With Frank Farkas’ latest negative attack, it’s clear Jack Hebert never learned his lesson

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Since 1996, Republican Frank Farkas has been on the ballot in 14 primary or general elections, likely the most of any politician in Tampa Bay.

He lost to Margo Fischer in the 1996 general for State House District 52 and to Kim Berfield in the 2006 primary. But other than those two losses, Farkas has won eleven other campaigns.

In other words, it’s hard to argue with Farkas’ strategy for winning a state legislative seat.

The architect of Farkas’ victories is my former boss (and mentor) Jack Hebert, one of the most creative minds in Florida politics. For three decades, Hebert has been winning state legislative races for clients such as Dennis Jones and Trey Traviesa.

Despite this winning record, Hebert has a glaring blind spot: a penchant for negative attacks which have damaged the electoral fortunes of his clients and the reputation of his firm.

During the 2006 election cycle — the first full cycle since 1998 during which I was no longer with the firm — Hebert’s The Mallard Group ran into a buzzsaw of political losses, marked by a barrage of negative ads that “cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the company,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

One ad suggested a judicial candidate was a tax cheat when he simply underestimated his taxes. Another said a state Senate candidate was active with the Church of Scientology when she actually is a Baptist. A third confused a House candidate’s business with a California company accused of selling government secrets for profit.

All three candidates ultimately responsible for the ads lost in that year’s primary elections.

Those losses came less than three months after a Pinellas-Pasco judge was kicked off the bench partly because of a misleading Mallard ad. That ad misrepresented then judicial candidate John Renke’s experience as a trial lawyer and made it appear he was an incumbent.

Many thought the Renke case would change things for Hebert, but, after seeing the latest Mallard-produced ad for Frank Farkas, it is clear Hebert has not learned the difficult lessons of elections past.

As explained in a recent admonishment by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Farkas is arguing that Dudley’s representation of criminal defendants makes him unqualified to hold elected office.

Farkas has been flooding the mailboxes of House District 68 residents with fliers displaying the names and mug shots of some of Dudley’s former clients charged with murder, armed robbery, drug possession and sexual battery. The fliers raise the specious suggestion that Dudley puts the interests of criminal defendants ahead of the public’s general welfare.

This is the same tactic Hebert employed in the Renke campaign — a campaign which, to repeat, ended in Renke being tossed from the bench by the Florida Supreme Court.

In a mailer produced by Hebert and sent by the Renke campaign, a portrait of Renke’s family dog, Wyatt, is captioned “Declan Mansfield is certainly NOT my best friend.” The flip side showed a yellow page ad for Mansfield, a respected attorney, noting that his law firm handled personal injury cases, including those involving, yes, dog bites. “If dogs could vote, I would surely vote for (Renke),” Wyatt implored.

Does this line of attack sound familiar? It should, it’s the same sort of tactic Farkas is currently using against his latest opponent, criminal defense attorney Dwight Dudley.

Farkas and the Republican party of Florida have sent a series of mailers covered with the mug shots of Dudley’s clients. As Mark Puente reports, on the campaign trail, Dudley touts his law practice as a small business. In response, the most recent mailer tells voters: “You need to meet one of his customers. Clyde B. Second Degree Murder … Dwight Dudley wants us to believe he’s fighting for us.”

In other words, Farkas and Hebert are demonizing due process and the right to legal counsel.

(There is a certain irony in Dr. Farkas, a chiropractor, and Hebert, the chief lobbyist for the Florida Chiropractic Association, are demagoguing the trial lawyer industry that all but works hand-in-hand with the chiropractic profession.)

Of course, all’s fair in love, war and state legislative campaigns, so Dudley’s work history is fair game. Making hay of it is ineffective and likely to boomerang against Farkas, but it’s Farkas prerogative to employ these tactics.

That said, Farkas’ latest/upcoming attack against Dudley takes the tactic a further step in the wrong direction, while reinforcing the meme that Hebert still has not learned the lessons of 2006.

Titled “Heather’s Story” (and can be viewed here), the commercial is, admittedly, a moving testimonial from a victim of domestic harassment (it’s not clear if its violence). “Heather” eventually lays the blame for the horrible situation she found herself in at the feeet of, you guessed it, attorney Dwight Dudley, who represented “Heather’s” assaulter.

There is no excuse for domestic violence, but, really, what does “Heather’s Story” have to do with the business of governance?

This ad represents all that is wrong with state legislative campaign — the negative, the unnecessarily personal, the tangential.

But these are also the long-standing qualities of Jack Hebert’s brand of politics.

It’s like it’s 2006 all over again.

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.