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Self or voter promotion?

Published October 13. 2012 4:00AM

In putting her smiling face on those billboards urging us to vote, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill did more than call attention to Election Day and herself. She also reminded us of a shabby activity that got out of hand during the Rowland administration.

When John Rowland was governor, we knew it was summertime when the livin' was easy, the fish were jumpin,' and John and Patty Rowland were on television preaching the joys of vacationing here in Connecticut to viewers here in Connecticut.

The cost of producing these slick ads and running them during prime viewing hours was borne by the same people being urged to vacation in Connecticut, the state's taxpayers. In election years, these folksy ads would be followed by others supporting the governor's re-election.

Some inquiring minds began to wonder why the ads were running so often in Connecticut and not at all in most neighboring states where there might be people looking to take a vacation away from home.

Finally, legislators figured the ads were more about politics than public service and passed a law prohibiting governors and other public officials from appearing in publicly funded advertising on television, radio and newspapers up to five months before an election in which they are candidates.

This leaves Secretary Merrill and her billboards in the clear as far as the law goes. She's not up for re-election until 2014.

But even she has to admit the project has a political aroma. Actually, she did admit it, though not intentionally, in an e-mail to an aide The Hartford Courant obtained through the Freedom of Information Act:

"(I) still think the R's are going to go crazy," she wrote about the reaction to the billboard she expected from the "R's," her affectionate pseudonym for the Republicans.

He didn't exactly go crazy, but "the R's" top dog, Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola, did complain about the billboard, saying, "it strains all credibility to suggest that it's not a campaign contribution." So is it?

The Outdoor Advertising Association of Connecticut donated five billboards on interstate highways and "numerous" other locations around the state at a bargain price of $7,500. Maybe it's just a coincidence the association president, John Barrett, is also a generous donor to state Democrats.

This election year, many states are going out of their way to keep voters - at least some voters - away from the polls, so maybe we shouldn't be too hard on Ms. Merrill, whose other efforts to get out the vote we've applauded. And after all, her picture and name only cover half of the billboard.

But it's helpful to be reminded that incumbents enjoy enough advantages without allowing them taxpayer-paid advertising, even two years in advance.

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