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What a Tangled Web Site They Weave

Last week, state treasurer Tony West got caught in the Web when the dailies reported he was pimping his corporation commission campaign on his state-sponsored treasurer's office Internet site.

The offending statement--"Treasurer West is running for election to the Corporation Commission this year. Click here to visit his campaign web site"--was removed from the site by the next day, but it raises questions about the politics of political Web sites.

This may all seem picayune, but consider the brouhaha in 1996, when U.S. Representative John Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts, was taken to task by the Associated Press, merely for linking to the Democratic National Committee from his federal Web site.

In fact, the House Members' Congressional Handbook cautions members that when using federally funded Internet sites and equipment, ". . . [the Internet] may NOT be converted to personal or campaign use or applied to any unofficial activity. . . ."

No such rule exists in Arizona--at least, not explicitly.
Mark Fleisher, chair of the Arizona Democratic party, has called on Attorney General Grant Woods to rule whether campaign use of state-owned and -operated Web sites and the state-funded personnel that support them is illegal.

"This has never been an issue before. I think we need to set the ground rules," Fleisher says.

"'Tis the season for election complaints," says AG spokeswoman Karie Dozer. She acknowledges her boss received Fleisher's complaint, but says he hasn't made a decision about pursuing the matter.

Tony West is not the only possible offender. A quick perusal of Arizona political sites raises a litany of questions--ranging from ethical and legal concerns to poor strategy to what appear to be attempts to hoodwink voters.

* www.hull98.org Governor Jane Hull's campaign site isn't linked from her gubernatorial site, www.governor.state.az.us, but it might as well be, given the similarities between the two. The campaign site's registration lists her "webmaster" as Chris Gordon, who happens to be the governor's Webmaster, too.

Gordon, whose official title is "policy advisor for information technology," says he designs Hull's government-sponsored site on state time, but works on her campaign Web site from home, as a volunteer. That's kosher, technically, but still, it's troubling that sections of the two sites are so similar. Specifically, the section on the campaign site listed as "Latest News" is almost identical to the "Latest News" section on the state site. Both sites use the same design to index Hull's state-issued press releases.

Another eyebrow-raiser: Hull's campaign site is assigned to two servers, according to the site's official Internet registration. One site, hullsrv1.hull98.org, is okay, but the second, ntdomain.sosaz.com, is not. It's the Arizona Secretary of State's server, and thus is funded with taxpayer dollars.

Gordon, who looked up the registration after being questioned about it by New Times, says it was a simple oversight on his part. When he originally signed up as a Webmaster for the Secretary of State's Office (he worked for Hull when she was secretary of state), he listed the state server as the one he'd be using. The state server isn't hosting the Hull '98 campaign site now, he says. It's just a carryover because he forgot to change his registration.

"Boy, it'd be a huge conflict of interest," Gordon says. ". . . That's a problem. I've got to change that."

Hull's campaign and state staff may not have noticed the trouble spot, but her opponent's people did. Mo Elleithee, press secretary to Hull's Democratic challenger Paul Johnson, sniffing a political opportunity, says, "The arrogant misuse of the governor's office for campaign purposes leaves me to think one of two things. Either Mrs. Hull's campaign doesn't know any better, or they just don't feel they have to play by the rules. Either way, it's very disturbing."

*www.azleg.state.az.us/members/mgardner.htm Tempe Republican Rep. Mike Gardner's state site is similar to those of his colleagues, until you click on "Mike Gardner's Personal Homepage," which is his campaign site--including a list of endorsements, and "links to pages that show why I deserve to be re-elected."

Apparently, Rep. Gardner hasn't updated his site lately. He's still campaigning for reelection in 1996.

In the realm of tacky, but certainly not illegal:
* www.adega.com Adega isn't a candidate for office. It's an Internet consulting firm run out of Tucson, whose owner spent much of 1997 buying up "domain names"--Web-speak for a site's address--including McCain2000.org, McCain98.org and Forbes2000.com. The firm is now auctioning off the names on its site. Adega owns the rights to more than 40 names, according to Greg Trangmoe, the company's technical director. Forbes2000.com has caught the most attention so far and sold earlier this year. Trangmoe wouldn't say who bought the site or exactly how much they paid. All he'll say is the price topped $20,000.

Anyone can buy a domain name--even an opponent or an opponent's friend. Check out this curious site, at www.ferraro.org. Voters looking for information about U.S. Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro will receive a message telling them, "Vote D'Amato!", then the page automatically jumps to the government homepage of Ferraro's opponent, incumbent New York Sen. Al D'Amato, at www.senate.gov/~damato. For the record, D'Amato has no connection to the site.

Ethics aside, is the Web efficient?
Local Republican political consultant Jason Rose says he hasn't recommended that his candidates invest in Web sites. The initial cost of putting the site online may not be prohibitive, but it's expensive to maintain one effectively, he says.

"[A site] needs to be updated darn near daily for a statewide campaign. . . . And that requires substantial maintenance," Rose says.

Rose's rule: Reach two and a half voters with every dollar spent. He says snail mail is more cost-effective than the Web.

He may or may not be right. There is a place on the Internet where any candidate can sign up for a free Web site, www.votenet.com. And Arizona Democratic party chair Mark Fleisher says the party has an intern who will design a site for any Democrat who asks.

But a really snazzy site--apologies, intern--can cost tens of thousands of dollars, particularly if it's updated often. For example, Bob Dole's 1996 presidential site cost $40,000.

And for what? Two examples of sleepy Web sites: As of July 27, Democratic attorney general candidate Janet Napolitano's site had only received 607 hits since it went up this spring. State Democratic Rep. Ken Cheuvront's Web site had only received 37 hits since July 6. Many Arizona candidates--like Tony West and Paul Johnson--haven't caught on that if you want people to go to your site, the least you could do is put your Web address on your campaign signs.

Even with more and more Web-savvy voters out there--an estimated 37 million in the U.S., according to EMarketer, an independent online research firm--Rose believes an Internet campaign is just a way to get your candidate some good PR.

"The reason--still--that you do it is for a media pop," Rose says. "It's for a story, it's the novelty of it. So then you hopefully get a Paul Johnson cover of the Tribune story about what a technological political pioneer you are.


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