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Politicians need thick skin. Name calling has a long, if not honorable, history in public life, and opinions are protected speech under the Constitution.
But all names are not equal -- nor are they even matters of opinion.
A number of websites and blogs recently have been busy claiming there are 70 card-carrying Socialists in the U.S. House of Representatives, including three Democrats from Ohio: Reps. Marcia Fudge, Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich. (The number actually varies. Some posts say 70, others insist it’s either 73 or 76 and some go as high as 83. One post used both 76 and 75 in the same entry.)
While most of the names politicians are called are opinions, calling a congressman a Socialist sounds both emphatic and exact, which always gets our attention at PolitiFact Ohio.
Another thing that gets our attention is when a claim gets spread far and wide. This one meets that test, too.
Our colleagues at PolitiFact Oregon scrutinized the claim because it also named two members of that state's congressional delegation. We're following their work here.
An Aug. 12 post on the website for a group called Sovereign Citizens United mentions Fudge, Kaptur and Kucinich by name. It also says this: "I’m sure if you asked random people on the street if we had open socialists in the U.S. Congress, they would say – well only Bernie Sanders (Senate). But the right answer is much, much worse."
"This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one," says an Aug. 16 post on ConservativeByte.com. "The radical Marxist-progressives (communists) took control of the Democrat party some time ago. They’ve only become more emboldened with the election of Barack Obama, who was raised as a communist from birth."
In case you miss the point, the post comes equipped with a large and very bright hammer and sickle emblem.
Here’s a blog post on Aug. 17 by Texas radio host Dan Cofall, whose show airs out of Fort Worth:
"The magic number ‘70’ is the number of members of the 111th Congress who are members of the Democratic Socialists of America. These are not just politicians who vote left of center; these are card-carrying members of ‘the Democratic Socialists of America’."
Cofall did not respond to an email asking for comment. And PolitiFact couldn’t reach anyone from ConservativeByte.
Before our ruling, let’s begin with some basics. Congress resets itself every two years, which means the current edition is the 112th Congress, not the 111th. Why does that matter? Because the new Congress that begins in January every two years always follows an election and some of the people on the list are no longer in office.
Cofall acknowledges this but then continues to list names from the 111th Congress anyway. Those listed as "card carrying" socialists who are no longer serving include Robert Wexler (Florida), Phil Hare (Illinois), John Hall (New York), Alan Grayson (Florida), and Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii).
Then there’s this: Real card-carrying Socialists say those members are not Socialists.
The list that Cofall and dozens more rely upon "is completely fraudulent," said Frank Llewellyn, who served as national director of the Democratic Socialists of America for 10 years until stepping down July 5.
There is not one member of Congress who is a formal member of the DSA, Llewellyn said. In order to join, a person must fill out a form and pay dues. Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is not a formal member of the DSA, Llewellyn said.
The last member of Congress who was an actual card-carrying member, he said, was California Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums, who served 28 years in the House until leaving in 1998.
Llewellyn and DSA’s new national director, Maria Svart are chagrined for two reasons. First, they have to spend time knocking down reports that never seem to go away.
Second, Llewellyn said, "if we had formal political relationships with 70-odd members, we would be making a lot more money’’ from dues.
For the record, Fudge, Kaptur and Kucinich say they’ve never been associated with the Democratic Socialists of America.
Fudge's spokeswoman, Belinda Prinz, said the same claim came up last year, when the congresswoman's office contacted one website and asked that her name be removed from its list.
"We're sorry to see this erroneous information get repeated," Prinz said. "She has never been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and never endorsed their activities or policies."
Kaptur denied the accusation and said, "As a Polish-American, I know very well the difference between totalitarian communism and fascism on the one hand and social-democratic governments in Europe that include our NATO allies."
Her spokesman, Steve Fought, said the claim "is part of this unfortunate trend in our country where if you don't agree with someone politically, you vilify and villainize them.
"A lot of people who throw the word socialism around don't even know what it is and couldn't distinguish the different varieties," he said. "It's a facile way for people who don't understand shades of gray to talk about political movements."
Kucinich said: "I'm a Democrat."
Bad information gets spread all the time. But where did the number, or numbers, come from?
The list purported to have originated with the DSA says this on page two:
Q: How many members of the U.S. Congress are also members of the DSA?
It then lists them by name. What it does not say is that the names are simply lifted en masse from the membership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a collection of liberal-leaning lawmakers that includes not a single socialist.
According to its website, the Progressive Caucus is one of the largest in Congress and works for such causes as economic justice, civil rights and civil liberties as well as global peace and security. Llewellyn said that DSA supports some of the policy positions of the caucus.
Voicing support for positions embraced by a group of lawmakers is a routine part of business on Capitol Hill and is employed by organizations as disparate as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and NORML, a group devoted to legalizing the use of marijuana. But agreeing with some positions doesn’t make a member of Congress a card-carrying Socialist.
Llewellyn says similar accusations of Socialism (with a capital S) have surfaced every election year since 1991 when the Progressive Caucus was created.
"There’s nothing we can do to stop it, Llewellyn said. "I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve tried to stop it."
Misinformation and smear campaigns also are part of political life. But these persistent claims about socialists are riddled with errors and outright lies. Any one of the problems would be sufficient to discredit the report, but taken together, the effort is flagrantly false. For that reason, we rate this claim: Pants on Fire.
PolitiFact Oregon, "Bloggers claim Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer are socialists," Aug. 29, 2011
Sovereign Citizens United, website accessed Aug. 12, 2011
Phone interview, office of Rep. Marcia Fudge, Aug. 31, 2011
Phone interview, office of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Aug. 31, 2011
Email exchange, office of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Aug. 31, 2011
Phone interview; Frank Llewellyn and Maria Svart, Democratic Socialists of America, Aug. 22.
Congressional Progressive Caucus
The Wall Street Shuffle, website for talk radio hosts Dan Cofall and Dan Stewart, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas
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