Governor’s race needs referee before it jumps the shark

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Most reporters will tell you it’s a lesson learned early. Never write a fake headline in an email or call in a phony breaking news story for yuks. That’s because inevitably some version of it will end up online or otherwise in the wrong hands.

If ever an unknowing reporter at the Sun-Times would make a crack about breaking news that really was just a joke, our former Editor-in-Chief Don Hayner would look straight at that person and sternly warn: Don’t (bleep) with the news.

This all bears mentioning now because we are in the midst of what promises to be an ugly, no-holds-barred gubernatorial election, with tens of millions of dollars spent on both sides.

Ask any reporter in Chicago about dealing with the Bruce Rauner or the Pat Quinn campaigns these days and you’ll get a bold-faced, slow-motion, disgusted eye roll.

There’s no issue small enough for either campaign to nitpick — or hyperventilate about. Details are scant. Finger-pointing is plentiful. Pettiness prevails.

And we’re barely into July.

Press releases go out about the appearance of campaign staffers dressed up as Pinocchio — or as chickens. I recently asked a question via email about an issue of the day and received a video of the opposing side’s staffer driving into a parking lot preparing to dress up as a caricature for the event.

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Think for a moment about the amount of resources going into that — from both sides — with an end game nowhere near addressing serious issues facing Illinois.

In the first three months of this year, Rauner’s campaign spent upward of $500,000 on staff and consultants. Quinn, who didn’t have a formidable primary opponent, spent about half that much.

The so-called silly season of this gubernatorial contest has so far meant Rauner standing beside a trio of live chickens at a news conference to make a point about government waste; Quinn campaign staffers dressed up as chickens outside a Rauner fundraiser; and a man dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit wearing a Blagojevich mask holding a poster asking Quinn for a job.

And of course, there’s “Quinnocchio,” the Rauner campaign creation who is dispatched to stand outside all Quinn events holding a large poster board referencing the latest scandal. One state representative, Kelly Cassidy, rapped Rauner’s campaign for sending the costumed staffer to the site where Quinn was signing an anti-bullying bill.

“Shame on @BruceRaunerHQ sending a clown to signing of anti-bullying bill,” Cassidy wrote in a tweet. “Does he think bullying is funny?”

Last week, we saw the chicanery with both campaigns escalate to the point that Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., deemed it a “new low” in campaign warfare.

It began with Quinn. His side blasted out a news release: “Bruce Rauner Emerges From Hiding to Answer Four Clout Questions at Events in Joliet.” It even listed a press contact: “LANCE & MIKE, RAUNER FOR GOVERNOR.” (Rauner’s two top spokespeople are Mike Schrimpf and Lance Trover.)

“CHICAGO – Bruce Rauner will emerge from hiding for two rare media availabilities today to face four key questions about the breaking news that he deceived the public about claims he used clout and wealth for special treatment,” the mock press release said.

“He will face reporters and, with a candor yet unseen in his campaign, answer the following questions …”

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson dismissed it as a “light-hearted attempt to let the press know where Mr. Rauner would be.”

The next day, the Illinois Republican Party, with the Rauner campaign’s blessing, took it up a notch, sending out a media advisory purporting to have Durbin announce he would call on Quinn, a fellow Democrat, to testify before a legislative panel about a beleaguered, defunct anti-violence program.

The Republicans’ fake release said Durbin would use a Metra station as a backdrop to say this: “I will not lie down on the tracks for you while the federal prosecutor train is coming through.”

A clearly rattled Durbin castigated the practice.

“To put out a phony press release supposedly from my office, and to involve my official staff in a campaign war is unfair and inaccurate,” Durbin said. “For goodness’ sakes, let’s maintain some credibility with the public and the media.”

A new Twitter feed that’s supposed to be the voice of Rauner’s three live chickens said this: “With all these phony press releases, could that mean the memos lining our cages could be fake too? Campaign props need to know!”

We have witnessed these costumed characters throughout various campaigns in Illinois and elsewhere. In 2010, it played out in the race between Mark Kirk, a Republican, and Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat.

Kirk had a staffer dress up as a shark and follow Giannoulias to highlight the Democrat’s ties to mobster Michael “Jaws” Giorango.

At least three key people who worked with Kirk are on the Rauner campaign now.

So what’s the purpose of all of this juvenility? To get into the candidate’s head? To rattle the opposing campaign?

Enough.

The referee within your own campaigns must come out, blow the whistle and set up some guidelines.

For Rauner, take a vow to appear in public at least as often as the guy you’re paying to dress up as “Quinnocchio.”

For Quinn, don’t make like you’re taking the high road, then allow a ridiculous new Twitter feed featuring chickens to run rampant.

(Update: the creator of that Twitter feed says they are not affiliated with the Quinn campaign. Quinn’s campaign separately says they have nothing to do with it.)

Engage in a real debate on how to plug the budget hole.

No, no one’s foolish enough to think the chicanery will stop before November. It will escalate. Heck, that shark might even return.

If it does, both campaigns can hold hands and collectively jump over it.

Do that if you must. But in the meantime, don’t (bleep) with the news.

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