A digital billboard ad on Highway 12 North in Starkville shows a photo from a viral meme of Sen. Bernie Sanders wearing mittens beside the message: Waiting on a new mayor in Starkville. No one other than incumbent Lynn Spruill has qualified yet to run for mayor in this year's municipal elections, and the source for the ad is not identified, which is required for campaign materials under state law. Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff
January 26, 2021 10:20:12 AM
STARKVILLE -- Bernie Sanders' sudden appearance in his meme-worthy mittens on a Highway 12 billboard has garnered plenty of local attention.
It may also run afoul of state campaign finance law.
Over the weekend, the ad began running on a digital billboard near Walmart Neighborhood Market. On the left is a photo of a masked, seated Sanders wearing knit mittens. The message to Sanders' right: Waiting on a new mayor in Starkville.
The Vermont senator's photo, taken from President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., has become a viral meme on social media, with users superimposing the image on everything from album covers to movie/television show scenes.
Despite the ad's implied shot at sitting Mayor Lynn Spruill during a municipal election cycle, the billboard does not include any disclaimer that it is a paid political ad and does not identify the individual or group running it.
"I didn't know about it at all until I got a text from a friend asking if I had seen it," Spruill told The Dispatch Monday. "At first I thought it was a photoshopped deal, but then I found out, 'Nope. It's real.'"
Spruill, who is seeking a second four-year term, so far is the only candidate to qualify to run for mayor as of 5 p.m. Monday. The qualifying deadline for candidates in this year's municipal races is Feb. 5.
Mississippi Code 23-15-897 defines "campaign materials" as "any materials designed to influence voters for or against any candidate, party or measure to be voted on at any election, or containing information about any candidate, party or measure paid for by a candidate, political committee, or independent expenditure which requires disclosure under campaign finance laws." Those materials, by law, "must contain the name of the candidate along with a statement that the message is approved by the candidate; or if the message has not been approved by a specific candidate, the name of the person, political committee or organization paying for the publication of the message.
"If the message has not been approved by the candidate and no person, political committee or organization is identified as having paid for the publication, the entity producing the campaign materials must be identified," the statute continues.
Gathian Wells, a Farm Bureau insurance agent in Starkville, has owned the Highway 12 billboard since 2019. On Monday, he refused to identify his client to The Dispatch despite questions about whether he believed the law requires the advertiser to be named.
He also would not disclose whether the advertiser was an individual or a group.
"We're aware of the campaign finance laws," Wells said.
Wells said he sells space on the digital board at full-, half- and quarter-slots. While he said the "Bernie ad" was a full slot -- the most expensive option that appears most frequently in the board's cycle -- he would not disclose to The Dispatch the standard rate, the price his client paid for the placement or the number of days his client had reserved the space.
"I do not think that is relevant to our conversation," Wells said.
Further, Wells wouldn't disclose whether he and his client had discussed changing or removing the ad. It was still running unchanged on Monday evening.
As for the attention the ad has gotten, Wells didn't mind saying his client seems pleased.
"I don't think anyone can argue with that," he said.
What happens to complaints?
The Dispatch emailed a screenshot of the billboard to the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office on Monday. An emailed response from its press office did not weigh in on whether the billboard violated the law, instead simply laying out the statute.
It also noted that complaints can be forwarded through the local election commission, which can then turn them over to the District Attorney's Office to investigate.
District Attorney Scott Colom, who represents the 16th Circuit Court District, told The Dispatch those investigations would likely run through a city or county prosecutor, since his office typically doesn't investigate misdemeanors, but he said citizens with campaign finance or election law complaints can levy those directly with his office if they wish.
Citizens can also file a complaint directly with the Attorney General's Office, which purportedly happened in two instances in 2017 in area elections where groups running ads were not properly registered as political action groups and were effectively anonymous.
First, the AG's Office was made aware of billboards and materials, produced by themcqueenfacts.com, that were attacking the credibility of Columbus mayoral candidate Selvain McQueen. In November of that year, a group called Nothing But the Facts ran radio spots trying to encourage voters to approve the sale of OCH Regional Medical Center to a private entity, a measure that ultimately failed.
As of press time, the AG's Office had yet to respond to a request for information on how those complaints were resolved.
"The difficult thing with these types of cases is somebody has to raise a complaint to trigger an investigation," Colom told The Dispatch. "I think people should follow the law just because it's the right thing to do. But the likelihood of consequences does impact whether a person does sometimes. ... I think there needs to be transparency around these types of investigations and their results."
Spruill: 'I thought it was funny'
Spruill, in her turn, has taken the Bernie ad in stride.
On Saturday, she posted on social media a photo of the original billboard, along with a photoshopped image of the ad that read, "Waiting on Mayor Lynn Spruill's second term to begin." The post also included: "I have to thank the nice anonymous person who put up this billboard today. I have tweaked it just a bit and now it is perfect!!!"
She said she doesn't believe the advertiser was trying to do anything malicious or sinister, and she does not intend to file any sort of complaint.
"To be perfectly frank, I thought it was funny," Spruill told The Dispatch. "You've got to appreciate the creativity and the immediacy of including that meme. ... They were just trying to have a little fun at my expense, and I had a little fun at theirs."
Though no candidate has filed to run against her, the ad does speak to the possibility she will have an opponent before the qualifying deadline. At minimum, it shows there is some appetite for a challenger to arise, she said.
"Human nature is that I want people to like me, but I'm self-aware enough to know some people don't," she said. "... I don't think an ad like this will sway people to support or not support me. But if it draws attention to the election and ultimately gets people out to vote, that's always the best thing for any of us."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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