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One candidate is branded a hermaphrodite, a criminal, and a fool; the other an atheist, a half-breed, and a coward.

Wait. Are we talking about the upcoming presidential election between Trump and presumptive nominee Joe Biden, or possibly recent candidates for supervisor here in San Luis Obispo?

No, actually, these character assassinations were made in 1800 during the presidential campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Negative campaigning has been a part of U.S. elections for at least 220 years. That's depressing because it has a disastrous impact on democracy: Voters are over-influenced by lies and misrepresentations; policy discussions get lost or ignored; and too many citizens, disgusted and confused by the mudslinging, opt out by not voting at all.

Although I would never not vote, the political treachery of the March 3 election nearly incurred a gag reflex. The campaign waged against challenger Ellen Beraud by District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold and her conservative allies was especially egregious. Arnold mailers made the outrageous suggestion that Beraud belongs cordoned off behind police crime-scene tape for her alleged but utterly untrue support of fraud, human trafficking, and businesses under DOJ investigation.

Additionally, using Beraud's 2007 stance on a proposed veterans monument, a supposedly independent political action committee (PAC) piled on the mischaracterizations and lies. Beraud, on video record as absolutely supporting a monument honoring veterans, voted against the particular project because the sole design submitted was inadequate.

The PAC that poured in $60,000 of negative advertising to oppose Beraud masqueraded as a veterans' organization, but the list of contributors exposed this grotesque mischaracterization. The money came from the petroleum industry; North County vineyards, including Daou, Ancient Peaks, and Margarita; Mullahey Ford car dealership; and Republicans, including District Attorney Dan Dow and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton.

Debbie Arnold should be ashamed.

Unfortunately, hit pieces often work—Arnold barely won re-election using smear and innuendo.

"Voters in our county deserve better," Beraud's campaign manager James Sofranko said to me. "The dirty campaign distracted everyone, including the news media, from the important issues, and Arnold was complicit in the dishonesty.

"But, like Trump, Arnold was rewarded nonetheless."

If you think the Arnold campaign was dirty, just wait until the presidential campaign kicks in. Trump has already been impeached because of his efforts to dig up dirt on his political opponent.

"We're going to see a scorched-earth mentality," Cal Poly political science professor Michael Latner said in an interview with me. "The Trump administration is perhaps the most corrosive we've ever seen in its rejection of democratic norms. It has delegitimatized the press, delegitimatized election results, and it has spent $10 million to fight voting rights lawsuits."

We all know Trump relies on personal attacks to whip his base into a frenzy and to turn them out at the polls. "Lock her up" in 2016 referred to Hillary Clinton and in 2019 to Nancy Pelosi. And in 2020, "lock him up" will be the chant targeting Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Meanwhile, U.S. Republican senators continue to use their offices in efforts to make credible long-disproved accusations regarding Hunter Biden's association with Ukrainian oil company Burisma and to peddle the repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with the 2016 election.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) leads a Senate investigation of Hunter Biden, while a pro-Trump Super PAC is using the investigation in a recently launched digital ad campaign to question Joe Biden's credibility. Now that Biden is the presumptive nominee, these public "investigations" will go into overdrive.

Once again, Trump became one of only three presidents in our history to be impeached because of his misuse and abuse of office to indict a political opponent.

Because of Trump's singular campaign strategy of character assassination (what else has he got, especially now that the market and economy has tanked under coronavirus?), Latner predicted that the 2020 campaign will devolve into a question of "who is more corrupt?"

"Biden must embrace a democratic reform agenda," said Latner. "He would do well to embrace and promote HR 1, a sweeping anti-corruption bill already passed by the House—HR 1 would usher in the biggest fundamental reforms since the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The bill has three main objectives: reform the way we finance campaigns to reduce the influence of special interests, strengthen our ethics laws, and expand voting rights. Of course, Republicans in office oppose this clean-it-up campaign reform package. That's why it's sitting in the dead zone, otherwise known as the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. HR 1 is one of more than 400 pieces of legislation passed by the House but refused even a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

And some call this leadership?

Like Sofranko says, we deserve better.

Here in sunny SLO, we too deserve better than the kind of campaign waged by Debbie Arnold, who disseminated scummy, dishonest, but scary mailers that painted her opponent as menacing, alarming, and perhaps criminal.

But then, isn't Arnold just following the lead of Donald Trump? Δ

Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Write a response for publication and email it to

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