Out of the Woods / 'Lettergate' a lesson for us all
Washington, D.C., may be the center of Machiavellian political shenanigans of all kinds, but the deceptive letters-to-the editor practices of at least one Westport candidate for major office -- and perhaps other candidates -- are not what Westport is all about.
As a town, we have always prided ourselves in being an outstanding example of transparent, open, grass-roots Yankee politics dating back to 1835 when the town was founded.
A report that the campaign of Jim Marpe, the GOP candidate for first selectman, conceded it had "ghost-written" letters of endorsement for supporters to send to the media, raised a question of propriety. Shouldn't a letter writer use his or her own words and ideas?
Yes, letter writers should use their own words, and "Lettergate" stings all of us.
It is the The Westport News' policy not to publish any election-related letter known to be written by a campaign but signed by an individual citizen, or any letter it knows a campaign has revised, its editor said in a news story last week.
Full disclosure: I was editor of The Westport News from 1992-1997.
Back then -- and now, according to a policy the paper prints each week, writers must send their letters directly to the editor (not through third parties) and include a full address and phone number for verification of identity.
Dewey Loselle, an RTM member who is coordinating letter writing for Marpe's campaign, said he wrote "a couple" of endorsement letters that supporters put their own names on, although he couldn't say exactly how many. Additionally, he said, the campaign routinely revised letters before supporters sent them to editors.
His rationale: "Some people have less letter-writing skills."
Others, he said, asked about the style or the length of letters. That information is readily available from the news outlets.
By taking care to have its supporters send ghosted or revised letters to the media themselves, the campaign seems to have pulled an end run around the intent of policies that letters not come from third parties.
I would like to note that the businessman whose submission brought the issue to light -- Bill Mitchell of Mitchells of Westport -- is without question one of the most highly respected, solid pillars of our the Westport community.
He is a successful entrepreneur who is without any doubt one of the town's most generous philanthropists, active in myriad activities for which he and his family have received numerous well-deserved awards.
In an interview last week, Mitchell was quoted as saying there was nothing improper about putting his name on a letter written by the Marpe campaign. He likened it to presidents and other officials using speech writers. He said the letter that carried his name was "99 percent" written by Loselle and that he "100 percent agreed with it."
This writer has known Bill Mitchell for 45 years -- ever since I bought a suit from his father's store, Ed Mitchell's, upon moving to Westport.
I consider Bill Mitchell a friend. He is a man of impeccable integrity.
I can only hazard a guess that, being a good Republican, he wanted to help the Marpe campaign, and, not being too familiar with newspaper-letters policies, thought nothing of lending his support. Marpe, a businessman himself, may be equally unfamiliar with newspaper-letters policies and their intent.
I do not believe that Bill Mitchell knowingly did anything wrong. Rather, it was an overzealous Marpe campaign that crossed the line. It's too slick, and does not represent our core values of encouraging every individual's right to speak for himself or herself.
No doubt, this will pass, as did an incident of tearing down campaign signs a few years ago. But this is a teachable moment, and we should all learn from it.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.