Atheist City Council Candidate Is Subject of Attempted Smear Campaign

James Leonard is running for a city council seat in Patterson, California, a city of just over 20,000 residents. It’s a local race so you wouldn’t think the vitriol would be too bad…

But the opposition heard Leonard was an atheist/anti-theist and they sent out this mailer (click to enlarge):

(Also mentioned there is a candidate for mayor who admittedly made mistakes in the past but has since apologized for them. This isn’t about him, though.)

It’s an attempt to make Leonard look bad, but that doesn’t really work when he admits to the charge without a blink, right?

Other candidates might try to fight it when opponents call them an atheist, but Leonard proudly admits it’s true: he’s an atheist and there’s nothing wrong with that:

Yes, I am an atheist. I was raised by wonderful, open-minded parents who did not subscribe to a particular religion and who did not go to church. In my younger years, I believed in God simply because that’s what everyone else seemed to believe. After years of thinking, reading and questioning, I have come to believe that there is no god, and I am comfortable with that belief and all of its ramifications.

Whoever was behind this ad has launched their attack in total anonymity, possibly even violating political campaign finance laws to do it. That’s not character, as far as I’m concerned.

I have never kept my beliefs a secret, but as a candidate, I always felt in my heart that this was a non-issue. I believe what religion a person follows has no bearing on their qualifications for public office, and therefore I have never sought to make an issue out of my non-belief.

Attempted smear campaign foiled :)

Personally, I say religious beliefs should have a bearing on whether people should vote for you, but Leonard seems to be a good guy and this mailer is playing on society’s fear of atheists.

Thankfully, Leonard says the mailer hasn’t hurt him too much:

The support I’ve gotten in town so far has actually been extremely strong, which just validates why my wife and I like it here so much. It remains to be seen what impact it will have at the polls, but I think I’ve addressed it in the best way I could.

That’s good to hear. I would never suggest anyone vote for a candidate simply because he or she is an atheist, but I like the way Leonard’s dealing with this personal attack.

Meanwhile, a local paper, the Patterson Irrigator, has some information on who might have sent out that mailer:

The creator of the mailer tried to place the same advertisement in the Patterson Irrigator earlier this month. A person who identified himself or herself as “Tom Jeffereson” e-mailed the newspaper on Oct. 5 about running a half-page political ad in the newspaper. The Irrigator responded that the newspaper would need full contact information before it could run the ad.

An unknown woman then dropped off $306.15 in cash for the advertisement later that afternoon, but the newspaper did not receive a copy of the ad itself until later that evening.

The Irrigator chose not to run the advertisement after reading it, as the newspaper was not aware of who produced it.

The person who produced the advertisement and gave it to the newspaper has yet to retrieve the money that was paid for it. If the person does not do so, Irrigator publisher Bob Matthews said the newspaper will turn the money over to the state.

Umm… shady. At least it looks like people weren’t falling for it.

So if you live in Patterson, check out Leonard’s website, read his positions on the issues, and consider voting for him next week.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    Why are you awake this early?!?!?!?!?

  • ewan

    How does this remotely qualify as a ‘smear’, or ‘vitriol’? He’s an out atheist and an opponent has highlighted that in the campaign. They don’t seem to have said anything untrue, embellished, or actually particularly said anything negative – just plainly stated what he self identifies as, and (quite fairly) defined the terms.

    If you’re then going to go on to say that “religious beliefs should have a bearing on whether people should vote for you” then you can’t evn make the case that this is unreasonably dragging a private belief into the public sphere.

    Other than demonstrating that some people believe that atheism might damage someone’s electoral chances in the US, which I think we already knew, there doesn’t seem to be anything to this.

    (Hemant says: It’s an attempt to hurt his character with an “atheist” charge, but Leonard blocks the attempt by openly admitting that he’s an atheist. I’ve slightly modifie the piece to make this clearer, though.)

  • redhairedagent

    Yeah, what Ewan said.

  • JD

    The atheism was the subject of an attack ad suggesting that this person doesn’t have the character to occupy an elected office, so there might be something to the smear idea. The facts aren’t in question, but the presentation as part of the overall ad implies that belief in God is required to have character or morals, which is not true. The fact that the mailer won’t stand behind it should tell us something of his/her character as well.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    ewan: “How does this remotely qualify as a ‘smear’, or ‘vitriol’?”

    Take a look at this part of the ad:

    Do the Citizens of Patterson really want an Atheist/Antitheist representing our community? By voting for James Leonard, you’re voting for a person who — as an Atheist/Antitheist — not only does NOT believe in God, but he’s opposed to the belief in the existence of a God. A belief in God is what our Nation and Constitution is based on.

    That last line, as false as it is, indicates that the writers of the ad want a belief in God to be thought of as a good thing, even something patriotic. The thrust is pretty obviously, “Oh noes, James Leonard is an atheist! Scary! Be afraid!”

  • ewan

    That one line seems to be the only thing that’s not absolutely true, and it’s certainly well within the bounds of political opinion.

    The thrust is pretty obviously, “Oh noes, James Leonard is an atheist! Scary! Be afraid!”

    Absolutely, but this is what political attacks are about – pointing our why you think the other guy would be a bad choice, based on the things they believe that you don’t support.

    I’m not suggesting that I (or most other Friendly Atheist readers) would support the ad, but it does seem to be an attack on a candidate based on their actual views. That’s perfectly clean politics.

  • Ibis

    ewan: “How does this remotely qualify as a ‘smear’, or ‘vitriol’?”

    Not to mention that there is that big “article” image about someone being a thief overlapping the statement about Leonard’s atheism. How many people will just assume that the atheist guy is the same as the “thief” guy* without looking closer?

    *given the tactics of the ad’s creator, I’m suspicious about the truth of the accusations against Luis Molina as well.

    ETA: The idea that the candidate’s character is in question because he’s an atheist is the smear, ewan.

  • muggle

    And, Ewan, I’d also add that the way they handled trying to get an ad in the paper without leaving their personal information implies that they knew very well what they were doing and didn’t want it to bite them in the ass. Perhaps for slander or something? Mr. Leonard doesn’t have a slander case but I am wondering if Mr. Molina possibly does.

    In any case, what a jerky way to run a campaign if someone is. Is there a third candidate?

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    How does this remotely qualify as a ‘smear’, or ‘vitriol’? He’s an out atheist and an opponent has highlighted that in the campaign. They don’t seem to have said anything untrue, embellished, or actually particularly said anything negative – just plainly stated what he self identifies as, and (quite fairly) defined the terms.?

    Did you miss these other bits from the mailer?

    “WE DESERVE BETTER” implies that simply being an atheist means you’re not good enough.

    “We must elect individuals possessing the highest ethical standards, morals and values” implies that you can’t have them if you’re an atheist.

    “I’m just stating the facts” is a fantastic cover for prejudice. It lets you say things you know are inflammatory while letting the people who hear you do the work for you. It’s like saying “black men are statistically more likely to go to jail” in a group full of white supremacists. Oh, sure, it’s just a fact. Nothing negative implied…

    [T]his is what political attacks are about – pointing our why you think the other guy would be a bad choice, based on the things they believe that you don’t support.

    Clean politics is about pointing out things that your opponent will do that you don’t support. Dirty politics is using people’s fear of what your opponent thinks or believes that you don’t support. Attacking someone for their thoughts or beliefs is utterly irrelevant to how they plan to govern.

    I’m not suggesting that I (or most other Friendly Atheist readers) would support the ad, but it does seem to be an attack on a candidate based on their actual views. That’s perfectly clean politics.

    US Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3:

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

    This is a politician subverting the intent of the Constitution by playing on Americans’ aversion to what they don’t know or understand. This is the politics of fear, and there’s nothing clean about it.

    Kudos to James Leonard for being a class act in response. Neither he nor any of his opponents found the ad to be appropriate, which tells you even more about your idea that this is clean politics.

    ETA: Muggle, it’s a city council election, so there are several other candidates and several positions.

  • JD

    This is probably legal, and it may be politics as usual, but that doesn’t make it clean, it is best not to conflate those three ideas. The rest of the ad is plain character assassination, not a mark of a clean ad. Intermingling a few true facts with a stack of innuendo doesn’t clean up the innuendo.

  • Richard Wade

    If you’re not sure if this is a smear campaign, or if it’s a legitimate political method, you can apply the Jew Test. Here’s the same ad with some slight alterations:

    CHARACTER MATTERS!

    JAMES LEONARD BACKGROUND

    James Leonard states on his Facebook that he’s a Jew.
    Definitions:
    Jew: An adherent of Judaism; A person who claims a cultural or ancestral connection to the Jewish people.
    Judaism: The monotheistic religion of the Jews having its spiritual and ethical principles embodied chiefly in the Torah and in the Talmud.

    Books he likes include two books about Judaism:
    The Torah
    The Old Testament

    Do the citizens of Patterson really want a Jew representing our community? By voting for James Leonard, you’re voting for a person who – as a Jew – does not accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. A belief in Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior is what our Nation and Constitution is based on.

    Are you comfortable with that?

  • Miko

    “possibly even violating political campaign finance laws to do it. That’s not character”

    Violating campaign finance laws is an indication of a lack of character? That’s just about the lamest character attack I’ve ever heard.

    Passing campaign finance laws shows a lack of character. Breaking campaign finance laws makes you a champion of free speech.

  • ewan

    Your ‘Jew test’ is a useless test because it’s mixing two things together; Judaism is both a racial and a religious identity, so saying “Don’t vote for the Jew” is a lot like saying “Don’t vote for the black person”.

    That is not true of either Christianity or Atheism, and I think someone saying “don’t vote the Atheist for the council” is just as legitimate as someone saying “don’t vote the Christian fundamentalist creationist for the school board”.

    A candidate’s beliefs are exactly what electors should be basing their decisions on, a point, I should note, that Hemant made in the original post when he said

    “Personally, I say religious beliefs should have a bearing on whether people should vote for you”

    Now, clearly, you can disagree with that, but it still leaves the question of how saying something completely true about a candidates religious belief seems like a smear to Hemant when he thinks that the subject area as a whole is fair game.

  • ckitching

    Breaking campaign finance laws makes you a champion of free speech.

    Perhaps, but doing anonymously is an act of cowardice. If they were doing it to champion free speech, they would proudly put their name to it and accept the consequences in order to fight them. Instead, this shows that they are aware that they’re doing something wrong. Cowardice coming from those who declare, character matters!

  • JD

    Libel doesn’t make anyone a champion of free speech, libel is not a protected form of speech.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    …it still leaves the question of how saying something completely true about a candidates religious belief seems like a smear to Hemant when he thinks that the subject area as a whole is fair game…

    No, it really doesn’t. When you say something about a person with the sole intent of inciting fear and outrage and painting them as morally or ethically deficient, that is a smear. It’s the very definition of “smear”.

  • C H

    And let’s not forget:

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

  • Emily

    It kind of makes me think of monarchies from Europe who believed in their divine rule. They believed to be appointed by God to their place on the throne and that whatever they said was infallible because God told them so.
    That is just scary. It’s scary how important religious beliefs are for our leaders, which way are we going? Think there is more of a chance to get an atheist elected or for someone to claim divine rule…?


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