iHeartMedia (formerly known as Clear Channel) won’t run a political ad sharply critical of mayoral candidate Bill King, citing concerns about “legal liability.” The Houston Professional Firefighters Association, which bought airtime for the ad on 99.1 FM and 790 AM, says the spot had been approved by the station’s lawyers but was inexplicably pulled at the last minute.
“We’ve never really gotten an explanation,” HPFFA president Alvin White told the Houston Press. “We asked several times what was wrong. All they would say was that it was a legal liability issue.” The union also suspects iHeartMedia shared the ad with a competing radio station, which also refused to run the ad when approached by the union. (iHeartMedia reps did not respond to questions Sunday.)
The ad at issue aims to discredit King’s public safety credentials by saying that as Kemah mayor he came to the defense of a convicted child predator. The article cites as evidence our 2003 story chronicling one of the many public dustups during King’s tenure as mayor.
In the story, former Press writer Scott Nowell detailed the animus that had been building between King and members of the local water board. Nowell included this:
King also opposed the ouster of the former chief of the Kemah Volunteer Fire Department, David Dockens, after it was discovered he had a 1987 conviction for sexually assaulting a ten-year-old girl. Dockens was forced to resign in 2002 due to pressure from the water board, which controls the department's funding. Water board members say they were incensed that King and other Kemah city officials knew of Dockens's past long before his appointment as chief.
It’s exactly the kind of attack ad you’d expect to surface in the waning days of a tight race. King addressed the issue twice in debates over the weekend, telling the voters largely what he told us back then—that the charges against the fire chief stemmed from a messy divorce, and that he believed the man was innocent (for what it’s worth, the man pleaded guilty to the charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child.)
The fire union announced its support for Sylvester Turner, who faces King in a runoff election December 12, early on in the race. It's a particularly important endorsement, considering firefighters are at the center of an issue that's dominated that mayoral race: pension reform. As payouts for benefits eat up a growing share of the city's budget each year, Mayor Annise Parker has struggled to bring the firefighters pension board to the table for negotiations; that's in large part due to a decades-old state law that essentially leaves Parker powerless to control the amount the city has to contribute to the firefighters' current pension fund.
On the eve of the union's endorsement earlier this year, Turner helped broker a deal between city and the fire pension board that was supported by firefighters. King, meanwhile, has urged the kind of systemic reform to pensions that the fire union has long resisted. While the union has ratcheted up efforts to support Turner in the final days of the campaign (White was out block-walking with the campaign on Saturday), the ad that was spiked by local radio stations is perhaps the union's most straightforward attack on King yet.
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White says the union wanted to run the ad over Thanksgiving week for maximum impact—“It’s a busy week, a lot of people in their cars,” he says. The station approved the ad the morning of Friday November 20, he says. But then later that evening, after business hours, the station reneged. (The union wound up running this pro-Turner ad, which it had already planned on running, with the airtime it had already purchased for the attack ad.)
Then, when the union approached Cumulus, which owns and operates 104.1 KRBE, with the attack ad, the station’s ad reps already knew iHeartRadio had refused to run it. “[A]ll stations talk within the city,” the rep said in an email to the union’s media buyer (the union shared portions of that email exchange with the Press). The Cumulus rep also wrote, apropos of nothing, “BTW-Bill King is working hard..” White says he’s concerned the station was sharing information about ads deemed too controversial to air.
With airtime bought but an ad the stations wouldn't run, the fire union instead ran something decidedly more cheery: