On Wednesday, scant hours later, gubernatorial candidate Gibbons was the center of local attention at a widely publicized press conference at which he and other law-enforcement officials announced the indictments of eight employees of the Shelby County clerk’s office.
The contrast between a closed-door campaign event and a ballyhooed official act was dramatic enough. What made it doubly so, to the point of genuine irony, was that Gibbons has been emphasizing the just-folks aspect of an impoverished upbringing in rural Arkansas in his campaign. At every opportunity, he has been telling that up-from-nothing Horatio Alger tale, implicitly drawing a contrast between himself and the presumably more elitist circumstances of a major Republican primary opponent, Knoxville mayor and oil-empire heir Bill Haslam,
Yet a further irony is that Gibbons’ normal relation to the media is that of a pleasant, cooperative, and accessible figure. To be sure, he is famously close-mouthed abut the details of any ongoing investigation — no doubt appropriately so — but he is otherwise gregarious and transparent, even to the point of opening up a recent planning session involving his chief campaign cadres.
After his press conference Wednesday, Gibbons was asked his reasons for excluding the media from his Crescent Club fundraiser. The cloistered aspect of the event was a departure for Gibbons, a frequent candidate himself over the years and someone who has organized and hosted many such affairs for candidates he has supported.
After a spell of adopting the wry bantering tone which he sometimes employs to avoid direct answers, Gibbons finally said it had not been his decision to cordon the fundraiser off from media.
He was asked: Whose then? “I suppose it was David or Josh,” he said, referring to campaign chair David Kustoff, the former local GOP chairman and U.S. Attorney, and Josh Thomas, the newly hired campaign manager and former aide to U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. It was Thomas who either undertook — or was assigned — the duty of interceding between the event and arriving media representatives so as to turn them away.
These days most campaign fundraisers for most candidates are open to the media in some form, and informal ground rules are in effect for their coverage. Since such events are not technically public and attendant media are, in effect, being extended a courtesy, reportage is studiously non-invasive and normally restricted to the most bland particulars — the size of the turnout, general information about the attendees, and — should the host or the candidate care to release it — totals raised.
The candidate’s remarks to the crowd of donors may also be reported — but normally not in the exacting way that remarks on the campaign stump might be. In most cases the candidate merely repeats the campaign’s standard boilerplate. As for the nature of the attendees, there are rarely any genuine surprises — especially since many on hand will be, like the media members themselves, non-paying courtesy guests — and, should there be unexpected donors of note, their identities will eventually be made known anyhow, one way or another.
In short, there is nothing in the very nature of a campaign fundraiser that explicitly requires sequestration. And the decision to impose it becomes a matter of semiotics — in Gibbons’ case, a possible sign of a shift in strategy away from transparency. As such, it bears watching.