Critics call local political attack ads racist

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The personal Facebook photos of two local political candidates are front and center on mailings sent out by their opponents.

Critics say decisions to display the pictures and alter them are racist.

“It was unfortunate, but it was the reality,” said Georgia House of Representatives District 164 candidate Marcus Thompson of what he calls an unfortunate division in his community.

The Democratic candidate was the target of one of the advertisements in question.

Thompson says a recent mailing from the Committee to Re-Elect Ron Stephens, the Republican incumbent, used a picture from his personal Facebook page without his permission. The unedited photo shows Thompson and his daughter holding up a “peace sign.”

“We had just finished a rap battle, and that picture came from that time with my daughter,” explained Thompson.

Critics accuse Stephens’ campaign of cropping the photo, using it out of context, and surrounding it with “cartoonish” lettering in an effort to give the impression of gang activity.

“My reaction was one of shock, unfortunate disgust, and immediately, it spoke to me about his leadership,” said Thompson.

Rep. Ron Stephens says there was no “malice intent” behind the advertisement and that he stands by his decision to send it to some voters.

“He posted [the picture], we made sure there was no family members in it. That’s the question that I had whenever I was called saying this is a family picture,” he told News 3.

“It only shows my opponent and that’s OK,” Stephens continued. “It shows gestures that I make, no different than anyone else.”

The mailer sent by the Committee to Re-Elect Ron Stephens.

Critics have also denounced Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap for a billboard with a similar picture of her opponent, Shalena Cook Jones.

Lamar Advertising confirms Protect Our Police GA PAC paid for the advertisement. A representative reached out to WSAV with a statement on behalf of the organization. In part, it reads “Protect Our Police GA PAC supports our endorsed candidate District Attorney Meg Heap in Chatham County by way of Independent Expenditure. DA Heap has no control or approval over the content of our mailers or billboards or any communication with us per election law.”

Heap’s campaign says they learned of the billboard after it was put up by the organization. They say it displayed “distasteful content.”

Experts say these type of practices are common when stakes are high in an election.

“In the case of Marcus, they almost tried to make him look thuggish. In the case of Shalena, they’re definitely focusing on othering her, making her look blacker, making her look more ethnic, making her look different from the base they’re appealing to,” explained Ned Rinalducci, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia Southern. “This is coded racialized messaging.”

News 3 reached out to Jones. She did not want to comment on the billboard.

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