynic or a woman with so little control over her campaign that she could not prevent her own party from committing a wrong on her behalf.

Here are the particulars of the advertisement, which was aired by the Pennsylvania Republican Committee: A thoroughly annoyed-looking woman introduces Hertzberg.

"He wants you to make him a family court judge. Hertzberg certainly has experience in family court. Unfortunately, not as a judge. You see it was here that Hertzberg failed to obey a court order to pay child support, and was ordered to pay up."

Women would react in solidarity with a sister cheated at the bazaar of justice. Men of decency would revolt at the sight of a public man neglecting his children.

It worked. In a county with a 2-to-1 Democratic registration edge, Republican Rangos edged out Hertzberg for one of three seats on Common Pleas Court.

"These ads are backed up by documentation and are factual," said Ray Zaborney, the Rangos campaign manager. Zaborney said the campaign signed off on the spot. "We have the same standard for third-party ads as we have for our own."

Aside from the dubious suggestion that Hertzberg was running for "family court judge" -- assignments are determined once a candidate is elected -- the idea that he failed to obey a child support order and had to be ordered to "pay up" is true only in the sense that legal documents sometimes apply absolute standards to ambiguous situations.

Hertzberg's wife, in order to seek a support order during their divorce, had to fill out a form that automatically asserts that "defendant has neglected the duty to support or sufficiently support the aforementioned person(s)." That is the language with which a support-seeker gets into the system because it's on the form.

Hertzberg paid support, then got into an argument with his ex-wife over whether some of the money he paid for other expenses should be counted against the child support amount. They went to court. A judge adjusted the amount and ordered Hertzberg to pay "arrears" in the amount of, brace yourselves, $345.

"I divorced an attorney. His arena is the courtroom. So whenever there was anything to talk about, we went to court," said Karen Hertzberg, the candidate's former wife.

She called the ad "ridiculous," and said that while various changes in custody for her two children sometimes required adjustments in support payments, "he was never in arrears."

Chad Saylor, the Republican committee director behind the ad, insisted that the documents in question suggest the truth of his party's charges. But to understand their meaning, their context, would have required such a thing as a simple question to Karen Hertzberg.

"We don't generally telegraph our punches," Saylor explained. That, of course, is how Hertzberg got sucker-punched.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, wrote about what is meant by telling the truth. Bonhoeffer knew that truth could not be used as a weapon and retain its purpose.

"An individual utterance is always part of a total reality which seeks expression in this utterance," Bonhoeffer wrote. "If the truth is told without taking into account to whom it is addressed, then this truth has only the appearance of truth, but it lacks essential character."

No clearer lesson of this could have been seen than in 1986, when the campaign of the late Robert P. Casey aired an ad painting his Republican opponent, William Scranton III, as a New Age mystic.

"Everything in that ad had already been reported in Time magazine," Casey once told me when I raised the subject. That is true. But thrown into the context of a political race, set to sitar music and targeted at a conservative, religious midstate audience that had not read the Time piece, the truth misrepresented reality, and Bill Scranton was driven not only from office but from politics and public service.

Bob Casey went on to become one of the most humane and compassionate governors I have observed. It is possible that Jill Rangos will rise above the venality of her win. She could begin by owning up to the dunghill from which she retrieved her victory.


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist (droddy@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1965).

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