New York Post, January 3, 2007
By Ryan Sager
It looks like John McCain has a little explaining to do to the NASCAR set.
Kirk Shelmerdine - one of the greatest pit-crew chiefs ever, most famously for the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. - is today engaged in a less-successful second career as a driver. But to the Federal Election Commission, he’s just a reckless campaign-finance law violator.
The day after Christmas, the FEC announced that it was sending Shelmerdine a “letter of admonishment” for his actions during the 2004 presidential campaign - namely, putting a “Bush/Cheney ‘04″ decal on a panel of his car for a total of four races.
Just how did Shelmerdine manage to run afoul of the McCain-Feingold law? Here’s the tale: Shelmerdine’s car is a “field filler” - meaning it’s under-funded and has no real chance of winning races. His best finish ever was 26th in a race back in 1994; in 2004, his best was 37th. So he has a tough time attracting sponsors.
In late summer of 2004, a rumor hit the Sylvania 300 race at the New Hampshire International Speedway that President Bush, on the re-election trail, was going to stop by. Having not sold the left rear quarter panel of his car to a paying sponsor, Shelmerdine chose to put the Bush/Cheney decal there.
Bush didn’t show, and Shelmerdine was disqualified after finishing 30 of the race’s 300 laps (for being “too slow”). But he decided to keep the decal on his car for three more races - the fans seemed to like it, he said. Little did he know the pit storm he’d unleashed.
On Sept. 30, 2004, Democratic activist Sydnor Thompson (a contributor to John Edwards) filed a six-page complaint with the FEC. It included a picture of Shelmerdine’s car and alleged that the decal didn’t contain a legally required disclaimer stating who had paid for the ad. It charged that Shelmerdine was making an undisclosed “independent expenditure” and an illegal corporate expenditure on behalf of the Bush campaign.
Huh? A guy slapping a sticker on the back of a race car could corrupt the Bush administration - or at least create a corrosive “appearance of corruption”? The FEC should have laughed this complaint off the track - perhaps even fined Thompson for wasting the taxpayers’ money on a piece of political harassment.
Instead, the agency launched an investigation into Shelmerdine’s intentions in putting the decal on his car and to determine the decal’s “value” to the Bush campaign.
Back in ‘04, Shelmerdine told the press he’d put on the decal because he felt “so strongly about the election.” Now he says it was solely a publicity stunt - meant to attract paying sponsors in the future.
Shelmerdine’s case that he’s apolitical is fairly strong: He’s not registered to vote and has never been involved in politics or given to a campaign or political-action committee. Save for the decal, he’s never endorsed a candidate.
But why should any of this matter? So what if Shelmerdine were trying to influence the election? So what if he had wanted to show his support for the president to endear himself to the overwhelmingly Republican NASCAR crowd? How on earth did America get to a point where a federal agency is putting an innocent citizen through the legal wringer over an over-sized bumper sticker?
Of course, the FEC’s defenders might say: Shelmerdine wasn’t fined, just “admonished.” He got off lightly. No harm done. But the fact that he was put through this two-year legal proceeding in the first place is the real punishment. That’s the real deterrent to him or anyone else getting involved - even in the most peripheral way - with the American political process in the future.
Campaign-finance laws were meant to end corruption in Washington, D.C., we were told - to make campaigns less nasty, and campaign contributors more accountable. At least those were the reasons crusader John McCain gave us years ago.
Instead, these laws have been used by liberals in Seattle to go after talk-show hosts who used their airtime - once protected by the First Amendment - to speak out against a gas-tax increase. They’ve been used by the Rick Santorum Senate campaign in Pennsylvania to harass a newspaper whose coverage the campaign didn’t like. Others used them to try to silence Michael Moore’s ads for his anti-Bush documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” during the 2004 campaign.
With this case, the FEC has opened a new and disturbing door. If the agency claims oversight over any endorsement that it sees as valuable, what’s next? Celebrities routinely get paid for endorsements. Is a rock star wearing a “Kerry for President” or “Impeach Bush” shirt now fair game?
It seems that, so long as trouble-makers are ready to write up the complaints, the FEC is happy to take any nutball theory for a few spins around the track - no matter how ludicrous the repercussions for free speech in our democracy.
Ryan Sager’s new book is “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”