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Why candidate photo ops go wrong — for Ryan and others

Published: Wed, October 17, 2012 @ 12:10 a.m.
  St. Vincent de Paul Press Conference

Brian J. Antal, president of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, discusses the society's position on political visits.

Brian J. Antal, president of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, discusses the society's position on political visits.

By David Skolnick

and Ashley Luthern



Photo ops for politicians are as old as well ... cameras.

With the frantic sound of media photographers and journalists moving through tight spaces like a herd of cattle, a political candidate’s photo op is usually fleeting and either reinforces a message or provides fodder for pundits and the opposition.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan created a stir and national attention after he and his family dropped by the St. Vincent DePaul Society Dining Hall on Saturday.

The visit came after his town-hall meeting at Youngstown State University.

Brian J. Antal, president of Mahoning County’s St. Vincent DePaul Society, contacted The Vindicator and The Washington Post on Monday telling them he was “shocked” and “angry” that Ryan used the soup kitchen for a “publicity stunt.”

The society is nonpartisan, and Antal said that during election season, he wouldn’t permit any elected official inside the hall for a political “photo op.”

Antal is a registered Democrat, but said this issue has nothing to do with politics.

If he is elected vice president, Ryan would be welcomed to volunteer at the dining hall as long as it’s not during a campaign and without turning it into a media event, Antal said.

“I didn’t want to make this a negative on the guy,” Antal said of Ryan. “I’m not here to blast anybody. We have no [political] affiliation with anyone.”

Juanita Sherba, St. Vincent’s Saturday coordinator for the dining hall, gave the Ryan campaign permission to have the candidate and his family come to the downtown location.

She said it was a mistake.

The event was staged by the campaign, including having volunteers not clean a few pots and pans so Ryan and his family could be photographed doing that work, Sherba said.

“It was the phoniest piece of baloney I’ve ever been associated with,” said Sherba, a supporter of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, who said political affiliation had nothing to do with the issue.

The biggest political photo-op disasters are usually the fault of staff members, said David All, a Washington, D.C.-based communication strategist, who worked on the Ohio political campaigns of former President George W. Bush and retired U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich.

All has ties to the Mahoning Valley as he was the 2002 campaign manager for Ann Womer Benjamin, who lost the 17th Congressional District race that year to Tim Ryan.

“Staff members want control and to make an event perfect,” All said. “They are really tightly wound. They lose their head and it ends up being a disaster.”

A good photo op is “more about communicating rather than creating a fictitious event. If it doesn’t work, let the politicians roll with it,” he said. “Sometimes they’re great moments because they’re out of the ordinary.”

William Binning, professor emeritus of political science at Youngstown State University, said a successful photo op is one with a backdrop that supports a candidate’s message.

“What we found in the Valley over the years is candidates of both parties come in, and if they were criticizing the other side, they would try to find an empty steel mill,” he said. “If they were promoting high tech, the [Youngstown Business] incubator was probably the most well-known photo op.”

This wasn’t the first time the Valley has been the location of a breakdown in communication that caused some embarrassment and unwanted national media attention for high-profile politicians.

In July, The Vindicator reported that the Poland man who introduced Obama at a rally at Dobbins Elementary School was found by a judge to have improperly taken “trade secrets” from a previous employer and owes $515,218 to that company.

In 2004, Bush, a Republican, and Democrat John Kerry, who lost that year’s presidential election, each had embarrassing moments in the area.

Bush had an invitation-only event at YSU on May 25, 2004, to discuss the importance of community health care centers, and how “junk and frivolous” malpractice lawsuits were driving doctors out of business.

Sharing the stage with the president was Dr. Compton Girdharry of Alliance. Bush said malpractice insurance forced the doctor out of his private practice.

But The New York Times reported a few weeks later that Girdharry had settled lawsuits and agreed to the payment of damages in malpractice suits in which patients suffered terrible injuries.

Not to be outdone, Kerry attracted national attention when The Vindicator wrote about his Canada goose-hunting trip in Springfield Township on Oct. 21, 2004, to show he was a sportsman.

Kerry pointed his loaded shotgun in the direction of a person nearby, and didn’t wear safety glasses or ear plugs, standard items when hunting geese.

Kerry wouldn’t carry any of the four geese killed in the hunt, making an off-the-cuff remark that “it was too heavy and I was too lazy.”

Kerry’s staff gave incorrect information about the gun he used and the name of the hunting dog.

The event came across as a staged event, which it was.

Mahoning County chairmen of both political parties agree that photo ops are a staple of campaign culture, but drew drastically different conclusions about the impact of Ryan’s soup kitchen photo op.

“A photo op is an opportunity for the media, and by extension voters, to visualize what a candidate” is about, said David Betras, the Democratic chairman.

For a photo op to be successful, it has to be sincere, and Ryan’s was not, Betras said.

Republican Chairman Mark Munroe said photo ops have a long tradition because politicians have limited time and tight schedules.

Candidates “look for opportunities to interact with voters and present themselves in the best light. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about that, but what’s happened in Youngstown has been blown so far out of proportion,” Munroe said.

He added, “It’s fair to say that the lifetime of a photo-op story is typically pretty short.”


1bmanresident(597 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

Washing a pot and a pan is STILL more work than Obama has EVER done in his life. Many people working at McDonald's have a longer resume than comrade Obama. O wait, I digress, he was a community organizer... whatever that is. At least Ryan and Romney both know the meaning of work and accumolating their OWN wealth, not stealing it in the name of redistribution.

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2opddad(61 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

“I didn’t want to make this a negative on the guy,” Antal said of Ryan.

Are you serious, Mr. Antal? Why did you call The Washington Post and The Vindicator then? How about the TMZ gossip TV show? I just saw a feed with you answering questions on an upcoming show. Harvey Levine had one of his interns talking to you on the phone.You're getting your 15 mins. of fame, but what is your goal here? Paul Ryan had permission from J. Sherba.
Was this a reverse PR stunt, done by you and your staff to "set up" Ryan? Hmm....?

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3chuck_carney(499 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

Mr Antal failed to adequately let those in charge known of the photo-op policy.

This exemplies poor communication and management on his part; he should be replaced immediately.

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4Dagwood(111 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

The right thing to do would be for Mr. Antal to give the Republican party back their money that they donated, so that everyone knows he means business when it comes to politics and charity.

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5YSUPenguins(16 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

Mr. Antal everyone knows that you are lying when you say that you were not trying to make this a negative on this guy and that you were not trying to make it political. The democrats that support you still know you were lying they just support your political view. The Republicans know you are a liar, but they don't support your politics. I have already found new organizations to donate to that help the poor. I will no longer donate to St Vincent dePaul until you are gone. You really should resign for the good of the organization.

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6DwightK(1256 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

All this outrage and no one mentions Ryan's people asking for some dirty dishes to be lft for the congressman and his family.


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7CasLee(9 comments)posted 1 year, 11 months ago

October 16, 2012
Hello, my fellow American voters!
I watched the Oct. 3rd and Oct. 16th presidential and Oct. 11th vice-presidential debates.
1st Romney-Obama debate covered 7 topics: jobs; budget deficit/debt; social security/entitlements; federal regulation of economy; healthcare; federal government role in economy; partisan gridlock.
2nd Romney-Obama debate covered 11 topics: college graduate jobs; gas prices; taxes; equal pay; Bush policies; Obama’s record; illegal immigrants; Libya; assault weapons; jobs; candidate misperceptions.
Ryan-Biden debate covered 10 topics: Libya; Iran; economy; medicare/social security/entitlements; taxes/tax reform/spending/budget cuts; military policy; Afghanistan; Syria; abortion; negative campaign tactics.
As an INDEPENDENT female feminist (egalitarian) voter, I support the Romney/Ryan ticket.
Romney and Ryan won all three debates, although Obama improved some in the 2nd debate.
Ryan won despite Biden’s consistently rude/disrespectful behavior during the debate
(Biden interrupted Ryan often, laughed often while Ryan was talking, pointed his finger often).
Biden’s tactics to evade issues/truth were disrespectful to Americans interested in facts, figures, forecasts, and solutions for real people with real problems.
Romney and Ryan won with substance, directness, integrity, respect, clarity, facts, commitment, inspiration, and leadership.
These debates confirm that Romney and Ryan are the best persons in terms of qualifications and character to lead our country to solve problems and make life better for all Americans.
I am inspired by Romney/Ryan, and I hope that you are too!
Best regards,
Cas Lee

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