Political candidates may not tell reporters all there is to know about themselves, their stances on issues and where money comes from. But records can test campaign slogans, track the money trail, sort hearsay and clear up he-said, she-said debates.
As standard procedure, some newspapers routinely check the backgrounds of political candidates. When the San Diego Union Tribune found divorce and domestic violence in a long-shot candidate’s biography, it perked veteran reporter Caitlin Rother’s attention.
Republican Jim Galley had run for public office four times in the past four years and had not won anything.
“He’s not a major candidate,” Rother said. “He’s not the kind of person we generally spend a lot of time on.”
But Rother, who has been a reporter for 19 years, decided to get the 1988 court files anyway.
In the courthouse basement she discovered a handwritten temporary restraining order alleging the candidate for Congress had beaten his former wife, slapped her son and threatened to kill their neighbor.
Galley, who was running for Congress on a traditional family values campaign, denied the restraining order existed.
Galley also said he was drafted into the Navy in 1974, months after the draft ended in 1973. To get Galley’s record, Rother filed a request with the Military Personnel Records office in St. Louis.
But it wasn’t easy. There was no media contact available on the Web, so Rother was forced to call several offices to find someone to process her request. As the government relies more on electronic requests, Rother said it can be difficult to find phone numbers for media contacts.
While many allegations were made against Galley, Rother stuck closely to the records and told Galley what she found before the story was published.
“Basically, I just kept calling him and asking him to respond to things, and he never was able to produce any documentation to dispute what needed to be disputed,” she said.
The story received national attention by political pundits such as Al Franklin and Rush Limbaugh, Rother said.
Many reporters don’t think of all of the resources they have to get background on candidates or elected officials, she said.
Brea Jones, a 2006 graduate of California State University in Chico, is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pulliam/Kilgore intern at the Society’s headquarters in Indianapolis. She recently accepted a job at The Record in Stockton, Calif.