MANASSAS, Va. – In a gravelly solo, American singer-songwriter Stephen Stills belts out the refrain to “What to Do,” a track on his 1972 double album “Manassas.”
“Do your thing, you know what to do,” he croons in a lilting Louisiana drawl. “Just don’t let nobody tell you no lies.”
Stills directed the lyrics at an old flame. But in Manassas, Va., – for which the album and its backing band were named – they convey a lesson that locals are taking to the polls in today’s gubernatorial election.
Ann Meyer cited the candidates’ honesty as her top issue in the voting booth. “I guess there’s a number of things that I’ve heard about Cuccinelli that bother me,” she said. “He lies. That bothers me. I don’t want anybody in office who is going to lie to me. I mean, that’s why it’s a democracy.”
Similar cynicism abounds in Manassas, a 10 square mile slice of sleepy Southern charm an hour outside of Washington, D.C. Voters of all stripes expressed equal parts weariness and skepticism at the campaign trail claims of both Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
Leaving the polls at Baldwin Elementary School on Main Street, Sonia Ferraro, an administrator at a local university, cast her ballot for Cuccinelli. She applauded his promise to protect her interests in healthcare.
It wasn’t an easy decision. “I couldn’t trust any of the ads on television,” she said. “I saw flaws with both candidates, but I wasn’t sure what was true or not. So I followed what they’ve done in the past, rather than what they say in the ads. I usually ignore the ads.”
With three ebullient daughters in tow, it’s clear that stay-at-home mom Anna Ahlbin means it when she says she doesn’t have much time for television. But she wasn’t happy with the handful of spots she did catch on TV. “This hasn’t been an honest election. One ad played up this ridiculous idea that Ken Cuccinelli was trying to prohibit women’s access to birth control,” she said. “It’s one thing to sling mud and have personal attacks but it’s another thing to misrepresent a candidate’s stance on the issues.”
“It’s basically just lies, and that’s wrong,” she continued.
Gary Shoeman, a local telecommunications technician, wore his “I voted” sticker with pride as he walked back to his car in the Baldwin parking lot. “I’ve never missed an election,” he said. Despite that sterling record, he’s disillusioned with what he’s seen on television and heard on the radio.
“There was dishonesty on both sides, to tell you the truth. I think the misinformation is probably linked to the outside money coming in,” he said. “There’s been lots of outside money.”
“Lots” is, perhaps, an understatement. 64 percent of the $16.6 million Cuccinelli raised for his campaign and 70 percent of McAuliffe’s $31.7 million fundraising haul came from out-of-state donors, according to a Sept. 30 analysis by The Virginia Public Access Project. Those figures don’t include the millions of dollars in independent expenditures funneled into the commonwealth by the political parties and national political action committees.
Tom Cotter, a civics teacher in the Prince Williams County Public Schools system, has used the amount of national attention and outside spending the campaign has generated as a learning tool. “I have a bulletin board in my classroom and I have my students bring in all the political advertising they see,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of stuff is very negative and very misleading. The ads have been awful. It’s very disappointing, but misrepresentation seems to be the trend.”
Cotter hopes his students will learn to evaluate and deconstruct the ads they see on television. “Everybody needs to know how to see past the spin,” he said.
It’s a lesson for politics in 2013 not so very different from the lesson for love Stills imparted more than 40 years earlier.