Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn had no idea she was becoming the talk of the town until her phone started ringing earlier this week with friends urging her to check out a new campaign ad on YouTube.
Hahn is running to replace former Rep. Jane Harman, who retired from her 36th District seat to head a Washington, D.C., think tank. The runoff election pits Hahn against Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Craig Huey, a local businessman who has reportedly sunk a half-million dollars of his own money into what was expected to be a pretty sleepy campaign.
Then "the ad" woke everyone up.
In it, a shapely blond woman in a halter top and booty shorts walks up to a stripper pole and begins gyrating. Her back is to us. Then, two black rappers brandishing semi-automatic rifles start to rap:
Give me your cash, b - - - - , so we can shoot up the street!
Give me your cash, b - - - -, so we can buy some more heat!
Give me your cash, ho', so we can get out the pen!
Give me your cash, ho', cause we back in again!
The scowling men dance around the gyrating, scantily clad woman, who is cheerfully shaking her butt at them while they pluck dollar bills from her waistband.
Getting Their Attention
The Hahn attack ad has caused some genuinely pearl-clutching moments in political communities across the country. And that's just what Ladd Ehlinger Jr., an independent conservative filmmaker, intended. He was linking Hahn to a controversial gang rehabilitation program supported by the city.
A political commercial designed for television is vastly different from one designed for the Internet, Ehlinger says. The audience is different, the restraints are different.
"Here's the thing: You go and you advertise on television, you spend all of your money on the time. You're buying the media. You're buying fat, lazy eyeballs who are too lazy to change the channel when your ad comes on, your boring, boring ad."
On the Internet, Ehlinger says, you want to grab people by the throat and make them pay attention. "You have to take it over the top."
He's not suggesting that Hahn actually be shot with the semi-automatics in the attack ad. That, and the booty-as-piggy-bank are, he says, "a metaphor" for a gang rehabilitation program that was designed to employ reformed gang members to induce men still in the life to turn away from it and try job training. In its early days, the program had a couple of reformed gang members who'd retained their ties. When that was discovered, the program was revamped and moved to the mayor's office.
Hahn says she supports rehabilitation, but denies she funded the project directly. Other media investigations support her claim.
Deja Vu All Over Again?
Some political observers feel Give Us Your Cash, as it's come to be known, is a 21st century version of the Willie Horton ad that ran so effectively against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. It showed a mug shot of a scowling black man in a big Afro, and a voice-over intoned that thanks to a furlough program like the one Dukakis supported, Horton was able to commit assault and rape while on a weekend leave.
The ad was incendiary. Many consider it instrumental in electing George H.W. Bush, although the Bush campaign denied any connection with the ad, which was funded and produced by an independent political action committee. In later years, campaign director Lee Atwater confessed he'd encouraged the ad's producers.
The Hahn ad was funded by Turn Right USA, a conservative superPAC. While intended as cheeky parody, it clearly pushed some of the same hot buttons on race and sexuality.
Huey, Hahn's opponent, has disavowed any association with the ad, calling it racist and sexist and decrying it as a distraction from the real matters voters care about. "I denounce it unequivocally," Huey said in a statement released a few days after the ad surfaced.
Hahn isn't so sure about that. She believes that there may indeed be a connection between the nasty ad and Huey's campaign. She points out that Turn Right USA and a company Huey's campaign has used to produce materials share the same post office box in suburban Los Angeles.
"C'mon," she scoffs. "Of all the thousands of P.O. boxes in Los Angeles, these two just happen to share the same one? What are the odds?"
In a statement, Huey's campaign denies the connection.
But Did It Work?
Voters may get to decide for themselves: Hahn has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether there's a link.
Meanwhile, several people have demanded that YouTube take down the offensive video. It hasn't so far, but Ehlinger says if it does, he's ready.
"I'll just put it up on other places," he says. "YouTube isn't the only game in town."
The ad has done one thing Ehlinger wanted: It has galvanized viewers — but ironically, in the opposite way he'd intended. Hahn reports that since the ad aired, offers from volunteers have increased.
And donations are up: People are, um, giving her their cash.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And we go now to Southern California, where a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat took a surprisingly ugly turn this week.
As NPR's Karen Grisby Bates reports, an Internet attack ad aimed at the Democratic candidate has made the local contest a national controversy.
First a warning: This story contains language that many people will find offensive.
KAREN GRISBY BATES: Democrat Janice Hahn is a Los Angeles city councilwoman running to fill a seat left vacant by Jane Harmon. Earlier this week, Hahn said she started getting angry phone calls from supporters urging her to go to her computer to view a nasty campaign ad.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified People: (Rapping) Kill. Kill. Kill. (Unintelligible).
BATES: It features a blonde woman in booty shorts dancing in front of a stripper pole while black rappers with semiautomatic guns prance around her.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified People: (Rapping) Give me your cash, bitch, so we can shoot up the street. Give me your cash, bitch, so we can buy some more heat. Give me your cash, ho, so we can get out the beat...
BATES: And if that weren't offensive enough, the video aimed at defeating Hahn ends with this:
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man #1: Let's keep her out of Congress, homies.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Unidentified Man #1: Donate now.
BATES: Janice Hahn says the video's portrayal of bullets fired from a semiautomatic rifle mere months after an Arizona congresswoman was almost killed by gunfire is inexcusable. And the unsubtle racial implications are almost as offensive.
Councilwoman JANICE HAHN (Los Angeles, California): You know, I have been in politics my entire life, and I have never seen a political ad that was this sleazy and this dirty that so degraded women and so degraded African-Americans.
BATES: California Democrats and political action committees like EMILY's List, which promotes and supports women candidates, are outraged.
The ad's creator, conservative filmmaker Ladd Ehlinger, says they need to get over themselves.
Mr. LADD EHLINGER (Filmmaker): Here's the thing: You go, and you advertise on television, you spend all of your money on the time. You're buying the media. You're buying fat, lazy eyeballs who are too lazy to change the channel when your ad comes on, your boring, boring ad.
BATES: Conservative PAC Turn Right USA funded the video. It wants to call attention to a gang rehabilitation program Ehlinger says City Councilwoman Hahn supported that employed former gang members.
Hahn says she supports rehabilitation but didn't fund the project Ehlinger's referring to. Hahn's opponent, Tea Party Republican Craig Huey, issued a statement this week calling the video racist and sexist, saying: I unequivocally denounce it.
BATES: Many political observers have drawn comparisons to an earlier ad that became famous during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Vice President George H.W. Bush ran against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man #2: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times.
BATES: That ad was produced by a political action committee in support of the Bush campaign, which disavowed any knowledge of or participation in it. Much later, campaign director Lee Atwater confessed he'd encouraged the group's efforts.
The damage was done: Willie Horton, a black man, became shorthand for effective, racist ad.
Here in California, Hahn's campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. Turn Right USA and a company Craig Huey has used for campaign posters share the same post office box. Hahn alleges a connection that Huey has emphatically denied.
Meanwhile, there have been several calls for YouTube to remove Ladd Ehlinger's video. That hasn't happened, but if it does, Ehlinger's ready.
Mr. EHLINGER: Oh, well, I'll just put it up on other places. YouTube isn't the only game in town.
BATES: Wherever they show up on the Net, it's a pretty safe bet that edgy, even offensive campaign videos will become more frequent as 2012 races across the country heat up.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.