Who takes responsibility for a racist political ad?
Democrat T’wina Nobles, who is running for a seat in the Washington State Senate this year, said she first saw a copy of the attack mailer on Twitter.
“This is a very serious photo of me, but it definitely has been altered to come across as extremely dark,” Nobles said.
But nobody has taken responsibility for the racist mailer.
“I believe that Black is beautiful, so it's not about the darkness of it, but the attempt to make it a very menacing photo,” she said.
Nobles is president of the Tacoma Urban League, and twice-elected University Place School Board Director. In the primary, she finished ahead of her opponent, Republican incumbent Steve O'Ban, who represents the 28th Legislative District in Pierce County.
O’Ban’s campaign said he didn’t create the attack ad, and he declined to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement he rejected the alteration of the photo, but didn’t specifically disavow the mailer as racist.
Nobles said she’s disappointed by that response.
"I would have picked up the phone and said, 'I want you to know that's not who I am, I don't want to be associated with anything that is even perceived to be racist, let alone blatantly racist'," she said.
The ad was paid for by a political action committee or PAC called WA Forward, which is run by two of O’Ban’s State Senate Republican colleagues: John Braun, who represents the 20th legislative district, south of Olympia; and Mark Schoesler, who represents the 9th Legislative District in Eastern Washington.
Neither senator responded to KUOW’s requests for comment. University of Washington Professor Christopher Sebastian Parker, who studies racism and politics, said he’s not surprised.
“Why would you want to take responsibility for it? I mean, because the political backlash could be big,” he said.
Parker also said that the failure of anyone to own a racist attack ad like this one is bad for Democracy.
“Voters should be aware of who’s saying what to whom, and for what reason. Democracy is about accountability and information,” Parker said.
Almost none of the big donors to the Senate GOP PAC, whose names are all on the mailer, took responsibility either, including the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) PAC, the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Washington PAC or the RJ Reynolds PAC (RAI Services).
The Washington Association of Realtors was the only organization to disavow the ad, reportedly after a backlash from their membership.
“We are sorry for the hurt this racist ad has caused,” they said in a written statement.
The ad makers didn’t want to talk, either. The mailer was created by a company called DMM media, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington D.C.
After dozens of phone calls, someone at DMM picked up the phone but hung up immediately after being informed of what this story is about.
A search of Virginia businesses reveals DMM Media’s president is a political strategist named David Neal, who is also president of another company with the exact same address called Strategic Media Services. They didn’t answer KUOW's calls, either.
But according to the New York Times, “Dave” Neal was a key media strategist behind Donald Trump’s campaign ad buys in 2016.
Update: Around a week after this story appeared a group called “Shift Washington” made claims that it’s inaccurate. We stand by our reporting. KUOW still has not received a response to multiple requests for interviews from any of the people or groups behind the mailer, including DMM, WA Forward, and Washington State Senators Steve Braun and Mark Schoesler.
Michael Charles, a political consultant, said even though Washington state has some of the toughest campaign finance rules in the country, “we still haven’t figured out how yet to prevent this type of shadow politicking that takes place."
Charles also argues that racist attack ads keep being made in part due to structural racism. Specifically, political consulting firms that create these ads are not diverse enough.
“The reason you don’t see consultants of color doing this is because they have to go back and answer to their own communities. The people making the decisions that are primarily Caucasian in these spaces don’t have the same accountability when they come home,” Charles said.
It's not just happening in Washington State. In South Carolina this year, for instance, Senator Lindsey Graham's campaign was criticized for a racist Facebook ad that darkened an image of his opponent, Democrat Jaime Harrison.
Charles also argues it’s not just Republican firms. Consultants who work for progressive candidates turn to racist messages and images, too. He pointed to an attack aid aimed at a Marilyn Strickland, another Black female candidate in Washington this year (Full disclosure: This is a campaign he’s working on).
That too involves a doctored image. In the original video image, Strickland wears a business suit. In the altered version, the ad makers put her in a puffy sweater, and the photo was changed to black and white.
Charles said the image is aimed at making a successful Black woman look incompetent to voters.
“It's making her look like a mammy. It harkens back to Black stereotypes of the old grandma who's just going to serve you and take care of you rather than actually fight for you and be a leader for you,” Charles said.
The ad was paid for by the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU) COPE PAC. KUOW was unable to reach anyone for comment.
Strickland is the former mayor of Tacoma and former head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. She’s running for the open seat in the 10th Congressional District south of Seattle to replace Congressman Denny Heck.
If Strickland wins the race she would be the first Black person ever elected to congress from any state in the Northwest.
Correction, 1:30 p.m., 8/27/2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sen. Steve O'Ban's first name.