TAUNTON — In early June, some Tauntonians were surprised to have received an email, seemingly from Mayor Shaunna O’Connell, that contained divisive, highly partisan messaging — something uncommon for the mayor.
The email, sent from the email address email@example.com, listed “Shaunna O’Connell” as the sender.
The body of the email was tame, and focused on the mayor’s proposed reform to the city’s charter.
A fundraising message at the bottom was the first sign of inconsistency in the messaging. Above a “donate now” button which linked to a fundraising page for the mayor, read “Stop The Democrats From Destroying America. Donate $25 TODAY!”
But what really caught the eye of some of the recipients was the message that popped up when they tried to unsubscribe from the email list.
The page contained a picture of and quote from founding father Thomas Paine, and seemed to be the unsubscribe page for a political marketing company called Common Sense Council. It then had four paragraphs that tried to persuade the email recipient not to unsubscribe.
The second and most eye-catching paragraph read:
“We know we send out a lot of emails. We do this to STOP THE DEMOCRATS from turning this country into a marxist-socialist hellscape.“
In a private Facebook group, Tauntonians expressed their disapproval of the inflammatory messaging in the email and the unsubscribe message.
“Local elections must remain non-partisan, this is sick and 100% false! Truly ashamed of whoever sent these emails!” wrote local Democrat Timothy Silvia Jr.
“What in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s name is this?” wrote Taunton voter Mark Doherty.
“This over-the-top, divisive rhetoric has no place in our community,” said local Democrat and City Councilor Barry Sanders on the matter. “Mayor O’Connell has preached unity and working together. I expect that she will explain how her name got associated with this, make clear that she condemns it, and take the necessary steps to ensure that her campaign isn’t associated with these negative elements in the future.”
Sanders’s prediction was correct. When asked about the email, O’Connell said she was very upset about it. She said her campaign committee had recently hired a new marketing firm to increase outreach in Taunton, but the campaign went sour.
“On this firm’s very first email for me, they cut and paste my City Charter information into the body of another client’s email that was running for Congress,” she said in a statement.
As soon as she became aware of this, O’Connell said, she fired the marketing firm, on or around June 7. She said she’s in the process of finding a new firm.
“As a lifelong Tauntonian raising my family in my hometown, I am very much appreciative of the fact that I was voted into office by a varied mix of voters, comprised of independent voters, Democrats and Republicans. I would never knowingly approve any communication that would disrespect or alienate some of the very people who voted for me,” she said.
“I am deeply sorry that this mistake occurred and I intend to put additional safeguards in place to ensure that a marketing firm hired by me will not make such an egregious mistake again. My guiding principle has always been to put people above politics, and it remains so today. Over the past 11 years, I have helped thousands of people from every walk of life.”
Democrat and Taunton City Councilor Phil Duarte said he spoke with O’Connell about the email right after he became aware of it.
“Unfortunately, divisive rhetoric has become the norm for marketing firms. Based on my time serving on the City Council, I can certainly state that Mayor O’Connell has been someone willing to work across party lines to tackle the issues facing our community,” he said in a statement.
“We may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day Mayor O’Connell has shown me that she is willing to look for areas of agreement to collaborate on and do what is in the best interest of the City of Taunton and it’s residents.”
Brian Frederick, chair of the political science department at Bridgewater State University, said that polarizing messaging like that in the email is uncommon in local politics, but not so in national politics.
“While people are identifying with Democrats or Republicans, nevertheless, in a local environment, you don’t see as much partisanship,” he said.
Frederick said he could imagine why that type of messaging backfired, and why the mayor would want to distance herself from it.
“Typically, you are in a fairly politically competitive city, like Taunton, and you want to try to get the support of Republicans, Democrats and independents,” he said. “Sending out a message that a huge chunk of your constituency is Marxist and socialist and wants a hellscape is not going to go over very well.”
When running a campaign, Frederick said, even if a candidate does win with that kind of messaging, it can be detrimental to them in the long run because it will have generated a lot of ill will, which make the governing process more difficult.
But, Frederick said, some political marketing companies might not frequently do campaigns for local elections, so instead they use the same playbook they use in national elections, unaware of the potential consequences.
Trying to tie Marxism and socialism to Democrats is a tactic Republican campaigns have begun using more often since the 2016 election and the rise of openly democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, Frederick said.
This tactic picked up even more in years afterwards after openly democratic socialist member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected and because some of the leaders of Black Lives Matter said they were openly socialist, he said.
On the other side of the aisle, Frederick said, some Democrats have used a similar tactic by trying to paint Republicans as fascists.
“That might be an effective strategy elsewhere in the country, but it’s not going to play well in a community like Taunton,” he said.
While Frederick said it is unlikely that no one on O’Connell’s campaign saw the email and the unsubscribe message before it was sent out, he said it is likely that either a campaign staff member thought the messaging was acceptable or simply didn’t pay close attention to the details.
“In some cases, [the candidate] may know and they may be feigning ignorance, but I think the more common scenario is where they just don’t know what’s going on because they delegate those responsibilities to campaign staff,” he said. “So I think it’s very plausible that the mayor didn’t know that that was the message being conveyed.”
Still, Frederick said, decisions like what messaging to use in campaign emails are often made in a black box, so it’s impossible to know who really came up with the messaging. And if something doesn’t play well, it’s usually the marketing company who takes the fall.
“If something’s controversial, the campaign is going to distance itself,” he said. “So who’s really telling the truth?”