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Editorial: Collins walks the low road with attack ad

It’s only the first week of fall, so we ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to political attack ads. Still, the one launched by Rep. Chris Collins’ campaign late last week sets the bar pretty low. It lies.

The Clarence Republican’s TV ad shows his Democratic opponent, Nathan McMurray, speaking Korean in a video made by his own campaign, with subtitles saying McMurray “worked to send jobs to China and Korea.”

The footage of McMurray is from a video his campaign posted in June to its Facebook page. McMurray worked for several years as a corporate lawyer in South Korea, the country his wife is from. In the video, he was speaking about his wishes for peace between North and South Korea.

The video of him speaking Korean was a silly idea. He is running against Collins to represent the 27th Congressional District, largely rural and suburban territory in which, as a Buffalo News story noted, Asians make up about 1 percent of the population. The McMurray campaign later deleted the video – a smart move.

The Collins campaign resurrected the footage, but distorted its message. The Collins ad does not mention hopes for peace on the Korean peninsula – a goal that the congressman professed to share when praising President Trump’s summit with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Instead, the commercial claims McMurray worked to send jobs to Asia and “helped American companies hire foreign workers.”

What McMurray did do was help American companies market their products in South Korea, which sometimes included hiring Korean workers. It’s doubtful there were many Americans looking for the chance to fill those marketing slots in Seoul.

The Collins ad sinks to its lowest point when, as McMurray is speaking Korean, the caption says, “Fewer jobs for us … more jobs for China and Korea,” followed by “You can take Nate McMurray at his word.” Those were not McMurray’s words, of course. Oversimplifying, misrepresenting the facts and employing spin are part of the political ad playbook, so there’s some room for grading on a curve. But this one treads on a low road.

The Collins TV spot was released two days after the congressman announced he would actively campaign for his seat, after all. The decision was made not in concert with the national or local Republican Party, but instead dictated by his defense lawyers.

Six weeks ago, federal prosecutors in New York indicted Collins on felony charges related to alleged insider trading. Collins last week reasserted his innocence and vowed to remain on the ballot despite previously saying he would not campaign. That won’t be helpful for a party worried about being portrayed as indifferent to ethics.

His campaign’s TV ad is regrettable for two reasons. One is the small fact that Collins’ disclaimer at the end of the ad – “I’m Chris Collins, and I approve this message” – is apparently three seconds long rather than the required four-second minimum. That’s a technicality that could cost the campaign money if local TV stations elect to follow the letter of the law and charge them more for future ads. It also feeds the sense that Collins doesn’t think the rules apply to him.

The screen text distorting McMurray’s words is dubious enough, but it’s the unspoken, ugly subtext that’s a bigger blemish. The implication is, “Watch out, this guy is scary because he speaks a foreign language – he’s not one of us.”

The not-so-subliminal appeal to voters’ fear of foreigners is more foghorn than dog whistle. It also insults the intelligence of citizens of the 27th District, presumably some of whom have passports and have visited foreign lands or learned to communicate in tongues other than English.

Xenophobia and nationalism have gained traction in the past few years, sidetracking legitimate discussions about immigration reform or U.S. foreign policy. But fearmongering should not be the way to win the hearts and minds of voters in 2018.

Collins very likely had little direct involvement with the creation of his TV ad. But when he says that he “approves this message,” we are inclined to believe him. Next time, let's hope he approves something that isn't shameful.

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