DELAWARE COUNTY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Jim Schneller is not the type of congressional candidate a political progressive or liberal Democrat would ordinarily support.
A self-avowed Tea Party activist, he opposes abortion even in the cases of rape and incest. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, labeling it “unconstitutional.” He vows to “guarantee constitutional rights for home-schooling.” And he is still calling for President Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate or face deportation.
Yet Schneller quite possibly might never have become a candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district were it not for a helping hand from his opponents. As it happens, a dozen Delaware County Democratic Party activists obtained nearly all of the necessary signatures for him to qualify for the ballot, records of the Pennsylvania Secretary of State show.
Some of these activists work or have worked in one capacity or another for the campaign of Schneller’s opponent, Bryan Lentz, a two-term Democratic state legislator. At least five of the people associated with Lentz’s campaign who gathered signatures for him also did so for Schneller, according to records and interviews.
Last spring, the Lentz loyalists signed up potential voters by citing his long experience in government and underscoring his pro-choice record. Then this summer, they went door to door extolling the virtues of Jim Schneller by saying that he was a regular guy who had absolutely no previous involvement with politics or government and would be uncompromising in his opposition to abortion.
Even by the standards of the testiest and most tempestuous U.S. midterm elections in memory, such machinations stand out -- and they are by no means limited to Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Elsewhere, Democratic congressional candidates and party activists and operatives have worked behind the scenes to support Tea Party activists to run as third party candidates. The calculation is simple: by siphoning off just enough votes from their Republican opponents, they hope to swing the outcome of a tight election in their favor.
In Nevada, for example, advertisements on conservative radio stations attack the Republican nominee Sharron Angle, the actual Tea Party candidate, for not being conservative enough. Those spots were paid for by casinos and unions backing Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.
And in the race for New Jersey’s third congressional district, the Camden Courier Post has reported, Democrats recruited a third party candidate, Peter DeStefano, who is running as a Tea Party candidate. It was a bid to help re-elect Democratic congressman John Adler, say supporters of Adler’s Republican opponent, John Runyan.
Adler has denied that anyone in his campaign played a role in recruiting or encouraging DeStefano’s candidacy. In the meantime, the race is considered too close to call, suggesting that DeStefano might indeed prove to be a spoiler.
Then there is Michigan. Two Oakland County Democratic officials recently resigned their positions after it was disclosed that they had helped run candidates for several states offices, including two highly competitive congressional seats on a Tea Party ballot line. The effort failed after election officials threw out the ballot line.
Similar scenes are also playing out in California, Florida, Texas and other parts of the country, according to records, interviews with party activists and press accounts.
The GOP does it too. In Arizona, Republican party operatives have helped run homeless men and drifters as Green Party candidates for the state legislature and other state offices, The New York Times reported last month. But by some accounts, Democrats have engaged in the practice in far greater numbers in this election.
Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said there is a long history of both Democrats and Republicans assisting third party candidates, often surreptitiously.
But he said the practice has exploded in the current election cycle. “If political partisans can see an advantage, you can be sure they’re going to do it,” Sabato said.
In this particular election cycle, however, Sabato and others point out, it is Democrats who are seizing the opportunity. That is because of the potential of Tea Party candidates to divide the conservative vote.
“These are legal candidacies,” Sabato says, “But in a broader sense they aren’t legitimate candidates. It might be legal to do this, but it is unethical to concoct a candidacy for a nefarious purpose. The only solution is to hope that the press and the people ferret out what is going on and punish them.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog organization, said in an interview: “Unfortunately, this is a commonplace dirty trick. But it doesn’t dissuade candidates from doing it because they can win.”
A close examination of how the strategy played out in Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district underlines its effectiveness.
The district represents suburbs of Philadelphia, to the west and northwest of the city. It includes almost all of Delaware County, and portions of Montgomery and Chester counties. The vast majority of its residents are blue collar and working class voters.
But the seventh district is also home to Philadelphia’s Main Line, a liberal enclave, as well as the “Little Ivies” -- Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr colleges.
A Republican, Curt Weldon, represented the Seventh for more than 20 years, until he lost to Democrat Joe Sestak in 2006. The seat became open after Sestak decided to run for the Senate. President Obama did particularly well in the district, but his popularity has plummeted here as it has around the rest of the country.
In many ways, Lentz is an attractive candidate. He is a veteran who served in Iraq and with a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. He was also an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia for six years and currently serves in the Pennsylvania state legislature.
His Republican opponent, Pat Meehan, seems a similarly strong candidate. As a former U.S. Attorney for Philadelphia, Meehan gained attention with high-profile prosecutions of prominent state politicians for their role in illegal pay-to-play schemes.
Several recent polls show a tight race. One by the Hill newspaper showed Meehan leading Lentz by a margin of 40-39 percent. Another poll by Franklin & Marshall College released on October 14th found Meehan leading Lentz 34 percent to 31 percent.
The same poll illustrated how Schneller might serve as a spoiler in the race: he garnered 2 percent. More ominously for conservatives, he had the support of 10 percent of independents. In a narrow race, votes going to Schneller that otherwise would have been won by Meehan might prove to be the difference leading to a Lentz victory.
It is not without good reason that the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News has nicknamed Schneller the “Dems’ Great Right Hope.”
Schneller insisted in a series of interviews that he was totally unaware of the efforts by Lentz supporters to obtain the requisite signatures for him to run until long after the efforts were underway.
A self-styled gadfly, his rhetoric can be harsh and his beliefs are often far from the mainstream, the public record shows. In his lawsuit demanding that Obama prove his citizenship he described the president as an “interloper and un-American” and his election a “treasonous coup.”
He has suggested that the September 11 terror attacks were the result of a conspiracy by the U.S. government. But in manner and conversation, he is soft spoken, and even his harshest critics describe him as guileless and well intentioned.
Schneller explained how he first came to learn that people unknown to him were assisting his campaign. “I would go up to a house and ask for a signature and the person would tell me, ‘We already got you a day ago.’ or ‘Of course we would like to sign. But we already have. We signed for you a few days ago.'”
Over time, Schneller says, “this kind of became commonplace.”
Back then, he recalled, he had no more than four of his own friends helping out, according to Schneller, and he said they collected no more than a hundred signatures. He said he was mystified by the staggering numbers of people who said they signed for him. “Something larger was at work,” Schneller told Reuters.
Curious, Schneller said, he began asking questions of the people who had already signed for him. “I would be told things like, ‘It was a girl and a guy. They were very nice. You don’t know them?’ And of course I didn‘t,” he said. “I didn’t want to be nosy or anything. But I did want to know what they were saying about me.”
Schneller said he was happy to learn that those who were so stealthily supporting him were at least striking just the right notes. “To my surprise they were telling people that I was a strict constitutionalist and a corruption fighter.”
Schneller adds: “It got to the point that I would go up to houses and all that would be left for me was to give them some literature.”
If Schneller was surprised by all of this, some of those gathering the signatures for him were having second thoughts.
Abu Rahman, the president of the Delaware County Asian American Democratic Association and a Lentz supporter, who admits he gathered signatures for Schneller, said in an interview that he had some mixed feelings about what he was doing. “I remember thinking to myself that this is not clean,” Rahman said, “But it is not illegal.”
He acknowledged in an interview that by helping Schneller get on the ballot, he clearly understood that he was going to “dry up Republican votes.”
Rahman explained why he moved forward despite his reservations: “We really had to consider what was at stake. This is a really crucial election. We don’t want to hand it to the Republicans. It’s just too, too important for our country.”
Schneller said he finally learned the full extent of Lentz backers’ efforts in gathering signatures on behalf of his campaign the night before the deadline to turn them in.
That evening, last August 1, there was a “notary party” for those collecting signatures. All of the petitions had to be notarized before being turned in to the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s office. Candidates ordinarily host the parties so that those who have helped their campaign do not have to also pay the notary costs.
“The notary had only been hired for a couple of hours,” Schneller says. “I didn’t expect the onslaught. All of these people just started showing up with signatures and petitions. We were hurried because we had only hired out the notary for a couple of hours and couldn’t get them all done.”
Court records related to an attempt by the Meehan campaign to disqualify some of the signatures obtained by Lentz’s supporters indicate that the notary was paid by a Lentz supporter, Colleen Guiney, the Swarthmore Democratic Party Chairman. The records also show that the party was held in the insurance office of a second Lentz supporter, Rocco Polidoro.
Was Schneller suspicious of the use of the free notary and a second virtual complete stranger giving him a party?
“I can see how it might look to some people that I was part of some conspiracy,” Schneller says. “But I was the victim of a conspiracy.” Only during the notary party, he explains, did he understand “that I had become part of something that I shouldn’t have been.”
It was only the next day, after the signatures were formally submitted to the Pennsylvania Secretary of State, Schneller says, that he learned the role of the Lentz campaign.
As the signatures were being handed over, Republican candidate Meehan was ready to pounce. Campaign workers were already there, waiting at the Secretary of State’s office to scour the records, to dissect them and then dole them out to the press.
The documents indicated that people associated with Lentz or the Democratic Party had collected some 4,813 signatures for Schneller. To qualify for the ballot, he required only 4,000.
Among those who gathered signatures was Guiney, the Swarthmore Democratic Party Chairman, who collected 503 herself. Lentz had once complimented her as “the hardest worker on my campaign.” Guiney did not return a reporter’s phone call after a message was left at her home with a man identifying himself as Guiney’s husband.
Rahman, the president of the Delaware County Asian American Democratic Association, collected just 40. Nicholas Allred, the Internet director for the Swarthmore College Democrats, collected 627. Caroline Pincher, from Nether Providence, Pennsylvania, whose mother is a Democratic Party activist, collected 682. Two hard working 19-year-olds collected more than 1,300 signatures.
Meehan’s campaign manager, Bryan Kendro said in a statement: “Lentz’s supporters and associates have engaged in an underhanded attempt to manipulate the ballot and split the conservative vote by using Jim Schneller as nothing more than a prop.”
For three and a half months, the Lentz campaign refused to discuss the issue. Then, during a meeting with the Delaware County Times on October 19, Lentz acknowledged he was aware that his supporters had surreptitiously worked to get Schneller on the ballot.
“If somebody’s already made the decision to run, I don’t think that helping with the process of signature petitions was improper,” Lentz said. He added that any of his supporters and campaign workers who had assisted Schneller’s candidacy “made that decision on his own.”
The admission raised more questions than it answered. How could such an extensive effort be undertaken by campaign workers without Lentz’s knowledge? But nobody has pressed the issue and Lentz has deflected the controversy in the campaign’s final frenetic days.
Meredith McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Fund, says she finds it troubling that Lentz won’t answer specific questions about his own role in collecting the signatures: “A candidate doesn’t want voters to know about their unseemly practices. In this case, voters are entitled to honest and truthful answers from the candidate about his own role.”
Whatever the outcome, Schneller said he feels like the odd man out.
“Meehan is saying that Lentz created me,” Schneller says, and “Lentz is putting out information suggesting that I would never have got on the ballot on my own. But I would have made it on my own.”
Schneller says that about 20 days before the deadline he learned that there were others collecting signatures, so he cut back his efforts, believing that he would be well over the number needed.
Meehan’s campaign manager Kendro disputes this: “As a general rule of thumb, a significant number of signatures are not going to withstand ballot challenges,” he said in a phone interview. Ordinarily, about half of all signatures collected are ultimately thrown out, Kendro said, meaning that Schneller would have had to collect at least 6,000 signatures.
“I think it is safe to say that there would be no Schneller candidacy had Lentz’s campaign workers not made it happen,” Kendro said.
In a meeting with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, Lentz declared that it was no longer in the public interest to talk about the matter any further.
“Look, politics is politics, and issues are issues,” Lentz said. “And I hope that ultimately this election is decided on the issues.”
Asked why he had only recently disclosed he knew that his supporters and staff had been stealthily helping Schneller’s candidacy, Lentz said he feared that the disclosure would be “a real distraction from what’s important in the race.”
Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons