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'Robocalls' Sending Confusing Messages In 38th State Senate District

Allison Duncan got the call on her home phone just over a week ago.

“Lindsey Williams supports raising our property tax and income taxes to bail out failed schools not in our district,” part of the recorded message said, referring to the Democrat running in state Senate District 38. “Say no to Lindsey Williams, and put our schools first. Socialist Lindsey Williams: Not from here, not for here.”

Then, after three-and-a-half seconds of silence – long enough time for most people to hang up – the message concluded, “Paid for by North Hills Republican Club.”

A Democratic activist in Pine Township, Duncan said she was “disgusted” by the tactic. She hadn’t heard of the Club at the time, but she figured the call was tied to Republican candidate Jeremy Shaffer, whose campaign regularly decries Williams’ ties to the Democratic Socialists of America. Shaffer and his supporters were “spending more time insulting and smearing her than telling us about what he believes,” Duncan said.

As 90.5 WESA reported earlier this week, the North Hills Republican Club formed in September and has yet to file financial reports about who funds its efforts. Those efforts included lawn signs that resembled Williams’ own campaign logo, except for a banner beneath the Democrat's name that read "socialist."  But according to documents filed with the state, its treasurer is Carlton Fogliani. He’s also campaign manager of Williams’ rival, Republican Jeremy Shaffer.

In an email Thursday, Fogliani said he had "no comment on when or if telephone research was conducted.”

The Shaffer campaign itself, meanwhile, has complained of dirty tricks by Democrats, who they blame for taking lawn signs including one. “Sadly the other side is ripping down many of our signs,” said the campaign in a Facebook post. The post featured a photograph of two people carrying a large banner urging voters to “Stop Socialism in PA.”

90.5 WESA has spoken to other residents of the district -- which includes a swath of the North Hills and some of Pittsburgh's East End -- who have received political calls in recent days. But it’s not clear those calls can be traced to the North Hills Republican Club.

Those calls featured either a live or an automated pollster asking questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to support Lindsey Williams if it was shown she wanted to raise taxes on electric utility bills to pay for more welfare?”

Such surveys are often called “push-polls” – efforts to plant negative messages in the hopes of changing public opinion under the guise of soliciting it.

Residents who spoke with WESA about the calls said they hung up without ascertaining their source.

Fogliani said Williams had shown her loyalty to Philadelphia by saying she favored a "fair funding" plan to fund education at more equal levels across the state. Critics of the plan warn it will amount to a transfer of money away from local schools.

“No coincidence she’s endorsed by Philadelphia Teacher Union Bosses,” he wrote – a reference to Williams' endorsement from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Williams worked for a sister union chapter in Pittsburgh prior to her run. She said she backed a “fair share” tax proposal backed by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a liberal think tank with union ties.  That approach favors reducing taxes on wages, while increasing levies on income from non-wage sources like capital gains, dividends and rents.

Williams said the plan “raises revenue without raising property taxes and without putting the burden on working families.”

As for the calls, she said, “Clearly they are trying to distract from talking about issues that I think the voters really want to hear about.”

“I’m not surprised,” she added.

Photo via Karolina Kabat / Flickr

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.