New political ad stretches truth in Debbie Lesko vs. Hiral Tipirneni congressional race
Ronald J. Hansen
April 5, 2018

The ad opens benignly enough, with Republican Debbie Lesko offering a strained cheer to “make America great again!” followed by a cringe-worthy “woo-hoo!”

After that, her Democratic opponent, Hiral Tipirneni, unloads three hard-hitting points against Lesko, two of which take linguistic license and one that is flatly false.

With West Valley voters in the 8th Congressional District sending in ballots by the thousands, Tipirneni has aired an ad that implies Lesko could be a criminal, backs cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare and is responsible for a recent utility rate hike.

Lesko’s campaign pushed back Wednesday, saying the ad is false and shows that Tipirneni is losing in the conservative district.

“The lies contained in this ad show how desperate this Democrat is to fool voters just to win a seat in Congress,” said Barrett Marson, a Lesko campaign spokesman. “This ad should be taken down and exposed for the lie that it is.”

Tipirneni’s campaign defended the ad, but largely avoided its specifics.

“Our TV ad points out how lobbyists are thrilled with Lesko because she is an ethically challenged career politician at the beck-and-call of corporate lobbyists,” Tipirneni campaign spokesman Jason Kimbrough said. “She has done the bidding of powerful corporations such as APS, which recently raised its rates despite half a billion dollars in profits last year, and dark forces dismantling public education, which has teachers literally marching in the streets.”

Tipirneni’s first claim ties Lesko to “a federal investigation into illegal money laundering.”

That refers to a complaint to the Federal Election Commission filed by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. It revolves around the January transfer of $50,000 from a state-level political action committee that supported Lesko’s legislative races to a federal PAC that backs her congressional bid.

The terms “federal investigation” and “illegal money laundering” may conjure images of an FBI criminal probe.

But the Campaign Legal Center views the Lesko transfer as breaking FEC rules, something Lesko’s legal team disputes. The “federal investigation” is a process for the FEC to determine whether Lesko broke its rules.

“The FEC complaint filed by a non-partisan watchdog means Sen. Lesko is indeed under federal investigation,” Kimbrough said. “Perhaps Dr. Tipirneni’s opponents are taking the ad too literally, or maybe its allegations have touched a nerve.”

Entitlement position
Tipirneni’s second claim involves a “pledge to cut Social Security,” a more complicated matter.

This seems to be based on Lesko’s support on 12 News’ “Sunday Square Off” in February for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who said in December, “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”

That is widely viewed as meaning cutting spending or reducing eligibility for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. For now, at least, it’s unclear how that would happen anytime soon.

Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill last month that is expected to be the last major legislation before November’s midterm elections. Also, President Donald Trump has said he would not cut those programs.

In her televised remarks, Lesko qualified her support for reining in entitlements.

“We also do need to reform entitlement spending,” she said. “But we have to protect the people that are relying on it right now. … You work on reforming it for new people getting into the system down the road.”

That suggests that any changes to Social Security would affect people who haven’t yet gotten payments to cut.

Rate hike claim
The third claim in the ad ties Lesko to “a huge APS rate hike.” This apparently involves a controversial Arizona Public Service rate hike that took effect last summer.

But Lesko, then a state senator, had no evident role in a rate hike approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Lesko has supported the utility at the Legislature and has taken more than $35,000 in campaign contributions from the energy industry. But that doesn’t mean she passed a utility rate hike, as the ad implies.

The special general election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, which covers much of the northwest Valley, is April 24. Lesko and Tipirneni are battling for the U.S. House seat vacated by former Rep. Trent Franks, a veteran Arizona Republican who resigned last year amid a sexual harassment scandal.