Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Ellmers’ franking gathers critiques

Taxpayer-funded brochures, like the portion of one shown above on health care, sent by the office of U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers have drawn concern from opponents.
Taxpayer-funded brochures, like the portion of one shown above on health care, sent by the office of U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers have drawn concern from opponents.

Glossy, colorful fliers showed up this fall in the mailboxes of Congresswoman Renee Ellmers’ 2nd district constituents.

The mailers outline where Ellmers stands on issues such as health care, the economy and the military. In many ways, they resemble campaign mailers. But in one corner, the cards read: “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.”

Taxpayers spent $71,910 from July through September on the mailed material, which is known as “franking” on Capitol Hill.

The mailings were sent as Ellmers faces a crowded primary fight for her seat next year. All three Republicans who are planning to challenge Ellmers in March said they view Ellmers’ franked materials as an unfair campaign tool and an irresponsible use of money.

Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for Ellmers, said criticism of the mailings is “ludicrous” and that it would be illegal for Ellmers to use the taxpayer-financed mail for political reasons.

“Not only is the use of franked mail for political promotion against the law, but it is yet another absurd claim made by opponents who will say anything to get attention,” Ellis said in an email message. “We utilize franked mail just as nearly every other member of Congress does and we do so because it’s one of the most cost-effective mediums for communicating our record.”

Nearby representatives David Price and Walter Jones did not spent taxpayer money on franked mail in the same quarter, according to their offices. So far, Price is not being challenged next spring and Jones has two opponents.

Ellis said in a statement that the mailers share important contact information and encourage conversation with constituents, espeically those who aren’t active online.

She said Ellmers’ office tries to keep the mailers as inexpensive as possible while still informing constituents about Ellmers’ efforts.

“Frequent and regular communication with constituents has, and remains, a top priority for the congresswoman and we will continue to use every tool at our disposal in order to properly inform the Second District of our work on their behalf,” she said.

Guidelines galore

There are rules on the type of content allowed in congressional mailers, which can be sent on a quarterly basis. They mailings are allowed as a way to keep voters informed on how to contact their representative and what their elected representative has been up to in Congress.

Under the rules, the content should be informative. It should not highlight the public official’s personal achievements or characteristics. It should not include solicitations for political support or financial assistance, and officials are cautioned, for example, to limit use of their name to no more than eight times per regular sized page.

But one guideline of caution says: “Comments critical of policy or legislation should not be partisan, politicized or personalized.”

The content must be approved by a bipartisan commission in Washington, D.C. Ellis said both the Republican and Democrat franking offices review Ellmers’ materials before they’re sent.

One of Ellmers’ recent mailers shows a solider against a blue sky. “Our national security is in the line of fire,” the text says. “Congressman Renee Ellmers is standing strong for America.”

Another mailer is viewing an eye chart through a pair of eyeglasses. Open the mailer and it says in bold red: “Obamacare takes away your choice ... it’s plain to see that Obamacare isn’t working.” The mailer uses her name eight times.

Kay Daly, one of Ellmers’ three opponents, said she takes issue with the content of several of Ellmers’ mailers.

Daly mentioned a third mailer that Ellmers’ office sent that says Ellmers is “defending families and children” and will be investigating Planned Parenthood. “As a nurse, mother and Christian with a 100% Pro-Life voting record, I assure you that I will work to protect the precious lives of women and unborn children,” the mailer from Ellmers says.

Daly said she does not believe Ellmers is “strictly pro-life” and believes the mailers are a waste of taxpayer money.

“The next piece of trashy political mail we get from her is probably going to say how she has carefully guarded our taxpayer dollars so as to cut out waste and abuse,” Daly said.

Campaign tools?

Frank Roche and Jim Duncan, Ellmers’ other two opponents, both said they think Ellmers’ mailers are obvious campaigning.

Roche, who is challenging Ellmers for the second time, said the mailers were once thought to be an effective way to communicate with those who members of Congress represent. That process, he said, has long been manipulated by incumbents.

“By now it’s obvious to anyone that these are essentially campaign tools that incumbents use at taxpayers’ expense to maintain their advantage in the re-election,” he said.

Duncan, the outgoing chairman of the Chatham County GOP, said Ellmers’ use of the mailers to her advantage highlights a bigger issue – a disconnect between Ellmers’ values and those of her constituents.

In August 2010, then-candidate Ellmers sent a letter to former 2nd district representative Bob Etheridge, a Democrat, that questioned Etheridge’s franked mailing practices.

In the letter, Ellmers references a pamphlet Etheridge sent to the district. She wrote, “How can you explain writing taxpayers that you are ‘reducing the deficit’ when you are wasting thousands of dollars of their money on political mailings to help you get re-elected?”

Duncan said Ellmers is using the same avenue she once critiqued.

“This is just the highest degree of hypocrisy when you call out previous representative for franking and then you do it,” Duncan said. “This is what makes the citizens go cross-eyed and say, ‘We need a change here.’”

Roche said he thinks the franked mailing’s impact could make an unfair difference at the polls.

“When you have the ability to send them for free to tens of thousands of your constituency as you wish, that’s a real advantage,” he said.

“Even if people don’t bring them into their home from the mailbox, they still can’t miss the giant piece of mail that’s in their hand.”

“And on every side of it is Renne Ellmers’ name.”

Ellmers’ spokeswoman said the office is a careful steward of taxpayer money and the office “has consistently saved taxpayer dollars at the end of every legislative year” and that “we understand the importance of being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

“Frequent and regular communication with constituents has, and remains, a top priority for the Congresswoman,” Ellmers’ spokeswoman said, “and we will continue to use every tool at our disposal in order to properly inform the 2nd district of our work on their behalf.”

Franked materials cannot be sent out 90 days before any scheduled primary or general election, a rule made to distance such mailings from the campaign period.

The deadline for North Carolina’s delegation to put mass franking in the mail is Wednesday.

Staff writer Liz Bell

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