SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Although the 2020 election is still 15 months away, the campaign for Congressman Rodney Davis is already dispatching volunteers to surreptitiously try and undermine a key messaging strategy of his rival Betsy Dirksen Londrigan — that she can’t be bought and paid for.
On Wednesday, July 17th, Dirksen Londrigan held a joint press conference call with a campaign finance reform group called End Citizens United. The campaign sent invitations to local media and asked them to RSVP.
WCIA has learned an unpaid volunteer working on behalf of the Davis campaign crashed the call, lied about his name to pose as reporter for a college newspaper, and ambushed Dirksen Londrigan with pointed arguments, including jabs at her husband’s career.
On the call, Dirksen Londrigan said, “Congressman Davis’ votes clearly show he is voting for the corporate PACs and special interests who fund his campaign.” She vowed not to accept any direct campaign contributions from corporate PACs, a political strategy Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders deployed successfully in 2016 to align himself with the growing number of Americans dissatisfied with the Washington establishment and who wanted an outsider to showcase they are not beholden to big business.
Davis has pushed back against Dirksen Londrigan’s characterizations, saying on Monday that his campaign contributions have “no more clout over me than it has clout over her for taking money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who takes funding from the same sources.”
Davis’s defense sounded nearly identical to lines of questioning from a man who joined Dirksen Londrigan’s press call five days earlier.
Toward the end of the conference call, a man introduced himself as Jim Sherman from The Alestle, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
Caller: “Yes, hello. Yeah, this is Jim Sherman from the Alestle, the newspaper at SIUE. So, my question is about the corporate PAC (political action committee) money that comes through the DCCC that you mentioned earlier. The DCCC has received $1.93 million from corporate, some of the biggest corporate PACs like Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, big Pharma companies, big coal companies. Betsy, will you vow not to receive any benefit through TV ads, through mail, not to except any of that corporate pack benefit that comes through an end run through the DCCC?”
Dirksen Londrigan: “I think you might be conflating a couple things there. You’re talking about third party things over which I have no control. I don’t know what kind of answer I can give you on that. But what I can tell you emphatically is my campaign is not accepting a dime of corporate PAC money. I want to make sure the people in Central Illinois and in the 13th district know that I’m going to Washington to serve them. I firmly believe in the term ‘public servant.’ That’s what I plan on being in the people that I’m going to answer to are the people who are here in central Illinois.”
The caller twice tried to interject with a follow up question, before getting another chance later in the call.
Caller: “Just a follow-up to that question. So the DCCC gave Betsy $5,000 last quarter, so she can control the money she accepts there. So that’s one point. And then you mentioned third-party control over it. But campaigns all over the country team up with their party committees to have joint ads, joint mail. So will you vow not to accept any of those large contributions or joint campaign expenditures from the DCCC?”
Dirksen Londrigan: “What I am vowing is that on my report that I am in control of, I am not taking any corporate PAC money. That is what I am vowing to the people in central Illinois, and it is not just for the course of this campaign. It is also for when I get elected to Congress, I am going there to answer to the people, and not to corporate PACs.”
Caller: “Yeah, but what’s to stop a corporate lobbyist, a, a corporate PAC, like your husband, a corporate lobbyist at McGuire Woods, from just funneling money to the DCCC, which you then benefit from?”
Dirksen Londrigan: “Um, look. I am running for Congress, not my husband. It’s 2019, and I think it’s time for women to be judged on our own and not by our husbands’ careers.”
In the debate over campaign cash and influence, the Davis campaign does offer some valid points about his rival’s funding. Most notably, that Dirksen Londrigan is closely allied with Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL), who chairs the DCCC and controls its spending decisions. The Dirksen Londrigan campaign is legally barred from coordinating directly with the DCCC, but as the likely nominee for her party in a tight race, her campaign will likely and naturally receive indirect support from the national party apparatus. The DCCC spent $123.9 million on advertising in the 2018 cycle, hauled in $58.9 million just from the communications, finance, real estate, health care and insurance sectors, and sent $44,085 of it to Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign.
Ahead of last week’s call, the Dirksen Londrigan campaign wrote in an email, “Davis has accepted over $2.4 million in corporate PAC contributions over his political career while voting against protecting people with preexisting conditions and to cut corporate taxes on the backs of the middle class.”
On Monday, Davis downplayed the potential for companies to purchase influence because their PAC contributions to candidates are limited to $5,000 each election cycle. He also claimed he has a history of voting against the interest of his campaign donors, though neither he nor his campaign has yet offered any examples.
Her recent pledge to refuse corporate PAC donations notwithstanding, Dirksen Londrigan is no stranger to the political fundraising scene. She previously worked to raise money for Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, and state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). While that work does not undermine her claim of independence, it certainly complicates her campaign’s efforts to paint her as a political outsider.
However, the caller who went after Dirksen Londrigan and her husband in the press call was not who he claimed he was.
Miranda Lintzenich, the editor of the student newspaper, told WCIA, “Our student paper is not something through class. It’s an actual employment job. As far as I can remember, we have not had anyone by the name of Jim Sherman work here.”
According to SIUE’s public records, there is no one attending class on campus with the name Jim Sherman.
An employee at the admissions office told WCIA, “We do not have anyone by the name of Jim Sherman associated with SIUE.”
According to a call log provided to WCIA, the phone number used to dial into the conference call matched the cell phone number for Nick Klitzing, the former Executive Director of the Illinois Republican Party who most recently worked as the deputy campaign manager for former Governor Bruce Rauner.
Reached by phone, Klitzing confessed to committing the hoax and said, “I was willing to help. I’m just a volunteer.”
Veteran political reporter and press relations man Mike Lawrence called the episode “unfortunate” and “off limits for any campaign.”
Lawrence served as bureau chief for the now-defunct Lee Enterprises and later in the same capacity for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 20 years before signing on as former Governor Jim Edgar’s press secretary in 1990. Later, Lawrence served as the director of SIU’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Lawrence said. “It’s an indication of the continued degradation of campaigning. In some respects, it’s an extension of the ‘anything goes’ mentality.”
Lawrence recalled the old days where campaigns would engage in “dirty tricks” or send trackers to hound rival candidates at public events, but said, “I think this goes a step further.”
“It’s not appropriate for someone to misrepresent himself as a reporter,” Lawrence said.
Confronted with the established facts of the story and Klitzing’s confession, Davis’ campaign manager Matt Butcher initially tried to deny having any knowledge about the phone call.
WCIA gave Butcher another 24 hours to explain how an unpaid volunteer living in Chicago could have possibly been aware of a closed press call happening downstate, and how that volunteer might have known to parrot Congressman Davis’ talking points. Yet, Butcher still declined comment.
Klitzing acknowledged he did not act alone, and that he was asked to make the call and interject with questions. He said it was his idea to offer up a fake name.
Klitzing also defended crashing Dirksen Londrigan’s press call, saying “it happens all the time.”
The organizer of the call did not find it common or comical.
“Impersonating a college student in order to lob false partisan attacks is dirty politics and shows how low Rodney Davis’ campaign is willing to sink,” Muller told WCIA. She claimed Davis “can’t defend his record, so he’s sending other people to make false attacks. Rodney Davis should condemn these tactics and stop the dirty politics.”
It’s unclear if Congressman Davis has any knowledge of the hoax phone call his campaign commissioned, or if he’s aware of WCIA’s persistent efforts to seek any comment or explanation from his campaign manager. His staff has taken the unusual step of repeatedly ignoring phone calls, text messages and emails from WCIA’s political reporters, and no longer sends press releases or notices of media availability to WCIA’s political staff, despite frequent requests to include them in media releases.
In addition, WCIA has sent six separate invitations for Congressman Davis to appear on Capitol Connection since his November 2018 election victory. His office has ignored or declined each one.