2 Nov 2012

Spinning a super storm – playing politics with a disaster?

It was a campaign rally hastily turned into a disaster relief event. But Mitt Romney’s team has been accused of buying the relief donations themselves – telling supporters to “just grab something”.

Romney at Ohio event (reuters)

It was an impossible dilemma for the Romney campaign: risk looking crass and insensitive by continuing with plans to hold an election rally in the midst of a national disaster – or give up on a crucial stop in the key state of Ohio.

In the end, what was billed as a Romney-Ryan victory rally in the town of Kettering was hastily switched, to a “disaster relief” event, “out of sensitivity to the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.”

The turnaround was so quick, it was inevitable that some of the trappings of party politics remained: reporters were given press accreditation badges calling it a victory rally, and at one stage a biographical video about the candidate was played on a giant screen to those in the hall – although the campaign team said someone had played it without their permission.

Romney himself arrived, spoke for a few minutes, talking about the importance of individual charity efforts, and calling it “the American way”, before being photographed behind a table, accepting bags of canned goods and boxes of food handed over by supporters, to be donated to the American Red Cross.

But a reporter from the popular Buzzfeed website, McKay Coppins, claimed that Romney aides were worried that given the short notice, people attending the event might not bring enough goods along to fill the large truck parked out back.

The night before the event, campaign aides went to a local Wal-Mart and spent $5,000. McKay Coppins, Buzzfeed reporter

“So the night before the event”, he wrote, “campaign aides went to a local Wal-Mart and spent $5,000 on granola bars, canned food, and diapers to put on display while they waited for donations to come in, according to one staffer.”

He then claimed that some people waiting to get into the event, who had arrived empty handed, were told to go to the pile of goods and “just grab something” to hand back to Romney as they went in.

Politico reporter Reid Epstein tweeted later that Ohio’s Democratic governor Ted Strickland had accused Romney of trying to “fake compassion by asking people to bring food to a rally”, citing the report by Coppins.

Channel 4 News asked for a comment from the Romney team but so far they have not given us an official response to the claims.

Send cash, not goods

Meanwhile, there were other issues with the event. On its website, the American Red Cross points out that donating goods is not an effective way to help: they urge people to donate cash, or give blood.

“The Red Cross does not accept or solicit small quantities of individual donations… (it) impedes the valuable resources of money, time and personnel that are needed for other aspects of our relief operation.” it states.

In response to the Kettering event, the organisation said that it did appreciate the support from the Romney campaign, and was working with them to process the donations that had been collected.

But all this wasn’t the only political controversy whipped up by the storm. The Houston Chronicle ran a report showing an anti-Obama leaflet which apparently surfaced in Virginia, produced by Americans for Tax Reform. “We’ve seen storms in Virginia, but none like this”, it said, over an image of Obama superimposed over a hurricane.

Americans for Tax Reform later said the leaflet had been printed in September and distributed soon after, and had nothing to do with super storm Sandy.

In New Jersey, a Democratic congressional candidate also caused a row over a radio ad which equated her opponent with the potential destruction which the hurricane might cause.

Shelley Adler’s ad, which was pulled off air on Tuesday, was produced before the storm hit, but ran in some of the areas that were badly affected. Her opponent, Jon Runyan, called it “ridiculous and insulting” and demanded an apology.

Political storm

Ms Adler’s team hit back – claiming that it was “appalling that Congressman Ryan in the middle of this huge catastrophe is trying to bring politics into the relief effort.”

The ever controversial Donald Trump also waded into storm politics, on Twitter. He sparked outrage after posting a message claiming “Hurricane is good luck for Obama again – he will buy the election by handing out millions of dollars”, adding “don’t fall for it”.

One of the angry responses came from Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s sister, who called the remark “insensitive”.

Even a national disaster, and the huge outpouring of support for the communities left struggling to cope, has not managed to stay above the political fray, in a nation where everything is a potential photo opportunity, or a chance to score a point.

“There are no Democrats or Republicans during a storm, just fellow Americans”, said President Obama, as he visited the destruction along the Jersey shore. In the final days before the election, that might not be too much to hope for.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News.