As the general election approaches, reporters across the state will rush to check the backgrounds of candidates. Such investigations can uncover criminal pasts or lies by candidates about their qualifications. (It's already happened this week—see this story on Amanda La Bell.)
This year, the Salem Statesman Journal proposed a new approach: Executive editor Cherrill Crosby wrote to mid-Willamette Valley legislative candidates asking them to submit to a background check overseen by a Washington nonprofit called Verify More.
"Our hope is that the partnership will improve voter confidence, decrease the chances of candidates inflating their credentials or omitting information, and negate last-minute opposition tips sent to the Statesman Journal as Election Day nears," Crosby wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to candidates.
Neither of the major parties responded with enthusiasm.
"It's just kind of unusual," says Tom Powers, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic campaign committee. "It's something you'd expect beat reporters in the newsroom to do."
Noting that many of the board members of Verify More have been active in Republican politics, House Democrats advised candidates not to participate.
"If a newspaper wants to hand over research to a right-wing front group, that's a problem," says Aaron Fiedler, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign committee. "Our consultants said, 'What is this? It's insane.' If they were handing this off to a Democratic group, it would be equally problematic."
Preston Mann, a spokesman for House Republican candidates, says his colleagues were puzzled and wanted more time to consider the Statesman Journal's request.
"Candidates obviously expect to be scrutinized as part of the process, but this request is a bit unique," Mann says. "Most of them are just concerned about who this third-party entity is and what they will be doing with their personal information."
Crosby, the Statesman Journal editor, says Verify More approached Gannett, the paper's owner, about the idea. (The McClatchy-owned dailies in Tacoma and Olympia, Wash., have also signed on.) She says there's nothing nefarious or partisan about the project.
"It's more thorough than most newsrooms would be able to do," Crosby says. "I see value in getting it done in one fell swoop."
Crosby adds that if candidates choose not to participate, that decision will not be held against them and her reporters will check them out anyway.
"We're not going to give people a free pass," she says. "We'll still background them."