October 18, 2012
If anyone in Guilford County
politics needed a lesson on the difference that a single word can make – well, they just got one thanks to Jeff Phillips, the Republican candidate for the District 5 seat on the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners.
The word at the heart of the matter is "endorsement," and the controversy began last week when Phillips posted on his campaign website and his Facebook page that Sixth District Congressman Howard Coble had endorsed him in the District 5 commissioners race against Democratic Commissioner Paul Gibson.
In addition to posting the endorsement claim online, Phillips' campaign also sent out a mass email touting Coble's endorsement.
But there was one problem: Coble hadn't endorsed Phillips. In fact, Coble had specifically struck the word "endorse" from a statement Coble had agreed to sign. Phillips had submitted the suggested statement to Coble for approval after Coble agreed to make a positive comment about Phillips.
Over a month ago, Phillips approached Coble and asked him for his endorsement in the District 5 race – a big political prize, since Coble is widely respected and since he's stingy with his political endorsements.
Though Coble wouldn't endorse Phillips, he did agree to be photographed with Phillips and he also agreed to sign a positive statement about him.
When Phillips approached Coble and asked him for a statement of support, Ed McDonald, Coble's chief of staff and press secretary, told Phillips to "Send something over" so Coble could consider the statement and revise it as needed.
The statement Phillips sent for Coble to sign said that Phillips was an informed candidate who had the best interest of the county's citizens at heart. It also said Coble endorsed Phillips – however, Coble struck the language about endorsing Phillips out and made some other revisions in the text.
This is the statement that was finally agreed upon: "As a resident of Guilford County
, I know that the same spending and debt problems that exist in Washington are here, locally, in Guilford. I know Jeff to be knowledgeable about the issues, disciplined in his solutions to the problems we face, and caring of the citizens he will represent as Guilford County
Commissioner. Congressman Howard Coble."
That message, along with a picture of Coble and Phillips shaking hands, was posted on Phillips' website. The headline that was posted over the comment announced that Coble "endorses" Phillips.
After Coble made it known that he had not endorsed Phillips but instead had merely offered a nice statement about him, Phillips changed that headline to "Congressman Howard Coble Comments on Phillips Candidacy."
About the same time the supposed endorsement was posted on Phillips' website, the email was also sent out stating that Coble had endorsed Phillips.
That email has a picture of Phillips by himself at the top, and, in big letters, it has Phillips' name along with the phrase "Limited Government."
The email reads:
It is with with [sic] great honor and sincere appreciation that I have received the endorsement of Congressman Howard Coble.
Please go to the following link to see Congressman Coble's comments about me and my candidacy for Guilford County
Congressman Coble Endorses Phillips [These four words are a link to the picture of the two men shaking hands and Coble's statement about Phillips.]
Thank you for your support!
Best Regards, Jeff Phillips
Republican NomineeGuilford County
Commissioner, District 5
A News & Record article also stated that Phillips had told that paper in an interview that he was very pleased to have Coble's endorsement.
After Coble's positive statement showed up on Phillips' webpage, and in a link in the email that Phillips sent out, Coble's office was questioned about the endorsement, and Coble said he had not endorsed Phillips.
Phillips said he misunderstood. He said that he mistakenly believed that he had been endorsed by Coble. Phillips said he was also responsible for conveying that belief to his campaign staff, and he added that there's no one to blame for the confusion but himself.
"The buck stops with me," Phillips said. "I take full responsibility on the part of my campaign. I've apologized to Ed McDonald, to Howard Coble, and I've corrected it on my web site."
When asked about the fact that Coble had specifically removed the word "endorse" from the agreed upon statement, Phillips said he was aware the word "endorse" had been taken out, but he added that, despite that, he still mistakenly believed that Coble had endorsed him and he shared that belief with his campaign staff who handle the website and other political messages. He reiterated that the responsibility for the misinterpretation rests entirely on his shoulders.
"I had a volunteer who helps with postings," Phillips said. "He used the word 'endorsement' in the title [on the website]."
Phillips said that, once he found out there was an issue, he contacted Coble.
"I called Coble's office immediately," he said.
Phillips said that, after that conversation, he "made adjustments" in the message, removing the claim that Coble had endorsed him.
"They were satisfied," Phillips said.
Phillips added that the basic message remains the same.
"Nothing has changed about his opinion of my knowledge and stance on the issues," Phillips said.
He also said he's sorry about the situation, and he said that Coble and McDonald were in no way responsible for the misunderstanding.
"My campaign made an error and I fixed it as soon as I found out about it," Phillips said.
McDonald said this week that he's not sure how Phillips got the impression Coble was granting him an endorsement – especially since the endorsement reference that Phillips had sent in the initial statement had been taken out by Coble.
McDonald said Coble's camp made its position clear.
"I made copies of everything," McDonald said.
McDonald said the first statement Phillips sent said that Coble was "proud to endorse Jeff Phillips."
"I showed it to Howard and he said, I don't want to use 'endorse,' but the rest is fine," McDonald said.
He said that, last week, he flew in from Washington and when he landed he was getting calls about Coble's supposed endorsement of Phillips.
McDonald said he was perplexed because he and Coble had been very clear that Coble had not endorsed Phillips.
"Jeff Phillips knew what the agreement was," McDonald said.
McDonald added that, on a personal note, he was somewhat surprised Coble was even willing to offer the statement of support that he did – given that Phillips had run against Coble in the Republican primary for the Sixth District congressional seat in 2010.
"Two years earlier, Jeff was trying to kick him out of office," McDonald said.
McDonald added that, if it were him, instead of Coble, he doesn't know if he would be quite as willing to even make a public statement on behalf of Phillips.
"I would find it difficult to be as magnanimous as Howard Coble," McDonald said....continued on page 2