Eugene Patterson was surprised recently to read a letter to the editor that compared a local fair campaigning committee to Hitler and Lenin.
Anyone who thinks so, Patterson said, must also "distrust motherhood and suspect apple pie."
Patterson, editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times, spoke Saturday at the third annual banquet of Pinellas County's Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices, a group that seeks to eliminate mudslinging in local elections. The group's board hears complaints about negative campaign ads and statements and criticizes those it finds to be false or misleading.
It's clear that the public is increasingly apathetic about the political process, Patterson said, which he said was not surprising "when they see so many candidates bought and sold by special-interest money, when they see that money going into negative campaigning, attack ads, mudslinging, smears."
That's why a statewide panel of opinion and civic leaders convened five years ago to develop a code of fair campaigning.
Patterson, who served on the panel, said the code was essentially "to shun bigotry, to forbid misrepresentation, to avoid untruths about others, to fight fairly and to stick to issues that are valid" in campaigning.
"Isn't that a wonderful list?" he said to the audience of more than 100.
Nonetheless, Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices has become controversial. Some Pinellas Republican leaders have urged its members not to participate in the committee, because it is bipartisan, which means that Republican candidates might put themselves in the position of being criticized by Democrats. They say it makes more sense for each political party to discipline its own candidates.
The state Republican Party recently passed its own fair campaigning code and ordered individual county Republican organizations not to affiliate themselves with independent fair campaign committees like the one in Pinellas.
"That's wonderful," Patterson said Saturday, referring to the new Republican code. "The more ethical codes we bring into existence, and the more people who are pressed to honor them, the better for the political process, surely. Hooray for the competition!"
But, he added, "it's important not to misrepresent what this organization stands for." Far from being Hitlerian or Leninist, the Citizens for Fair Campaign Practices wields just "a referee's whistle, which it can only blow to point out an infraction. It can't even impose a penalty. Only the voters can decide if they want to walk off some yards."
Patterson did agree with the committee's critics on one point: No member of the committee's board should participate in a hearing about a candidate whom they have financially supported or opposed.
Several prominent Democrats and Republicans appeared at the banquet, including Pinellas Democratic Chairman Paul Hitchens and Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice, a Republican.