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New Strayhorn Spot: “A Can of Soda”

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The new Strayhorn spot marks the beginning of what her campaign hopes is Phase II of the governor’s race–a gloves-off assault on Rick Perry’s record. In previous spots, Strayhorn has sniped at Perry; compared to them, this one is an howitzer barrage. It takes dead aim at Perry’s biggest achievement, the property tax cut that resolved the school finance crisis. It opens with a shot of a TV set against the gray background that has been used for all Strayhorn spots. The TV is playing Perry’s post-special-session commercial:

Perry: “We kept our promise to you. The average homeowner will receive a two thousand dollar property tax cut.”

The scene shifts to Strayhorn in her black-and-red outfit in front of the same background: “Have you gotten your two thousand dollar tax cut yet? Don’t go running to your mailbox. Turns out most seniors get nothing, and the rest of us just about fifty-two dollars, almost enough each week to buy a can of soda. We need a government that talks straight with Texans and gives us real property tax relief. And real honesty. This grandma wants to shake Austin up.”

Since I felt that the previous Strayhorn spots accomplished little, I’d have to rate this one as the best, by far. It’s risk-taking, that’s for sure. It allows Perry to get his message out on time she is paying for. The question, then, is whether the counterattack is effective. The lines are good–have you gotten yours yet, don’t go running to your mail box, enough to buy a can of soda–but will the audience find the argument credible? There’s a huge difference between $2,000 and $52, so huge that she essentially accuses Perry of lying, and why should a viewer find her more credible than Perry? The danger is that the audience will come away (1) reminded BY PERRY that he cut taxes and (2) turned off by he said/she said fingerpointing. Strayhorn’s ability to rebut is constrained by the format of her ads. All she can do is talk into the camera. I attended her press conference after the special session, when she first made her “can of soda” remark, and she had a chart that . . . well, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember exactly what it did, but I do remember that she had a chart. That’s the point. To belabor the obvious, television is a visual medium. The format robs Strayhorn of the ability to use images to buttress her points. Words plus images, not words alone, is how you convey ideas on television. Imagine this ad done by a voice-over, with supporting images: a suburban home, a chart, a can of Coke, cutting away to Strayhorn before the gray background, saying, “We need a government that talks straight….” I still think the ad is effective, but it loses much of its firepower by not having supporting images.

Who is right? Probably (no surprise here) neither one. The actual tax cut for this year was 17 cents. The size of the tax cut depends on the valuation. Next year it will be 50 cents–a one-third reduction in school property taxes, or close to it, for residents of most school districts. One story is that Perry used the average sales prices of a home, as figured by real estate experts at Texas A&M, to determine the amount of the tax cut, but that number is much higher than the median value on the tax rolls. Strayhorn’s number, as I recall, anticipated the effect of rising appraisals, and she was supported by several tax assessors. But, remember, Strayhorn is only talking about this year’s tax cuts. Next year’s will be three times as large, at least before rising property values take their toll.

One other thing about the Strayhorn ad deserves mention. Her line, “And real honesty,” invites a counterattack. The Perry campaign jumped on Strayhorn all summer for taking large contributions from Ryan & Co., a firm whose business is to seek refunds from state tax collectors on behalf of corporate taxpayers. Is the Strayhorn campaign trying to rope-a-dope the Perry campaign into going negative? I think they want to be attacked. Be careful what you wish for.

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