A new ad for Jennifer Wexton, a top Democratic challenger to Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock, briefly features three police officers signing a poster promising “Change is Coming.”
But none of them are actual law enforcement. In fact, one of them is Matt Leslie, Wexton’s field director, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, has never been and is not currently police.
The uniform the officers are wearing do not match any of the 11 law enforcement agencies — sheriff’s offices and police departments — in Virginia’s 10th District, where Wexton, a state senator, is challenging Comstock in what is expected to be one of the most closely contested races this November.
“I have never seen uniforms in Virginia like that ... at collective trainings or otherwise,” Brian White, a former sheriff’s deputy in Portsmouth, Virginia, said. “Looks like Party City uniforms.”
Watch: Staffer Plays Cop in Campaign Ad
While the Fraternal Order of Police and many of its local chapters endorse political candidates, individual police departments rarely do.
“Whether it’s as a prosecutor working with law enforcement or as a senator pushing for gun safety measures, Jennifer works closely with law enforcement to achieve greater public safety,” Wexton’s campaign director, Ray Rieling, said in a statement. “We’ve seen campaigns get criticized for using police in uniform in ads, so we wanted to be respectful and avoid that issue.”
It is not unusual for campaigns to use staff and volunteers as extras in their advertisements, more than half a dozen political operatives ad producers reached for this story said.
Political candidates (usually) want to appeal to as broad a range of people and workers in their constituency as possible. Digital and television advertisements often feature them walking alongside a farmer in a cornfield, chatting with construction workers on their lunch break, or speaking at a roundtable with business leaders.
But those farmers, hardhats and entrepreneurs in the ads aren’t always real — they’re sometimes volunteers doing their part to help the campaign widen its allure by doing a little on-camera role-playing.
“People don’t spend a s---load of money on political commercials in the same way they do with consumer ads,” said Matt McLaughlin, a Democratic ad-maker who has gained a reputation for producing movie trailer-like advertisements for political candidates such as Wisconsin congressional hopeful Randy Bryce and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “So if you’ve got a campaign that doesn’t have a lot of money but wants to convey a message, you really are pulling all the favors you can from people.”
But operatives and ad-makers said that Wexton’s decision to have one of her top campaign aides dress up in costume portraying a police officer is not only careless but disingenuous to voters and disrespectful to the badge and uniform.
“It’s beyond stupid. I have no idea why they’d do it for a 1-second clip,” said Will Ritter in an email. “I guess buying police costumes at Party City is easier than getting support from actual police,” said the Republican ad-maker for POOLHOUSE in Richmond, which is not affiliated with any of the Virginia 10th candidates.
“It’s more than a mistake, it’s a lie, and shows how far Wexton is willing to go to appear to have support,” Ritter said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee called for Wexton to take down the ad for being “extremely disrespectful” to law enforcement and police officers.
“It takes courage to put on that uniform, and not just anyone should,” a spokeswoman for the NRCC said in a statement.
Other ad-makers questioned the effectiveness of dressing extras up in outfits as a strategy to reach and inspire voters — but did not necessarily think Wexton’s ad crossed any ethical boundary.
“Illustrating a point through portraying different types of people is totally fine,” McLaughlin said.
“I think it’s another thing if you’re dressing someone up and saying, ‘Jim the Officer endorses us for whatever’ — that would be more of an issue,” McLaughlin said, noting that Wexton’s ad stopped short of that kind of portrayal.
Wexton is competing in a crowded Democratic field for the chance to take on Comstock in November.
Wexton raised nearly $1 million by the end of the last filing quarter, according to Federal Elections Commission data. She had roughly $630,000 cash on hand to begin the current quarter, second among Democrats behind former Barack Obama State Department official Alison Friedman.
Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam endorsed Wexton in March. The primary is June 12.