Critics: Daschle’s Soft Image Masks Political Machine

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WASHINGTON (Talon News) — More than once in the last two years, soft-spoken Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) has complained that political opponents have tried to silence him.

The Senate Democrat leader generated waves of negative reaction in 2002 when he criticized President Bush for bungling the war in Afghanistan and again this year when he said, “I’m saddened, saddened that this President failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life because this President couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country.”


Following the furor over that remark, Daschle lamented to CBS’s Harry Smith that it’s “sad that as we fight for democracy abroad, there are some in this country who would squelch it.”

Daschle led the Senate chorus against the recent changes in Federal Communications Commission rules that would liberalize regulations governing radio, television, and print media ownership. In a statement issued on June 2, 2003, Daschle said, “I’m worried that the new rules will lead to a growing concentration of control over our news and information to the detriment of our democracy … allowing a handful of companies to dominate the media will make it harder for independent voices to succeed.”

But some in the three-term senator’s home state find his expressions of concern for democracy and independent voices ironic, as they claim the tactics of his political machine in South Dakota stifles both.

Talon News originally investigated accusations of bias at South Dakota’s largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Information gained as a result of that investigation uncovered what one public official described as a “Sopranos-style” pattern of systematic political intimidation by some members of Daschle’s staff and campaign.

He explained that under the cover of “hardball politics” the intimidation is accomplished by pursuing those who are most vulnerable. Small business owners and their employees are particularly susceptible to bullying. The official said that threats of the loss of business or employment are usually sufficient to silence open political opposition, but sometimes a newspaper article is necessary to discredit a rival or critic. In a largely rural state of 750,000 people, nearly everyone is “touchable” in some way.

Steve Hildebrand, Daschle’s campaign manager recently defended their tactics in a statement to the Washington Post. “You’ll see us spending a lot of time attacking the attackers,” he said.

Calls to Hildebrand by Talon News for comment were not returned.

When South Dakota Family Council Executive Director Rob Regier mulled formation of the Daschle Accountability Project, the Daschle campaign went public with a warning that it had an audio tape of the conservative Christian’s confession of paying for an abortion for a former girlfriend. But instead of creating embarrassment as the Daschle campaign intended, Regier told Talon News that this “revelation” was part of his oft-repeated Christian testimony and certainly no secret. He said that Hildebrand’s actions brought “the politics of personal destruction to a new low.”

Most individuals interviewed by Talon News will not allow the use of their names for fear of retribution. Others will simply not comment.

An insurance agent got the message to “get out of politics” or face financial ruin due to loss of business. A Republican campaign worker’s employer was pressured to convince him that he had to choose between his job and his political activities. The family of a man whose business was less vulnerable to direct intimidation was subjected to a barrage of harassing telephone calls after he was identified in a newspaper as a member of a political opposition group.

An elected official speaking to Talon News under condition of anonymity said, “People in South Dakota are afraid to talk about the Mafia tactics and intimidation by the Daschle campaign precisely because of their Mafia tactics and intimidation.”

Daschle’s Washington arm-twisting was evident in the 2002 campaign that pitted incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson against Republican Congressman John Thune. Roll Call reported that one Democrat lobbyist recalled Daschle telling her, “We are going to be watching how you and your industry do in the race in our state.”

The lobbyist remarked, “I have never had anyone tell me I could not give to a candidate before.”

One GOP lobbyist was quoted saying, “Daschle is being subtle and heavy-handed at the same time.” He continued, “He walks up, puts his hand on your shoulder, gives that Daschle grin and says, ‘You know I am keeping track of people who give to Tim Johnson.'”

Calls to Daschle Press Secretary Dan Pfeiffer for comment were not returned.

Charlene Haar, a former high school teacher, who was Daschle’s 1992 opponent, told Talon News that the Democrat campaign pulled their ads from Madison, SD radio station KJAM after the station aired her political spots.

Media manipulation has been the stated cornerstone of the machine’s success. In a 1997 interview, Daschle’s media consultant Karl Struble revealed a technique effectively used in Sen. Tim Johnson’s campaign against an incumbent Republican. In the article, Struble proudly proclaimed, “Our campaign systematically doled out the information piece by piece to reporters in D.C. and South Dakota. The result was a series of damaging articles. … We used the headlines generated as validators for our ads.”

As a result of a Talon News original investigation, the Argus Leader acknowledged a relationship between its star political reporter, David Kranz, and Sen. Daschle that goes back 35 years. Kranz and Daschle worked together at South Dakota State University to stage a mock Democrat Convention in 1968. Kranz served as Daschle’s publicity chairman for the event. Critics charge his subsequent political reporting has been clearly favorable to Daschle and the Democrats and unusually harsh to Republicans.

Roll Call, a Washington, D.C. based newspaper, called Kranz’s bias against Republican Sen. Larry Pressler in the 1990 Senate race “vituperative.” The New York Times noted how Kranz and the Argus Leader have “unfairly reported on Republican office-holders.”

Critics say that one of the most glaring examples of the Argus Leader’s bias is in the reporting on political spouses. Executive Editor Randell Beck explains that his newspaper doesn’t report on the lobbying activities of Daschle spouse Linda because the Argus Leader’s policy is to not report on the “wives of candidates.” Yet the Argus Leader with Kranz as managing editor ran a series of articles about Pressler’s wife Harriet. They implied that Mrs. Pressler, a real estate agent in Washington, D.C., profited by insider information from her husband. No charges were ever filed in the matter.

In 1995, the newspaper printed an editorial entitled “Gingrich’s Wife’s Job Raises Ethical Issue” in which it criticized the wife of the Republican Speaker of the House for taking a position with the Israel Export Development Company. The editorial stated, “The spouses of U.S. leaders should be held to a high standard. Not only should they avoid impropriety, they should avoid all appearance of impropriety. Marianna Gingrich should seek employment elsewhere.”

The Argus Leader has rarely mentioned Linda Daschle at all. Linda Daschle’s lobbying income last year is estimated to be $6 million dollars.

Amidst the furor spawned by Republican senate candidate Neal Tapio’s accusations of bias and the reporting of Talon News, the Argus Leader promoted Kranz in an ad that said, “With almost 30 years covering South Dakota politics, David Kranz is unmatched for expertise. His insights and analysis are a must-read for anyone.”

Further investigation revealed that the link between the newspaper and the Democrat machine became even broader when Kranz’s colleague at the Argus Leader, Steve Erpenbach joined the Daschle team. Erpenbach was assistant city editor of the Argus Leader from 1986 until 1989 while Kranz was the city editor. Erpenbach went to work for Pressler’s opponent in the 1990 contest. It was the coverage of that race that prompted The New York Times and Roll Call to criticize the Argus Leader’s negative reporting on Sen. Pressler. Erpenbach is now Sen. Daschle’s state political director.

Kranz refused to be interviewed for this article when contacted by Talon News, and calls to Erpenbach were not returned.

Other media outlets have been subjected to pressure from the Daschle campaign. Greg Belfrage, an outspoken radio talk show host for Sioux Falls KELO-AM has been called on the carpet several times for his “Daschle bashing.”

On his Web site, Belfrage writes, “Intimidation and embarrassment seem to be SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) for Steve Hildebrand and some others in the Daschle campaign. I’ll be counting the days to see how long it takes for Democrats to deliver a copy of this Web page to my employer. It’s happened before.”

Hildebrand personally visited the station to make the Daschle campaign’s demands clear.

At the height of the Argus Leader controversy, Executive Editor Randell Beck cancelled his weekly appearance on a segment called “Argus on Air” after Neal Tapio appeared on Belfrage’s program. Tapio called for the Argus Leader to acknowledge the Kranz-Daschle relationship. Only after Beck met with the station management did he agree to return for the weekly feature. He now refuses to answer questions on the air about the relationship between their political reporter and the Senator.

During the heat of last year’s senate race, Television station KSFY was working on an investigative series about alleged voter fraud involving a Democratic registration effort focused on Native Americans. Sources told Talon News that Democrat operatives descended on the station to demand the firing of news anchor Mitch Krebs and reporter Shelley Keohane and spiking of the story.

KSFY Vice President and General Manager Jack Hansen told Talon News that he “could not recall such an incident” but confirmed that a station employee was fired after it was discovered he was tipping off Democrats to the news stories being planned. Both Krebs and Keohane remain at the station, but coverage of the story was abruptly discontinued.

Charlene Haar believes that a docile press has proven to be a useful tool in a state where one newspaper is dominant. Press releases are printed as fact and errors need never be corrected. The lack of competition ensures that the printed words are not challenged. As Haar notes, “You have a lot of power when you buy ink by the barrel.”

A former staffer to Sen. Pressler lamented that the abuse of such power, especially when it is used to destroy someone’s reputation. In 1990, Kranz called for Pressler to release his “health records” and raised the issue of his “memory” implying he had Alzheimer’s disease. Pressler’s father died of the disease shortly after the Argus Leader ran the story. Rumors have also circulated about Pressler’s absentmindedness, including a story that Pressler mistakenly walked into a closet after a committee hearing and remained there to avoid embarrassment. Randell Beck repeated the story as fact on a recent radio program. Pressler staffers have consistently denied the story.

In 1996 former Sen. James Abourezk (D-SD) recruited the author of “Washington Babylon” for a South Dakota speech to discuss his book that strongly implied that Pressler was a homosexual. Regarding the claim, Abourezk said, “I told everybody who would listen to me.” Kranz repeated those rumors in an Argus Leader article, despite the candidate’s denials. Pressler was defeated that November. Abourezk was Daschle’s mentor, as the current Senate Minority leader got his start in politics as an aide to the South Dakota Democrat in 1972. Abourezk recently made news when he filed a $5 million libel lawsuit against a Pennsylvania parody Web site operator.

A Republican campaign worker who notarized three affidavits of people who claimed they were paid by Democrat operatives to vote in last year’s election complained that a similar character assassination was waged against her. The Argus Leader reported that she “traveled through the Rosebud reservation … asking people if they had any evidence of wrongdoing on Election Day” with an “unsigned affidavit,” a charge she denied. She was unwilling to discuss the matter further with Talon News for fear of another round of persecution by the Argus Leader.

Byron York, White House Correspondent for the National Review, wrote extensively about the voter fraud in South Dakota. The question of voter fraud remains unanswered as two individuals paid by the Democrat Party still face criminal prosecution for forgery in an alleged registration fraud scheme. A Republican official suggested that Thune decided not to challenge his narrow loss to Johnson in order to avoid negative media backlash.

The Daschle campaign released a $31,000 series of television ads last week that feature the senator claiming credit for the recent passage of a law mandating increased ethanol use, which is thought will be a boon to South Dakota farmers. It will also be a windfall for Mrs. Daschle’s lobbying firm which represents the Sioux Falls-based industry group, American Coalition for Ethanol.