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Phony Robocalls Muddy Cumberland County GOP Primary

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

It’s a dirty tactic that usually doesn’t get beyond daydreaming among campaign staffers. They’re phony robocalls.

They happen when one campaign places pre-recorded calls that support their opponent – and schedule them for most annoying possible times (the middle of the night, early in the morning, etc).

Eichelberger (left) and Wilson. Photo credit: Christine Baker, Patriot News

Their aim is simple – piss off regular folks and make their opponents take the blame. The hope is, by the time anyone figures out it was a gag, the election is already over.

That’s what Cumberland County Commissioner candidates Gary Eichelberger and Kirk Wilson say their opponents were doing when they allegedly scheduled calls late Thursday night into Friday morning. A recording of an earlier message authorized by those candidates went out to voters as late as 1am.

“It is our believe belief that same political opponents who initiated the recent smear campaign against us are behind this illegal tactic, specifically the political hacks associated with the county Republican committee because they are unhappy about our reform proposals that would end taxpayer funding of courthouse privileges that political insider including party officials,” they wrote in a release.

They’re even bringing the case to interim PA Attorney General William Ryan, alleging a violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 which requires a disclaimer on all political robocalls. A similar case in Maryland resulted in the raid of a Republican political operative’s home last year. He now faces a possible $56 million fine.

It’s not the first time illicit have been an issue in Cumberland County, either. PA House candidate Lowell Gates lost to Rep. Sheryl Delozier by about 200 votes in 2008 after a bevy of improper robocalls. Lowell later sued former House Speaker John Perzel over the matter, accusing him of complicity with the County GOP. Tom Corbett, then Attorney General, included the calls against Lowell, among other PA House members and candidates, in his Bonusgate investigation of Perzel.

Cross and Gembusia

Both the County GOP and the other Commissioner candidates deny having anything to do with the calls, and blame a technical error on the part of their opponents’ robocall firm (though many robocall vendors have an automatic shutoff around 9pm).

“I have and will continue to run a positive campaign. My 25 years of service as a US Marine have taught me the value of integrity and honor,” Commissioner Barbara Cross told PoliticsPA. “As I predicted, a slanderous mailer targeting me has been sent and now this implied involvement in these robocalls. The Sentinel correctly described Commissioner Eichelberger’s tactics as “bare knuckle politics.” When you discover that all this was really an error made by the company producing the calls – I will expect a press release with a full apology.”

“(We) knew nothing about these calls, they were not authorized by the Cumberland County Republican Committee. If someone was tampering with legitimate calls, we would love to know who is involved,” GOP Chairwoman Karen Best told CBS 21.

Suffice it to say, if someone did commission phony robocalls against Eichelberger and Wilson, they’re certainly regretting it now. And it doesn’t really matter if the ordeal was a malfunction of the automatic system as Cross and the Cumberland County GOP suggest, the headlines are already printed and the news stories broadcast.

It’s an “earned media” bonanza in a local race where candidates typically struggle to break through. Eichelberger’s and Wilson’s heated Friday press release caught the attention of each one of the county’s major media outlets: WGAL 8, Fox 43, ABC 27, CBS 21, the Patriot News, and the Carlisle Sentinel.

And it’s the latest chapter in a history of contention between Eichelberger and the County GOP.

Eichelberger finished 3rd of three in the 2007 endorsement vote, behind Bruce Barclay and Karen Gunnison. This year, the committee endorsed incumbent Barbara Cross (who took over for Barclay after his scandal-induced resignation), and South Middleton Township Supervisor Bryan Gembusia.

Eichelberger has had his own share of scandal. It was revealed last year that the Commissioner illicitly used his official county email to badmouth Cross and talk with Wilson, among others, about re-election campaign politics.

The campaign this year has been nasty. The county GOP bankrolled a direct mail piece reminding voters that Wilson endorsed Governor Ed Rendell in 2002 and 2006, while Eichelberger and Wilson bankrolled a mail piece accusing Cross of not being sufficiently conservative.

And since Eichelbeger and Cross each have the incumbent advantage, there’s a significant chance that Cumberland County voters can look forward to four more years of party infighting on the Board of Commissioners.

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