By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
Today marks the last day of early voting in the GOP's hotly-contested Texas House District 55 race before the April 8 runoff.
Like two heavyweight fighters flailing away in the final 10 seconds before the bell sounds, the campaigns of Martha Tyroch and Ralph Sheffield are blasting away at one another, each hoping to land the last solid punch before the judges hand out the scorecards.
In their corners are political strategists. On Tyroch's side is Aaron Leibowitz, who called Temple home in his early years, and now resides in Virginia.
In Sheffield's corner is Ted Delisi, who works out of Austin, and is the son of Rep. Dianne White Delisi, who is resigning after filling the District 55 seat for 18 years.
The latest television ad to hit the airwaves from the Tyroch campaign charges that the longtime Temple business owner should not be running his campaign on immigration issues because two of his workers were arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a 1995 sting operation that targeted Temple businesses.
The ad makes several generalized charges about Sheffield, citing a newspaper article or document for specific examples. One of these charges in the ad states, "His (Sheffield's) records show complaints that his business is full of illegal aliens. We can't trust Ralph Sheffield."
Among other documents which were provided to the media to support each claim was a health department complaint from an anonymous source on Sept. 25, 2006. It had no signature and only a few words, mentioning the same phrase from the ad, that the "place was full of illegals."
Sheffield's campaign released a statement about what Sheffield supporters say are Tyroch's luxurious spending habits while at the same time trivializing the documentation on which the new ad is based.
"While Ms. Tyroch was wasting tax dollars by flying first class to Washington D.C. and staying in luxury suites costing thousands, Ralph was building his successful business," the statement reads. "Martha is now in panic mode, throwing a new ad with statements easily proven to be false."
Delisi provided records from a subsequent inspection conducted by the health department Oct. 16, 2006, about three weeks after the complaint was registered. Records from the inspection state, "Overall sanitation very good. Generally clean."
This was simply the latest exchange in the two campaigns, which have collected a laundry list of attacks against the other as the two try to woo voters to their respective sides.
Sheffield and Delisi argue that Tyroch's focus has become an over-the-top negative campaign and cites the television commercials as the most direct evidence.
But Leibowitz charges Sheffield's campaign with worse violations than Tyroch's.
"Ralph was the first one to say things about us when he made false accusations about the Trans-Texas Corridor," Leibowitz said. "When I look at the amount of documentation behind what we're saying compared to what they're saying, the great lengths that we go to – he's made some completely unprovable charges. That's the core of negative campaigning."
Delisi said it's simply a case of bringing your opponent down rather than building yourself up.
"You can get into a silly and unproductive argument on who did what first," Delisi said. "You run an ad like that, I think you're throwing a Hail Mary, you're throwing the kitchen sink. The ad was untrue, the ad was unfair ? I think it was a strategic mistake, but if we have to defend ourselves, we will, and we'll move forward."
Part of what Leibowitz described as a "contrast campaign" is the use of a second television ad that began running this week, one which Tyroch speaks about her stance on border security. It contains nothing about Sheffield and does not reflect the animosity the two camps have for one another. He said that helps give the voters a choice by providing the weaknesses of the opponent in one ad, while separately demonstrating the strengths of his candidate.
"The positive ad is part of the contrast message," Leibowitz said. "Wehad the discussion about taxes.
– he (Sheffield) has had some pretty well-documented tax problems. Now we've got a positive message and laying out her (Tyroch's) vision for illegal immigration. The two work somewhat together. Is it warm? Are you going to be liked and trusted?"
But Delisi firmly believes that Leibowitz didn't correctly target the voters – it was a message that turned them off of Tyroch.
"When you get into negative, personal attacks, and I think Martha did, she did it in a big way, and she did it early, and I think that really hurt her," Delisi said. "When you're attacked unfairly, I think you've got to respond, and I think you've got to respond forcefully. That doesn't just mean on TV. So we responded on every media that was available. You have to be careful to be factual."
Delisi didn't agree with the view that the campaign has in any way been negative. Tyroch said the first stone cast in the campaign was the TTC mailer sent out more than a month ago with the message, "This mile of the Trans-Texas Corridor is brought to you by Martha Tyroch," depicted on a road sign. Delisi only said it was a "provocative way" of starting the discussion about Tyroch's record of flipping sides on different issues.
"Ralph instructed me that he wanted to run a campaign on the issues," Delisi said. "We thought he had to be forceful, but we had to talk about choices. We needed to defend ourselves on taxes, tell the truth, don't leave a charge unanswered. You have a good story, so tell it. Tell it in the mailbox, tell it on the radio, tell it on television. Talk about issues, talk about the (Trans-Texas) Corridor, talk about taxes."
Leibowitz said there is not one shred of evidence linking that charge to Tyroch, and that marked the first of several false statements.
"It's certainly not in Martha's character to be hugely confrontational about this stuff," Leibowitz said. "But when she sees her position so completely mischaracterized, it makes a person want to be assertive in communicating the message."
Contact Justin Cox at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7568