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Letter-to-the-editor misquotes TNT story, prompted by Strickland campaign

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 28, 2009 at 5:33 pm | 2 Comments »
October 28, 2009 5:33 pm

In a letter to the editor published in Tuesday’s News Tribune, the lawyer for a neighborhood group opposing a housing development that’s planned to rise upon the North Shore golf course in Northeast Tacoma took issue with my recently published profile of Tacoma’s mayoral candidates.letters to the editor

Seattle attorney Gary Huff, who represents “Save NE Tacoma,” wrote that the story inaccurately stated that the neighborhood group had endorsed candidate Jim Merritt.  Huff even quoted from the story emphasizing the sentence he specifically took issue with:

The reporter states that Jim Merritt “won the endorsement from a neighborhood opposition group now fighting the building project – a group whose mission Merritt believes melds well with his own.”

…  While Save NE Tacoma appreciates the support of any candidate willing to enforce the original approval conditions and honor the city’s historic commitment to the surrounding property owners, the group has not formally endorsed any candidate in the upcoming general election. Both mayoral candidates have significant support within our organization.

The only trouble is, Huff inaccurately quoted the sentence in question. No where does the story say Merritt “won the endorsement” from the group, as Huff’s letter says.

Rather, the story says that, after losing an endorsement from the Master Builders Association, Merritt had “won support” from the group.  Specifically, the sentence reads:

In the wake of that endorsement loss, Merritt won support from a neighborhood opposition group now fighting the building project – a group whose mission Merritt believes melds well with his own.

In political realms, the term “endorsement” generally intones a formal and public backing of a candidate. “Support” is often used more informally to describe general, but not official, assistance in some way to a campaign.

Group representatives have told me that while they want to keep out of any official candidate endorsements, they took no issue with the story. I had not heard from any member of the group — which includes a core of about 20-25 active members, and hundreds of others who have contributed money or other support to its efforts — who had problems with the description of Save NE Tacoma’s support of Merritt. Until Huff sent his letter, that is.

As it turns out, the letter was prompted by a call made last week by a campaign fundraiser for Marilyn Strickland, both Strickland and Huff told me in separate phone conversations on Tuesday.

“I think it’s accurate to say the Strickland campaign didn’t like the fact that your article — or Merritt — claimed some mention that Save Northeast Tacoma had endorsed Merritt,” Huff said.

(Only, again: the story didn’t say “endorse,” it said “support,” which is indisputable.)

According to Merritt’s campaign, members of the Save NE Tacoma group have passed out Merritt campaign literature, put up Merritt yard signs, door-belled for the campaign and invited Merritt to speak at a recent meeting.  Representatives of the group told me such descriptions are accurate.Merritt

Yesterday, attorney Huff explained to me how he came to write his letter to the TNT.  Last week, he said, Save NE Tacoma board chairman John Lovelace received a call from Sarah Hyman, who raised concerns about the description in the story. Lovelace, in turn, called Huff, and Huff agreed to write the letter, running it by Hyman for approval.

“I wrote it,” Huff said, adding he then showed the letter to Hyman, asking her, “is this ok?”

“And they said, OK,” said Huff of Strickland’s campaign. Huff said he later emailed the letter to The News Tribune late last Friday.

“I don’t want to give the impression that anything inappropriate happened or was said,” Huff added. “You know, it’s politics. Someone from their campaign took issue with it, and I thought we should clarify it.”

“These people are going to vote on this (development issue) eventually,” Huff said. “We don’t want to get anyone mad at us.”

When asked why Huff’s letter quoted the story inaccurately — replacing the word “support” with “endorsement” — Huff responded: “I thought I quoted it word for word.”

In a phone conversation I had with Strickland on Tuesday, she told me she’d read Huff’s letter in the newspaper.  I then asked her how she understood Huff came to write the letter.
“I believe there were some residents in Northeast Tacoma who belong to that group that said that (description) wasn’t true,” Strickland said.

When I asked her if she knew who those residents were, Strickland said, “Someone who works from my campaign lives in Northeast Tacoma and contacted them.”  Asked if that someone was Sarah Hyman (I called her by her husband’s last name, Rumbaugh),  Strickland said, “yes.”

Hyman, who is the wife of Tacoma trial attorney and KBTC’s “South Sound View” host Stan Rumbaugh, made the call about the article a day after the public television station her husband is affiliated with decided to scuttle a planned interview program with Tacoma’s mayoral candidates, as I’ve previously reported.

Hyman told me today the timing of her call to Save NE Tacoma was purely coincidental,  adding she was totally oblivious to the KBTC interview flap.

“If it was outside of the election, if your article had come out two weeks earlier, I still would have called them,”  she said. “I read my paper and wanted to make sure that what they’re doing is the right thing. That group has done a great job.”

Hyman added she actually called Lovelace only after a friend, who is actively involved in the Save NE Tacoma group, had tried calling Lovelace about the issue, but never got a call back.  Hyman, who said she supports the group, but isn’t active with it, said Lovelace hadn’t read the story.  Hyman said she told him she felt the way the article was worded indicated the group had formally endorsed Merritt, which would violate conditions on the group’s tax-exempt status.

“I was surprised that they were endorsing someone, because nonprofits aren’t allowed to do that,”  Hyman said.

Hyman said she later read a rough draft of Huff’s letter, and suggested one part be amended before the attorney sent it to the newspaper.

“I made one change to it,” Hyman said. “He had a thing in there that was very supportive of Merritt, and I told him he should take that out because it looked like they were supporting him. He agreed and took it out.”

As to how the word “endorsement” got swapped for the word “support” in the quotation in Huff’s letter, Hyman said didn’t know.

“When I read it, I know it said `support,'” she said. “Or I thought it said `support.’ Anyway, I didn’t have anything to do with that language.”

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