Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2002 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763
John H. Fund
Bad Hair Day: Did Montana Dems exploit antigay prejudice?
When Mike Taylor, the GOP's Senate
candidate in Montana, abruptly withdrew
from his challenge to Democratic senator
Max Baucus, he claimed it was
because a Democratic attack ad was
conveying the impression he was gay.
Old-time Montana pols thought they were
experiencing déjà vu. A similar controversy
helped sink the GOP candidate who ran
against Mr. Baucus when he first ran for
the Senate 24 years ago.
Democrats say that Mr. Taylor quit
because he was going to lose and may
have wanted to "pull a Torricelli" and have
popular former governor Marc Racicot
replace him on the ballot. But Mr. Taylor
says he doesn't want his name removed
from the ballot. He will instead encourage
any write-in candidate who wants to
challenge incumbent Democrat Max
Baucus. The logistical challenges of
organizing a successful write-in race only
three weeks before an election effectively
leaves Mr. Baucus unopposed.
Although Mr. Taylor has trailed Mr. Baucus
in the polls, his campaign says the bottom
dropped out for their man this week after
Democrats began a $100,000 ad campaign
accusing him of abusing a student-loan
program in the 1980s, when he ran a chain of hair-care schools. Mr. Taylor settled the
dispute with the federal government for $27,250 in 1999 without admitting any
But the real damage to Mr. Taylor appears to have come from footage taken from 1980s
infomercials for his company. The footage showed a younger Mr. Taylor with a beard and
dressed in a John Travolta-style leisure suit, topped off with an open-necked shirt and
gold chains. He was shown applying lotion to the face of a young man in a barber chair.
"Mike Taylor. Not the way we do business in Montana," a narrator intoned.
Republicans claim the ad implied that Mr. Taylor was gay, a potentially negative issue in
rural and socially conservative parts of Montana. Democrats scoff at the notion they
were attempting any subliminal messaging. They say the ad showed Mr. Taylor applying
lotion to another man because it was the only footage they had.
That explanation doesn't satisfy Democratic state Sen. Ken Toole, who chairs the state's
Human Rights Network. He complained to the state Democratic Party about the ad, telling
them it was "an overt and obvious appeal to the homophobic [voter]" that "plays on
stereotyped images of gay people." Mr. Toole told the Billings Gazette that "once you
play these cards, inject this crap into a campaign--race, gay--nobody controls it."
That's pretty much what political observers also said in 1978, when the Montana AFL-CIO
decided to unload on Republican Larry Williams, an investment adviser who was running
against Mr. Baucus for the Senate. The union distributed hundreds of thousands of
copies of a photo, taken when Mr. Williams lived in California, that showed him wearing
love beads and with an unkempt hairdo, a sharp contrast to the buttoned-down image he
tried to convey in his Senate race.
Mr. Williams claimed the photo had been taken after he had finished a long flight, but the
damage was done. Charles Johnson, a journalist for the Lee newspaper chain in Montana,
says that "at the time, some election observers credited the move as a factor in helping
Baucus win the tight race."
In Mr. Taylor's case, It's not clear if the Democrats were consciously playing to antigay
prejudice. But it's surprising that Democrats refused to pull the ad even after the uproar
and criticism from some of their own party members. Dore Schwinden, a Democratic
campaign director, said the ad's claims about the student loan abuse were "true and we
stand by the ad 110%." Fine, but you'd think that Democrats might have wanted to avoid
the controversy by offering to substitute some different footage of Mr. Taylor without
changing the script.
So Sen. Baucus, now chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, can now cruise to a
fifth term without breaking a sweat. While he personally had nothing to do with the
infamous ad that prompted his opponent's withdrawal, it does seem strange that for the
second time in his political career he has benefited from the same kind of underhanded
tactic. Many in Montana are saying it would be appropriate for him to chastise his friends
and allies who put up the infamous ad, but they're not holding their breath.
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©2001, John H. Fund