A political advertisement in Arizona paints a misleading picture of former Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith, a Republican, as a supporter of gun control, ObamaCare and stricter regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The basis of the ad comes from resolutions passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan national association that represents cities. Smith was president of the Conference of Mayors from June 2013 to mid-April of this year.
A dark money group called the Legacy Foundation Action Fund, a nonprofit based in Iowa, is spending $275,000 in April on TV and radio ads that link Smith to President Barack Obama.
Laurie Roberts, a metro columnist for The Arizona Republic, observed that the ad comes just as Smith has stepped down as mayor to run for governor. Roberts drew a few connections between the foundation and state Treasurer Doug Ducy, another candidate in the Republican primary: Ducy’s media consultant recently produced an ad for the foundation and the foundation gave money to a conservative Arizona think tank whose president is part of Ducy’s kitchen cabinet. Because the foundation and its action fund are technically involved in issue advocacy, they don’t have to disclose donors and there’s no way to know if Ducy is connected to the misleading statements.
The ad’s claims stem from the slimmest nuggets of truth. Once a year, the Conference of Mayors convenes to pass resolutions that signal to the White House and Congress where city leaders stand on federal issues. Last year the conference did pass a resolution in favor of a federal requirement for criminal background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows and online. In 2009, the conference did pass a resolution in support of the Obama administration’s health reform proposals. In 2010, the conference did pass a resolution in support of a range of conservation-oriented policies, including a market-based approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions that is sometimes referred to as "cap and trade." Smith was a member of the organization when each of the resolutions passed, but he didn't support any of those positions.
On every issue mentioned in the ad, Smith said he disagreed with how the conference membership voted. “I had different views from many of my mayors on the extent of background checks and weapons bans. I had a much different view on the effectiveness of those things and I voted against them,” he said. “I personally have never been in favor of cap and trade. I’ve not supported ObamaCare. I’ve not personally supported those things that the ad attacks me on.”
As president of the conference, Smith merely set the organization's agenda for the year, which focused on immigration reform, transportation funding, unfunded mandates, cyber security and trade with Canada, Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Smith also appointed committee and task force chairs and served as the group's national spokesman. Smith said he was able to meet with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, cabinet secretaries and members of Congress to discuss city issues.
For the annual meetings, the conference conducts voice votes in an auditorium with close to 200 mayors. The group does not record individual mayors’ votes on resolutions. In fact, it would be impossible to do so because each voice vote usually includes a package of related resolutions. For instance, when mayors voted on background checks for gun sales last year, they also voted on supporting Second Amendment rights, increased funding for community-oriented policing and comprehensive immigration reform. (Scroll to 35:00 of the video titled “Business Session” to hear the majority of mayors approve 18 different resolutions related to criminal and social justice at once.)
Although Smith disagrees with cap and trade, he did sign the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, a 2005 initiative that calls for reduced carbon emissions in adherence to standards set by the Kyoto Protocol. Under the agreement, mayors commit to three actions, one of which is urging Congress to establish a cap-and-trade system. At the time that Smith signed the agreement, he noted that mayors may disagree about certain "action points," but they were "united in a common goal of responsible environmental stewardship."
The Legacy Foundation Action Fund is part of the Legacy Foundation, which tries to “advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited and accountable government.” In the past, the foundation has engaged in litigation to defend state laws related to border security and immigration enforcement, according to its 2012 annual report to the Internal Revenue Service. The action fund has released similar radio ads criticizing the mayors of Sacramento and Baltimore, who are now serving as president and vice president of the Conference of Mayors. The foundation did not return a call for comment.
In March, Smith told Governing he expected that his involvement with the mayors group would be turned against him in the gubernatorial campaign. Though Smith is a Republican, most of the group's most prominent members are Democrats from the nation's largest cities. Though the organization does take some positions that lean left, much of its focus is on lobbying for federal aid to pay for housing, transportation and energy infrastructure. "It’s unfortunate that there might an issue, such as gun control, that overshadows the other eight or nine [issues] that truly bring city leaders together in a unified voice," he said.
“I think it’s sad if now a litmus test for running for office is that you participated in a non-partisan organization that may have taken a stand at one point in time that may have run counter to your view," Smith said. "I’m a better mayor because I was around other mayors, even mayors I disagreed with."