Home>Campaigns>GOP NJ-11 mailer using image of burning car in NYC was taken two years ago in California dessert, photographer says

A Republican State Committee mailer supporting Republican congressional candidate Rosemary Becchi in NJ-11. (Photo: Hal Bergman via New Jersey Republican State Committee.)

GOP NJ-11 mailer using image of burning car in NYC was taken two years ago in California dessert, photographer says

Controversial mailer says that ‘chaos in New York City is threatening to spread into our New Jersey neighborhoods’

By Nikita Biryukov, October 01 2020 7:21 pm

Republicans are moving to ensure fear is part of the campaign to take back the 11th district.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s (D-Montclair) GOP challenger, Rosemary Becchi, earlier this week launched an ad — her second of the cycle — that claimed New York, where many of the affluent district’s residents work in normal times, was “beset by gun violence and rioting.”

Her campaign also authorized a Republican State Committee mailer that announced “the chaos in New York City is threatening to spread into our New Jersey Neighborhoods” in flaming letters above a burning station wagon.

To the Democrats, it’s clearly about stoking fear among the affluent district’s residents.

“It’s not surprising that a lobbyist from Washington represents the worst in partisan politics,” Sherrill campaign manager Elizabeth Davis said. “Faced with unprecedented public health and economic challenges from COVID-19, New Jerseyans are looking for leaders to unite us, not fearmongers working to divide. Mikie Sherrill is a former prosecutor and a veteran who has always worked to protect our communities — all of our communities.”

The tactic closely mirrors ones adopted by President Donald Trump and his surrogates, who have pointed to civil unrest in the wake of police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other persons of color as proof that the country would be consumed by havoc if Democrats were allowed to retake the White House.

But for the Republicans, it’s more about putting Sherrill opposite New Jersey’s police than anything else.

“North Jersey deserves an independent congresswoman who stands up for law and order,” NJGOP executive director Phil Valenziano said. “Mikie Sherrill votes with Pelosi 99% of the time, and voted to allow criminals to sue police officers for doing their job. Americans of all political parties are concerned about the violence in our cities and they need to know that Mikie Sherrill is more focused on supporting Nancy Pelosi than supporting law enforcement.”

Sherrill co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act, which among other things would strip law enforcement officials of qualified immunity they enjoy in civil cases. The bill passed the House in a 236-181 vote along party lines in June and has seen no movement in the Senate.

While the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Sherrill last week, the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association backed Becchi. Sherrill enjoyed the latter group’s support in 2018.

The Republicans’ tactic will likely help shore up support for Becchi among the district’s Republican base, said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, but there’s little to suggest it’ll help Becchi among the district’s many moderate voters.

“The polling of it does not suggest that it’s been a winning issue beyond the core. This kind of messaging has fallen flat. It hasn’t worked in Wisconsin,” Rasmussen said. “A Republican partisan may disagree with me on that, but I think we all waited with bated breath to see if it was going to work, to see what kind of backlash there might be, and it has not really materialized in a way that I’ve seen.”

There’s also the question of honesty. While Becchi’s television spot shows imagery of a burning NYPD cruiser and of fireworks going off behind city riot police, the mailer’s burning car has nothing to do with New York — or the east coast.

The photo was taken in 2018 by Hal Bergman, a California-based photographer. Bergman did not immediately return requests for comment, though he said on Twitter that his photo’s use was misleading.

“Can confirm it was a staged photo and taken in the California desert,” Bergman said. “Don’t often see my images used in such disingenuous ways.”

While its unlikely most voters who receive the mailer will learn of the picture’s origin, it’s possible the attack will fail to convince them anyway.

“Well there’s no question that fear can be an effective motivator, and there’s no question that fear can be an effective tool in campaign messages,” Rasmussen said. “The question has to be how credible is it? How many of Mikie Sherrill’s constituents look at New York city and see conflagration? How many of her constituents see conflagrations spreading to their community?”

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