Rickey Cole is the chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. During the run-up to the June 24 run-off election in Mississippi, between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel, Cole commented on what the Cochran campaign was labeling a “get out the vote” outreach. Cole’s perspective is radically different. According to the Clarion-Ledger, Cole used his Facebook page to send this message to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal: “Large sums of cash are being passed around. These guys are old-school ‘walking around money’ vote buyers.” (Emphasis mine.)
Yesterday the explosive accusations of Pastor Stevie Fielder surfaced. He claims that he was given envelopes of cash to hand out to prospective voters to entice them to go to the polls and pull the lever for Thad Cochran on June 24. Since vote-buying is illegal, and under state law would require Cochran to drop out of the race, the allegations, if true, would be a major game-changer in this highly charged political atmosphere.
Fielder’s accusations are certainly consistent with Cole’s bold assertion that wads of cash were being used to buy votes, all of which could explain the startling fact that turnout was up 40% in predominantly black counties on June 24. Cole’s testimony, of course, has particular weight coming as it does from the head of the entire Democratic Party in Mississippi. Cole would certainly be in a position to know what the “walking around money” was being used for, and is by all accounts a man of unimpeachable integrity.
However, Cochran’s campaign has vigorously denied the allegations of vote-buying, calling them “baseless and false.” Cochran’s camp is even threatening to sue Fielder and the journalist who interviewed him, although they are not sure for what.
One other possible wrinkle: Democratic operative James “Scooby Doo” Warren told the Clarion-Ledger on June 17 that he was putting together a get-out-the-vote plan and “putting it in place across the whole state,” but was doing his work for Haley Barbour’s Mississippi Conservatives PAC and not for the Cochran campaign itself. That creates a certain amount of plausible deniability for the Cochran campaign, which can then claim that if anybody was buying votes, it wasn’t them doing it.
Now Fielder, pastor or not, is not necessarily a man of sterling character, having gotten in legal trouble in 2006. Similar problems attach themselves to the representative of the Cochran campaign who gave him the money, Saleem Baird, who ran afoul of the law for running an illegal strip club in Jackson in 2011.
So, in sum, there are two public assertions, one certainly more substantive than the other, that vote-buying was going on, and we have one energetic denial.
Both sides stipulate that envelopes full of cash were floating around. Fielder and Cole say the purpose of that cash was to buy votes. Cochran’s camp says the cash was not to buy the vote but to turn out the vote.
It is certainly possible that one man’s “vote buying” campaign is another’s “get out the vote” campaign.That is, what better way to get people out to vote than by paying them to do it?
A Republican strategist indicated to me that it is highly unusual for a campaign to pay its “get out the vote” personnel in cash. As campaign workers, they are typically paid by check (perhaps in order to avoid even the appearance of vote buying), with taxes withheld and so forth, as evidence that the money was paid for actual campaign work and not to buy votes. So while a cash-and-carry operation does not necessarily mean anything all by itself, it is unusual and allows a cloud of suspicion to linger.
Now Fielder was interviewed extensively by a journalist, Charles Johnson, and a research associate of his. Cochran’s camp can help clarify matters by providing some of its “get out the vote” personnel who also received envelopes with cash in them but who didn’t use any of it to buy votes.
The Cochran camp should begin by making Baird available to the press for some direct questioning. Oddly, Baird, the man at the center of this dust storm, seems to have disappeared and has yet to make himself available to the media.
If two or three of these campaign folks, including Baird, would make themselves available to journalists for extensive interviews, as Fielder did, and their stories hold up under direct questioning, perhaps they can persuade the public that no vote-buying occurred and that Rickey Cole is a sadly mistaken man.
As things stand now, we are not in a position to know the truth. Fielder could help establish his credibility as a whistleblower by bringing forward other pastors with stories similar to his own, and the Cochran camp can obviously help its case by bringing forward Baird and others to tell their stories.
Did massive vote-buying occur? Probably, since we have no reason to doubt the chairman of the Democratic party. Can it be proved? Maybe, maybe not.
Time is short, as counties were scheduled to certify election results yesterday (July 1) and the election itself must be certified by July 7. That will leave just 12 days for any legal challenges to be filed before the books are closed. Here’s hoping that between now and then the truth will out.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)
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