How did DUI arrest affect Lowe's chances?


Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe attends an agenda meeting at City Hall Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:22 p.m.

Two days after voters sent incumbent Mayor Craig Lowe into a runoff against Ed Braddy, Lowe was arrested on suspicion of DUI. With Braddy having garnered the most votes in the March 19 general election, the timing could not have been worse for Lowe. Braddy, who was also arrested for a DUI six years ago, went on to win the runoff handily, unseating the mayor.

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Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe attends an agenda meeting at City Hall Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

While it might be tempting to attribute Democrat Lowe's loss in the left-leaning city of Gainesville to a conservative to the DUI arrest, in recent years voters nationwide have shown an increasing capacity for forgiveness of politicians.

For example, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who famously left office for days in pursuit of his mistress and lied about his whereabouts, recently won a GOP primary in his state.

Sanford had been favored to win an upcoming special congressional election in his home state, although news that Sanford's ex-wife has filed trespass charges against him may hinder his chances.

Anthony Weiner, a U.S. representative from 1999 until 2011, when he was publicly disgraced after accidentally tweeting half-naked photos of himself that he intended for a woman other than his wife, recently made his bid for mayor of New York City.

Perhaps the best example of the public's willingness to move forward is the beloved Bill Clinton, who not only was accused of several sexual dalliances, but was impeached for lying to Congress about his affair with a White House intern.

The Sun spoke with local political experts, strategists and former politicians on what distinguishes politicians who survive political scandals from those who don't. There were differences of opinion on whether the DUI arrest cost Lowe the election or whether Lowe squandered a chance to recover from having been arrested.

University of Florida political science professor Stephen C. Craig, whose research focuses on political behavior and public opinion, laid out a five-step process often relied on in the field of politics.

“The first step if you wake up and there's a bad story about you is to deny,” said Craig. “But if you can't deny, step two says, ‘I did it, but it's not what you think.' “ If that's not an available option, step three, according to Craig, is admitting fault, but focusing on how much worse matters could have been. It's not until all three of those options are eliminated that politicians are advised to offer an apology for their behavior, Craig said. The last option, said Craig, is attacking the media.

“If you get to the ‘attack the media' stage, your goose is probably cooked,” explained Craig. “In fact, if you get to the apology stage, your goose is probably cooked.”

Craig also emphasized that surviving political scandal is also idiosyncratic, pointing out that Clinton successfully utilized the strategy of attacking the media.

Craig said Lowe did not give himself the best chance at surviving his mid-election misstep. Although Lowe issued an apology the evening of his arrest shortly after being released from jail, it contained elements of the first three steps listed by Craig. Many saw the apology as evasive, Craig said.

Lowe's first statement offered an apology to friends and supporters, but also expressed his belief that he would be found not guilty of the DUI charge against him.

“I don't think Lowe's apology was as compelling as it might have been,” said Craig. “You've got to be a sympathetic figure that people want to forgive.”

“But I'm not sure that even if he (Lowe) gave a really heartfelt apology that it would have been enough to save him in this race,” Craig added.

Alex Patton, owner of Republican consulting firm Ozean Consulting, said he believes it was the slow release of details surrounding the night of the DUI that hurt the mayor most.

“I'm a big advocate of hanging a lantern on your problem,” said Patton. “My goal in a campaign is if we have an issue, I want the reporters to be bored of it within 24 hours. Get all the information out there at once, take my lumps and move on as quickly as possible.”

Lowe issued a follow-up statement the day after the first one in which he said he would accept whatever sanctions the court/state attorney deemed appropriate. Days later, Lowe was offered a pretrial diversion program.

The Florida Highway Patrol released a dash cam video of the mayor's arrest the following week.

John Martin, former Hawthorne city commissioner, says time simply was not on Lowe's side. Martin, who has been sober for 25 years, had a history of drug use that is well-documented, but he went on to become a drug counselor and eventually have a successful political career.

“The reality is, people forgive, but you can't expect them to forget,” said Martin. “You need to put some distance between yourself and that situation.”

Contrary to Braddy's DUI arrest six years ago, Lowe simply did not have the time to demonstrate any contrition through his actions, said Martin, although he said he also found the mayor's apology to be lacking.

“If he was going to try to overcome such a tough blow in such a short period of time, his only chance would have been to be forthcoming,” said Martin.

Throughout his political career, Martin said he was open about his past. “I admitted I had a problem,” Martin recalled. “When people tried to say things about me, I'd say, ‘Hey, the truth is worse than the rumors.' ”

Martin also said he was not in a position to know whether Lowe in fact has a problem with alcohol, but added, “whatever causes a problem is a problem.” Martin went on to explain, “It doesn't necessarily mean Lowe is an alcoholic, but if you drink and drive, that's poor judgment in the least and in the context of a campaign, that's really poor judgment.”

None of the experts who spoke to The Sun was ready to dismiss Lowe's chances of political success in the future, given the benefit of time.

Mayor Lowe could not be reached for comment, but his campaign manager, Nick Mildebrath, made the following statement:

“I can't speak to Craig's plans in the future; we haven't discussed it. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if he was interested in an eventual return to public life, given his long history as a public servant and his feelings on the importance of giving back to the community.”

“It's hard to boil any election down to one or two issues and say the outcome was shaped purely by those. Beyond the issue you've raised, there were any number of city issues that increased turnout on both sides. Beyond that, the Braddy campaign did a great job of motivating and turning out voters in the traditionally conservative northwestern part of town.”

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