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Incumbents' New Edge: Public-Service Ads

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's voice booms out on the radio: "New Yorkers have a lot to celebrate this summer."

In this case, he is touting a new transit program that allows free transfers between buses and subways. However, the message - which will soon be on TV as well - is clearly aimed at more than just straphangers: It's a not too subtle pitch to potential voters who will be casting their votes for mayor this fall.

Mr. Giuliani's use of taxpayer funds for political advantage is not unusual. Incumbents are increasingly becoming a part of a city's or state's paid advertising or public-service campaigns. The ads aren't overtly political, and thus don't turn off voters. And during election years, they save the incumbent money that can be used for getting out the vote or other activities.

"It is relatively new, and I have seen a good bit of it," says John Green, a politics professor at the University of Akron.

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato says he recently returned from a trip to Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley will be up for reelection in 1999: "Everywhere I looked I saw Richie Daley's name. I half expected it to be on the dollar bills instead of the Secretary of the Treasury."

In New York State, Gov. George Pataki sent a letter to 1 million New Yorkers with rent-controlled apartments declaring "we have won a great victory" over rent control. Pataki, who is up for reelection next year, also appears in "I love NY" campaigns and buckle-up TV spots.

The ads are effective, says Mr. Green, because the public is distrustful of politicians and their political messages. "Traditional political advertising is less effective, but this is good news so it doesn't have the appearance of being political," he says.

Most challengers are irked by the ads. While they are busy trying to raise campaign funds, incumbents get a free ride. "The challengers always have an uphill race. This simply makes it a steeper climb," says Mr. Sabato.

"We believe it is inappropriate and inconsistent with campaign finance rulings," says Lee Jones, spokesman for Ruth Messinger, who hopes to be the Democratic challenger to Giuliani.

Mr. Jones may have grounds for complaint. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the ads can only be aired if news organizations are currently covering Giuliani's explanations about the fare.

Otherwise, TV stations have to provide an equal opportunity for challengers to air their views. Since the fare program is now one month old, there is virtually no new coverage of the event.

However, Sunny Mendell, deputy press secretary for the Giuliani campaign, says, "As far as we know we are within the boundaries of the law."

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