The "Sandusky" mailer is atrocious, but don't blame Will Weatherford for it

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There is no other way to describe it — it’s simply the most inappropriate, if not disgusting, mailpiece connected to a Florida legislative race this election cycle.

On one side, a grainy image of Democrat Karen Castor Dentel, an elementary-school teacher from Maitland running for House District 30. On the other side: the image of a jumpsuit- and handcuff-clad Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach who in June was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, convicted of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period.

Next to Sandusky’s image, the mailer reads: “Karen Castor Dentel would rather protect bad teachers and the union than young and impressionable students.”

Dentel is challenging Rep. Scott Plakon, a conservative lawmaker with whom I disagree with on policy but find to be decidedly approachable and likable.

The mailer did not come from Plakon but from a separate group, The Committee to Protect Florida. What this committee protects Florida from is anyone’s guess.

The reaction to the mailer has been swift and furious. Dentel said she was disgusted and stunned by the mailer. Other Democrats — and even Republicans — have also denounced the mailer.

As they should.

But what critics should not be doing is blaming incoming Speaker Will Weatherford for this mailer.

Weatherford, for his part, quickly denounced the mailer. “This ad is completely inappropriate. I do not condone it and it has no place in the campaign,” Weatherford said on Twitter.

Records do show that the Committee to Protect Florida received money from other committees controlled by Republican leaders in the Florida House, including Weatherford and Representative Richard Corcoran.

But neither Weatherford or Corcoran or any other legislator have, or suppose to have, any say in how electioneering  communications organizations (ECOs) such as the Committee to Protect Florida expend their money.

This is, after all, how the campaign finance system has been designed. Critics of this mailer, and the campaign finance system at large, can’t have it both ways. The system is designed so that the legislators can raise the money for their committees, but can’t really spend it out of their committees.

The honest-to-goodness truth is the blame for this mailer lies with those who control the leash of the Committee to Protect Florida — Rockie Pennington and, my friend, Mark Zubaly. It’s their shop where the copy is written, the layout is designed, and the postcard is printed.

So don’t be so foolish as to think that Will Weatherford and Richard Corcoran are standing over the shoulder of those writing, laying out or printing this mailer.

Plakon, for his part, said the attack piece on his opponent underscores the need for the Legislature to overhaul campaign-finance laws so that anonymous groups can’t deliver underhanded attacks.

“This stuff is out of hand,” Plakon said. “This is exhibit A of why the process needs to be reformed.”

Perhaps Speaker Weatherford can do something about reforming the process during the 2013 legislative session. Blaming him for a rogue mailpiece, however, is counterproductive.

Material from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this post.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.