Ahead of primary, taxpayers bankroll questionable COVID ads

Taxpayer funded Facebook ads, enabled by a temporary COVID-19 inspired rule change, from House Democratic lawmakers. (Facebook screenshot)

At least six Pennsylvania House Democratic lawmakers facing opponents in the June primary are taking advantage of temporary House rules to use taxpayer money to pay for Facebook ads which, in some cases, tout their accomplishments via video.

The ads, which in some cases explicitly mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, but in other cases only shared celebratory press releases, were approved under temporary House rules to help connect constituents with public or private aid during the ongoing public health crisis.

Ads for the six lawmakers facing challengers were displayed in constituents’ news feeds up to 45,000 times, according to the Facebook Ad Library.

The six were not the only lawmakers who used the new rule. House Democrats spent a little more than $200 total for lawmakers with and without primary opponents. Some incumbents facing a challenger in June did not run ads. 

Isaacson_ad
An still from a video ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia.

But the purchases represent a legal and ethical gray area in House rules that has only become murkier amid the pandemic.

Several of the boosted posts include videos that are “basically like campaign ads,” said Pat Christmas, a policy analyst for the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy.

“The only thing missing is the electioneering statement at the end,” he said in an email to the Capital-Star.

It is against House rules to use public resources for private political gain, and multiple lawmakers have gone to prison for crossing the line in the past decade.

House Democrats never referred to the posts as ads, instead arguing that “this is simply how a modern legislature strives to connect with real people in their daily lives,” said spokesperson Bill Patton.

But staff for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, ceased promoting posts, Patton said, “out of an abundance of caution” after they learned that another staffer had spent tax dollars on an ad from a Philadelphia lawmaker asking constituents if they are “ready to vote.” It also included a link to register to vote or request a mail-in ballot.

Outside of election years, the ads might have quietly disappeared down social media users’ timelines. But the ads proximity to an election, providing PR for four lawmakers with potentially tough primaries, appear to veer into political spending. 

“In looking at the ads run, nothing explicitly crosses the line, but some come close enough for discomfort,” Emily Kinkead, a Pittsburgh-area challenger to one of the boosted Democratic incumbents, said in a statement to the Capital-Star.

The chamber’s rules specifically ban mailers and other “mass communications” from official state offices up to 60 days before an election to avoid the appearance of electioneering with state dollars. But those rules do not reference social media advertising.

But then in late March, the House unanimously approved a change, allowing lawmakers to produce and place “mass communication, excluding newsletters and similar mailings” if the information conveyed is limited to “directing constituents to public and private resources and services” to aid with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Giving lawmakers some leeway to use taxpayer dollars to keep constituents informed on COVID-19 was “understandable and appropriate” during the crisis, Christmas added. 

But the Facebook posts raise, once again, the distinct advantages a lawmaker in office has against his or her  opponents.

“All four caucuses have substantial [communications] operations that always seem to crank up in election years,” Christmas said.

An ad or a post

A Capital-Star review of the Facebook Ad Library for lawmakers’ state-maintained pages found at least 11 lawmakers — 10 Democrats and one Republican — that had bought social media ads with tax dollars.

The lawmakers, with and without primary opponents, tried to get out a wide range of information, sharing everything from links to graphics to videos.

Diamond_FBad
An ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, shared how to apply for unemployment benefits, while Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, reminded construction workers that they could return to work May 1. Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, asked constituents if they had completed the census. None of them have a challenger in June.

Other lawmakers, facing a primary, ran a single ad for a specific purpose, such as an invitation to a virtual town hall on the impacts of COVID-19 or spreading the adjusted income tax deadline.

Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive Pittsburgh Democrat who has an establishment challenger, shared two ads — one on restarting construction, another featuring a House press release.

Lee_statead
An ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny.

But other boosted posts included videos of lawmakers making campaign-like pitches, celebrating their records and the recent actions of the state government to address the pandemic.

For instance, Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Allegheny, reminded Facebook users that “my commitment to serving you has not wavered” during the pandemic. Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-Allegheny, read a similar script over a video with some of the same graphics.

Deasy is unopposed, while Ravenstahl will face Kinkead in June.

Across the state, Allentown Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, tells viewers that he is “fighting to bridge [the] digital divide” in a video ad that plugs his proposal to buy laptops, tablets, or internet hotspots so students can learn while school buildings are closed.

Speaking to the Capital-Star, Schweyer pointed out that with COVID-19 closures and many families without internet at home, the video was a legitimate effort to talk with his constituents about a pressing legislative issue.

“An ad says, ‘vote for me,’” Schweyer said. “A post says, ‘here’s what I’m doing.’”

Schweyer_video
An still from a video ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh.

On the campaign side, Schweyer has also spent up to $2,000 on three video ads that have run since early April. 

One ad features a constituent saying that she “knows [Schweyer] will be there for my daughter,” while citing his work to expand state university scholarships for Allentown residents.

The other two ads, which Schweyer is paying campaign dollars for, encourage voters to vote by mail.  

Promoting the recently adopted electoral reform is “very tricky”, Schweyer told the Capital-Star, so he decided to use his own war chest for the advertisements. 

“We have no precedent on this one,” Schweyer said.

Ready to vote

A less cautious approach from one Philadelphia lawmaker, whose Facebook page had the most extensive boosting, led to the end of the ad purchases.

According to the library, Rep. Mary Isaacson’s Facebook page featured six ads throughout April.

It was Isaacson’s official page that shared the taxpayer ad promoting voting, which ran between April 24 and 28 and led House Democrats to end boosting. According to the ad library, it was displayed on timelines between 2,000 to 3,000 times.

Isaacson_state_ad_voting
An ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia.

 

Patton said the voting ad “contained no political content of any kind.” And to be sure, some public dollars have already been spent on promoting vote by mail.

Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Department of State, said that the state has spent $2.3 million to advertise vote by mail and the new primary date to voters, including mailers and radio ads.

But the purchase was still enough for Democrats to end the boosting campaign. Patton did not elaborate on the decision.

Altogether, Facebook estimates that Isaacson’s six state-funded ads were displayed up to 14,000 times. A state House district in Pennsylvania is roughly 63,000 people.

Isaacson_campaign_ad_voting
An ad from the campaign Facebook page of Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia.

Some of the posts walk viewers through applying for unemployment, or point out the extended income tax deadline.

But others sound less like a PSA. In one video that ran from April 13 to 17, Isaacson intones that “COVID-19 is costing Pennsylvanians, and I’m fighting to provide you and your family relief.” 

She then lists bills passed by the House, as well as proposals she’s co-sponsored, such as paid sick leave or a rent freeze.

She’s used similar language in a trio of ads currently running from her campaign Facebook page. 

In one of the current ads, Isaacson says that “as we move forward from this pandemic, it’s more important than ever that I fight for you.” In another, she encourages voting by mail.

The ads also use footage of Isaacson speaking in the House floor. According to House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer, floor footage could, if put into the public domain, be used by outside groups. But an individual lawmaker cannot use floor video in their own campaign ads.

All together, Isaacson has spent $1,660 on campaign Facebook ads since her first ran in January. She told the Capital-Star that messages of the two sides, campaign and public, are distinct.

“My job as a legislator is to make sure I am providing for my constituents, and in this case I am letting them know what I am doing,” Isaacson said. “And my campaign message has always been, ‘I am in Harrisburg fighting for my district.’”

She added that she had no role in ordering her state Facebook page to run ads.

Isaacson, who represents the Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington neighborhoods, faces a four-way primary on June 2. She was first elected in 2018, after local ward leaders controversially named her to replace her old boss, former Democratic Rep. Mike O’Brien, on the November ballot.

In a statement, one of her primary opponents, Vanessa McGrath, said that the district “was taken from Democratic voters by party bosses in a backroom deal. So, it’s disappointing but not surprising that the representative used taxpayers’ money to promote her own campaign.” 

But Isaacson countered that all her messages, whether publicly or private purchased, abided by House rules.

“I’m sorry if that’s the way they look at it,” Isaacson said of critics. “But certainly reaching out to my constituents and making sure they are informed is my number one priority in the middle of a pandemic.”

A public service?

In an email, Patton said that the caucus spent $217 total on Facebook ads for both opposed and unopposed lawmakers during the restricted period. 

According to the ad library, Issacson’s page has spent $117 to promote posts in the past year. The library includes no posts before April 2020.

Patton argued that, overall, the boosted posts’ messaging is appropriate and meets House rules.

“Most people have no idea how to access the broad range of information and services available through lawmakers’ offices and this is a continuing effort by us to make it easier,” Patton said. “It’s a public service effort that never ends.”

For example, earlier this year — before the pandemic — Ravenstahl’s Facebook page spent tax money to push videos where he describes securing state funding for a Pittsburgh distillery and union apprenticeships. Schweyer’s page advertised a town hall last November and renovations to an Allentown park earlier this year.

Ravenstahl_ad
An still from a video ad from the state Facebook page of Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-Allegheny.

As for the cost of making the videos themselves, Patton said that “one could stretch and say the videos’ ‘cost’ is partially reflected in the salaries of staff involved, but these people also do many other things. There’s no specific additional cost to produce a video.”

Patton added that decisions to boost posts are made internally by social media staff. According to the library, all the boosts were approved by Bob Caton, a veteran Democratic staffer. Caton deferred a request for comment to spokesperson Patton.

In an email, House Republican spokesperson Mike Straub said that any member, or employee, who may be found to violate House rules would be subject to investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Straub added he could not comment on any complaints that may have been referred to the committee, or if any investigations were ongoing.

Straub did not respond to follow up questions about House Republicans use of Facebook ads.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Frank Farry, R-Bucks, did not reply to a request for comment. Ravenstahl, who is the panel’s ranking Democrat. did not respond either.