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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2002 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

John H. Fund

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Bad Hair Day: Did Montana Dems exploit antigay prejudice? | When Mike Taylor, the GOP's Senate candidate in Montana, abruptly withdrew from his challenge to Democratic senator Max Baucus, he claimed it was because a Democratic attack ad was conveying the impression he was gay. Old-time Montana pols thought they were experiencing déjà vu. A similar controversy helped sink the GOP candidate who ran against Mr. Baucus when he first ran for the Senate 24 years ago.

Democrats say that Mr. Taylor quit because he was going to lose and may have wanted to "pull a Torricelli" and have popular former governor Marc Racicot replace him on the ballot. But Mr. Taylor says he doesn't want his name removed from the ballot. He will instead encourage any write-in candidate who wants to challenge incumbent Democrat Max Baucus. The logistical challenges of organizing a successful write-in race only three weeks before an election effectively leaves Mr. Baucus unopposed.

Although Mr. Taylor has trailed Mr. Baucus in the polls, his campaign says the bottom dropped out for their man this week after Democrats began a $100,000 ad campaign accusing him of abusing a student-loan program in the 1980s, when he ran a chain of hair-care schools. Mr. Taylor settled the dispute with the federal government for $27,250 in 1999 without admitting any wrongdoing.

But the real damage to Mr. Taylor appears to have come from footage taken from 1980s infomercials for his company. The footage showed a younger Mr. Taylor with a beard and dressed in a John Travolta-style leisure suit, topped off with an open-necked shirt and gold chains. He was shown applying lotion to the face of a young man in a barber chair. "Mike Taylor. Not the way we do business in Montana," a narrator intoned.

Republicans claim the ad implied that Mr. Taylor was gay, a potentially negative issue in rural and socially conservative parts of Montana. Democrats scoff at the notion they were attempting any subliminal messaging. They say the ad showed Mr. Taylor applying lotion to another man because it was the only footage they had.

That explanation doesn't satisfy Democratic state Sen. Ken Toole, who chairs the state's Human Rights Network. He complained to the state Democratic Party about the ad, telling them it was "an overt and obvious appeal to the homophobic [voter]" that "plays on stereotyped images of gay people." Mr. Toole told the Billings Gazette that "once you play these cards, inject this crap into a campaign--race, gay--nobody controls it."

That's pretty much what political observers also said in 1978, when the Montana AFL-CIO decided to unload on Republican Larry Williams, an investment adviser who was running against Mr. Baucus for the Senate. The union distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of a photo, taken when Mr. Williams lived in California, that showed him wearing love beads and with an unkempt hairdo, a sharp contrast to the buttoned-down image he tried to convey in his Senate race.

Mr. Williams claimed the photo had been taken after he had finished a long flight, but the damage was done. Charles Johnson, a journalist for the Lee newspaper chain in Montana, says that "at the time, some election observers credited the move as a factor in helping Baucus win the tight race."

In Mr. Taylor's case, It's not clear if the Democrats were consciously playing to antigay prejudice. But it's surprising that Democrats refused to pull the ad even after the uproar and criticism from some of their own party members. Dore Schwinden, a Democratic campaign director, said the ad's claims about the student loan abuse were "true and we stand by the ad 110%." Fine, but you'd think that Democrats might have wanted to avoid the controversy by offering to substitute some different footage of Mr. Taylor without changing the script.

So Sen. Baucus, now chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, can now cruise to a fifth term without breaking a sweat. While he personally had nothing to do with the infamous ad that prompted his opponent's withdrawal, it does seem strange that for the second time in his political career he has benefited from the same kind of underhanded tactic. Many in Montana are saying it would be appropriate for him to chastise his friends and allies who put up the infamous ad, but they're not holding their breath.

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©2001, John H. Fund