Opinion Columns & Blogs

November 8, 2009

Sly: Thoughts on ballot statements, Denham's race and plagiarism

I've written before about the declining number of candidates putting statements in the sample election ballot. Did it make a difference in the outcome of any of Tuesday's contests?

Hard to tell.

In some races, such as the Modesto school board and most of the Modesto council and MID races, everyone had a statement. In other contests, no one put in a statement.

Paul Wallace was the only Newman school board candidate to put in a statement, and he came in second in the field of seven. Doug Bentley, the only Empire school candidate with a statement, won his four-person race. Josh Bernard was the lone Turlock school board candidate with a sample ballot statement and he was one of two successful challengers.

No one is asking — or paying — me for campaign advice, but I'll give it anyway: I think a well-written candidate statement is good investment.

Earlier I suggested that state Sen. Jeff Denham had a lock on the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. That was in August, when he was the only active candidate. I spoke — actually, wrote — too fast. Denham has amassed a number of endorsements and a lot of dollars — more than a million in his campaign accounts — but he's not alone.

State Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley is a late entrant in the Republican race. Among his claims: He's never voted for a tax increase and "has consistently resisted attempts to increase the size of the state bureaucracy," according to a press statement.

Maybe that last comment was one of the reasons that Denham opposed the water bond that was part of the big package approved by the Legislature, even though ag interests in his state Senate district have been pushing for more water storage and even though the bond bill was carried by his valley colleague, Dave Cogdill.

Denham issued a statement saying he opposed the bond because it did not guarantee dams would be built. His was one of eight "no" votes in the Senate.

According to the legislative records, Aanestad, who had been advocating for a water bond for years, didn't participate in Wednesday's crucial vote. We refer to that as a cop-out.

So it is during the silly season, when candidates are more worried about appealing to their party extremes in order to win the primary than thinking about the long-term good of the whole state.

On Tuesday, we ran a letter to the editor from Michael C. Berryhill Sr. about health care. By the time I arrived at work that morning, I had an e-mail from a reader pointing out that Berryhill's thoughts weren't his own. Sure enough, one of our ace researchers found that Berryhill's words were nearly identical to those of Rush Limbaugh that have been widely circulated on the Internet.

If Berryhill were just an average letter writer, I would have simply kicked myself for not catching this. I think we're pretty good about spotting, and not running, copycat letters.

But Berryhill isn't just any letter writer. He's a member of the Turlock Irrigation District board of directors and, more importantly, an announced candidate for Congress. So I sent him an e-mail, asking, "Do you think this was acceptable — to take someone else's words and present them as your own?"

Berryhill's reply, also by e-mail, was that he didn't know they were Limbaugh's comments, that he'd gotten them from a friend in San Francisco who didn't say where he'd gotten them. "I changed it somewhat and thought it would help in the public forum to cause people to put things more in perspective. ... I was not aware that you had a policy of complete originality. Had I been aware of that, I would have kept the chuckle to myself."

So which was it, Mike, adding to the debate or trying to be clever?

Either way, your excuse for plagiarism doesn't fly. You're playing in the big leagues, seeking to represent us in Washington, D.C. Don't you remember the furor in 2008, when Barack Obama was accused of plagiarizing from a speech given by the governor of Massachusetts? Or the college president forced out for plagiarism?

To all current and future letter writers: Your letters need to reflect your own thoughts. If you quote someone, then attribute the quote to the original source. If in doubt, look it up. Just don't claim those thoughts as your own.

To all current and future congressional candidates: We expect you to devote serious time to issues as critical as health care reform and to have some original observations to make. If you don't have anything original to say or write, then you have more homework to do.

Sly is editor of The Bee's opinions pages. Contact her at 578-2317 or jsly@modbee.com.

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