Political ad may spark lawsuit
State Sen. Walt Helmick's campaign for state agriculture commissioner last week threatened legal action against Suddenlink Communications if the cable company continued running a Republican-sponsored ad against him.
The ad in question, titled "Three Things You Need to Know About Walt Helmick" is a shortened version of a low-budget YouTube video produced earlier this year by the West Virginia Young Republicans.
The video - which features photos taken from the Internet, a narrator with a cheap microphone and an instrumental recording of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" - alleges Helmick does not own a farm, lives in a "ritzy Charleston condo" and does not own a pickup truck.
Rob Cornelius, head of the Young Republicans, said the ad mostly was targeted to Suddenlink customers in Southern West Virginia. It began running last Wednesday, Oct. 10, and will stop appearing this Wednesday, unless Republicans decide to purchase more airtime.
Tom Susman, Helmick's campaign manager, sent a letter last Thursday to Stephen Douglas, Suddenlink assistant operations manager, threatening legal action.
Susman's letter said the advertisement contained "false, defamatory" claims about Helmick and said continuing to run the advertisements could "subject your company . . . to potential legal liability for defamation."
Susman's letter defended Helmick, saying he lives on a 200-acre farm in Minnehaha Springs and owns two trucks, a 1990 Chevy Silverado "farm use" pickup and a 2002 Freightliner owned by Helmick's water-bottling company, Allegheny Lodge Enterprises.
Susman told the Daily Mail on Monday that Helmick's wife, Rita, does own a condominium at Imperial Towers in Charleston but said Helmick only stays there during the legislative session.
Cornelius sent an email to Bob Fahner, Suddenlink regional sales manager, defending the ad.
He included links to Dictionary.
com definitions of the words "farmer" and "farming," as well as a transcript of a Kanawha Circuit Court hearing where Helmick defended his right to run for state agriculture commissioner.
"When asked in that Feb. 29 court hearing if he raises agricultural crops, livestock, poultry, or milk or egg-bearing animals, he answers negatively each time," Cornelius said in his email. "Clearly, if one testifies in open court that he is not an actual farmer, then he should be taken at his word."
Cornelius also said that because Allegheny Lodge Enterprises owns the Freightliner, Helmick does not own it personally. He also suggested the 1990 Chevy pickup could not be a "farm use" vehicle because Helmick's property is not a farm.
About an hour later, Fahner responded to Cornelius with an eight-word email:
"Thanks Rob. We will keep running the ad," he wrote.
Cornelius said the GOP might now extend its airtime purchase for the commercial.
Susman said if that happens, the Helmick campaign will again ask Suddenlink to pull the ad.
"I think that's kind of ridiculous. If someone has a fleet of trucks, will they be the best ag commissioner in the history of West Virginia?" he said.
Susman said the agriculture commissioner race should not hinge on whether candidates are "real" farmers.
"We think voters get to decide who is the best candidate, not some arbitrary definition," he said.
Meanwhile, Helmick's challenger, Kent Leonhardt, began a series of television ads promoting his run for commissioner.
Campaign spokesman Roger Hanshaw said the ads would mostly appear in the southern part of the state while radio ads will air statewide.
The radio ads began last week and will run through the general election. Television ads started running Monday and will play 1,500 times between now and the general election.
These ads also take a swipe at Helmick, calling him a "career politician" with no farming experience, but they mostly talk about Leonhardt's time in the Marines and his farming background.
"Our objective is to let folks know there's a gentlemen who's spent a lifetime in leadership positions. He's not a politician; he's never held public office. And we want to let folks know who their choices are," Hanshaw said.
But Hanshaw said he believes it is important to highlight each candidate's farming experience, or lack thereof.
"The (agriculture commissioner) is the state's farmer in chief. If we're going to charge a person with guaranteeing public health and public safety, it's important you understand the industry you're regulating," he said.