For the second time in recent memory, an anonymous miscreant tried to throw a wrench into a Newburyport city election, this time creating a fake website in one candidate’s name to cast doubt on his qualifications to be mayor.
Mayoral candidate Robert Cronin was angered Saturday when he says he was alerted to the website — Robertjcronin.com — which disparaged his campaign effort to unseat incumbent Mayor Donna Holaday. Cronin blamed the Holaday camp for the website. Holaday disavowed any knowledge of or connection to the website. Both candidates called for the site to be taken down. By Saturday night, the content had been removed, replaced with a smiling emoji and a claim that the site was not connected to any candidate.
This sorry incident reminds many of another instance of campaign malfeasance in 2013. Back then, someone set up hundreds of robocalls the day before the primary election, urging people to vote against Holaday in the preliminary race against Richard Sullivan and Greg Earls. An anonymous mailing also circulated disparaging Holaday.
The state investigated but could not identify the person(s) who set up the robocalls and mailing. On Saturday, Cronin said he would ask state election officials to investigate the fake website.
Everyone should be disturbed by this most recent effort to co-opt one candidate’s name and use it to raise questions about the candidate. This is dirty politics brought to the local scene. Although Cronin pointed the finger at Holaday’s campaign, he offered no solid proof, only citing recent social media posts that criticized him for using notes at recent candidate forums, or for statements he has made during his political tenure. But criticism on social media doesn’t add up to proof about who created the website. Numerous theories quickly arose on Facebook that either camp could have created the site — again, without any foundation, since the site creator and motivation are not known at this point.
Several things are clear, however, both in this weekend’s incident and the 2013 efforts to derail the election.
This kind of anonymous underhanded tactic has no place in any election. The candidates for mayor, City Council, School Committee and, indeed, every elected position, put their names and reputations on the line when they commit to seek local political office. They put themselves out there, appearing in forums, knocking on doors, answering questions at the coffee shop or in the checkout line at Market Basket, or wherever someone wants to buttonhole them. Running for local office is pretty much the opposite of being an internet troll. If you do it right, most people know your name and your face and a lot of them know where you stand, at least on big issues — or the one issue a particular voter wants to know about. And it’s hard to lie without someone calling you on it.
The anonymous efforts to wreck the mayoral election in 2013 didn’t work in the end since Donna Holaday won the election. But the state investigation showed whoever did the dirty work was sophisticated enough to keep his or her identity hidden. The dirty tricks also left a bad taste with many people forming their own theories and creating suspicions that probably extend into the present day.
Everyone in Newburyport should condemn these tactics. Whether the fake website rises to the level where the state will launch an investigation has yet to be determined. But we call on everyone to be public in their discussions about candidates and their campaigns. The newspaper requires letters to the editor to be signed and verified. Local Facebook groups generally require people to put their names behind the words, whether it’s a political discussion or not. You can disagree with a candidate and maybe not even like him or her. But people running for local office deserve fair treatment and appreciation for trying to do their part to make this a good place to live.