"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Lisa Bragg, a 37-year-old mother of two in St. Albans, W. Va., spotted a newspaper ad last August for a customer-service position offering the pretty good wage of $9 an hour. Bragg, who studied communications in college and talks with the easygoing flair of someone who “really just loves people,” called the number and soon found herself in the offices of Kelly Services, the national temp agency, filling out an application. And then, like the other people who’d come in for the job, she discovered that there was something strange afoot.
The people at Kelly were cagey about the nature of the position. They first made the applicants watch workplace-safety videos before divulging that the job had nothing at all to do with customer service. Instead, employees would be conducting a “political survey.” At that point, some annoyed applicants walked off. Those who remained were asked to attend “orientation” at the Charleston Civic Center the next day. There, the workers were let in on the big secret: “They said we’d be working for the Republicans,” Bragg recalls. “They’d been sneaky all along, so when they said that, you could hear the sighs around the room.” The applicants were then handed several documents describing what they would be doing — and Bragg, a proud Democrat, saw that the entire enterprise was based on deception, and she decided to walk away.
The employment session that Bragg attended that summer afternoon in West Virginia was, it turns out, part of an apparent nationwide voter-registration scheme engineered by Sproul & Associates, an Arizona consulting firm that’s been paid more than $600,000 by the Republican National Committee this year.
During the past week and a half, several former employees, elections officials and others across the country who’ve had dealings with the firm have revealed to various local media outlets Sproul’s methods for boosting GOP registration in key swing states. The accounts allege that Sproul’s workers were encouraged to lie, cheat and, according to Eric Russell, a former Sproul employee in Las Vegas who first told his story to a local television station last week, even destroy the registration forms of Democrats who’d registered to vote with Sproul canvassers. Sproul has denied those charges, variously challenging the veracity of its former employees; but taken together, the stories are compelling, and they may provide an early glimpse into the kinds of shady tactics Republicans are using to win at the polls this year.
In Bragg’s account, workers were asked to congregate outside local convenience stores and pretend to be nonpartisan political pollsters interested in the nuances of local opinion. “If anyone asks what kind of poll [this is], it is a simple field poll to see what neighborhood support is,” reads the script Sproul handed Bragg. But if the respondents to this pretend poll said that they were Bush supporters, canvassers were told to offer to help them register to vote. If they said they were Kerry supporters, the canvassers would politely walk away.
Bragg says that fooling people was the key to the job. Canvassers were told to act as if they were nonpartisan, to hide that they were working for the RNC, especially if approached by the media. Bragg’s story mirrors the accounts provided to Salon by several librarians across the country who say they were contacted by Sproul in early September. In letters the firm sent to the libraries, Sproul misrepresented itself as America Votes — a left-leaning national voter registration group not affiliated with Sproul — but said that it was interested in registering “all those who wish to register to vote.” Shortly after Sproul canvassers began working the libraries, though, patrons began complaining that the canvassers were being especially inquisitive about their political leanings, and some were pushing people to register as Republicans.
Pushiness seems to be a common theme in accounts of Sproul’s activities. Barbara Nielsen, the clerk of Douglas County, Ore., says that she received a couple of written complaints from local citizens who’d been harassed by Sproul canvassers bent on recruiting people for the GOP. Since many Sproul canvassers were paid for each Republican registration form they handed in but got nothing for Democratic forms, some had an incentive to coerce people to go red, and to be careless about the forms Democrats handed to them. Michael Johnson, a Sproul canvasser in Portland, Ore., told a local TV station there last week that because he wasn’t being paid for the Democratic forms he turned in, he “might” sometimes trash them. The revelation prompted Oregon officials to open an investigation into Sproul.
Across the nation, state and federal officials are now looking into Sproul’s efforts. There is no evidence that Sproul’s questionable tactics were encouraged by Republican Party officials or, indeed, that the RNC even knew what the firm was up to. In statements, the Republicans have responded to the Sproul news by claiming to have a “zero-tolerance policy for anything that smacks of impropriety in registering voters.”
But Democrats in Arizona say that the RNC was playing with fire in choosing Sproul for its outreach efforts and that the selection at least shows the party’s lack of concern for preventing fraud. Nathan Sproul, the 32-year-old founder of Sproul & Associates (who did not respond to several of Salon’s phone calls), “always seems to be playing things right on the edge,” says Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic political consultant in Phoenix. Sproul’s efforts, earlier this year, to collect signatures to repeal Arizona’s public campaign financing bill were considered underhanded. Democrats also blanched at Sproul’s involvement over the summer with Ralph Nader’s efforts to find a place on the Arizona ballot.
Sarah Rosen, spokeswoman for the state’s Democratic Party, says news of Sproul’s activities in Nevada didn’t come as any surprise to anyone in Arizona. “Absolutely no surprise. Nathan Sproul is accused of ripping up Democrats’ registration forms? Everybody went, ‘Oh, sure, that sounds right.’ So why is this man who’s been known to be involved in these activities continually receiving contracts from the Republican Party?”
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“Hello, we are doing a simple survey. If the election were held today, would you vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry?” So goes the first question on the script that Sproul’s employees were asked to read to prospective registrants. The script, which was provided to Salon by Lisa Bragg, is printed on Sproul & Associates and America Votes letterhead, even though Sproul & Associates is not affiliated with America Votes. (In other states, the company has also gone by the name Voters Outreach of America.)
Bragg gave Salon several documents that she was handed during the recruitment session. Some of these documents counseled employees not to dismiss Democrats; the headline on one of the documents reads, “Don’t turn anyone away!” In large, all-caps type, it says, “ALL CITIZENS WILL BE PROVIDED THE SAME OPPORTUNITY TO REGISTER.” The documents also remind canvassers to be polite. “If a person becomes angry, it is important to listen to them, but not argue back,” the documents say. “If a person is agitated, they might complain to the store manager, risking the loss of this location to register voters at. Please be sensitive toward others of different political affiliations who do not want to support President Bush. The Goal is to Register Republicans, and to remain positive.”
But while they were asked to keep a cheery outlook, it’s clear the employees were also told not to register Democrats unless people specifically asked for the forms. In what’s called the “Kerry Scenario” on the script handed to employees, people who said they supported the Democrat for president were to be told, “Thank you very much for your time, I will record this.” But people supporting Bush were to be told, “Great, well this is a very important election. Are you registered to vote at your current residence?” The Sproul employee was to help those who were not registered fill out the form.
On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a Sproul employee script that it had received from a former worker in western Pennsylvania featured additional questions for undecided voters: “Do you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life?” and “Are you worried about the Democrats raising taxes?” If the voters were pro-life, they were to be registered. “If they are pro-choice, say thank you and walk away.”
To Bragg, such tactics constituted lying to her friends and neighbors. “They were asking me to be deceptive and to go behind people’s back,” she says. “I thought that was wrong and sneaky.” She remembers other prospective workers at the recruitment drive also saying they felt uncomfortable with these guidelines, but for many, the money was too good to pass up. “Most people jumped at the chance to get this kind of work. A lot of the jobs around here are minimum wage, and this was a good opportunity for people who needed some part-time work or flexible hours.”
Some workers at the orientation session said that they would try, despite Sproul’s rules, to register Democrats anyway, Bragg recalls. “But the Sproul people were saying that they were going to have people checking up on us in the field. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder to see if Big Brother is watching me to make sure I’m not signing up Democrats.’” Bragg decided not to take the job and instead she alerted her former college journalism professor and the local press about her experiences. Her story was first reported, to little national notice, in the Charleston Gazette in late August.
In the past few years, left-leaning third-party advocacy groups have made voter registration a priority, and they’ve launched unprecedented efforts to sign people up for the polls. Though nominally nonpartisan and not affiliated with the Democratic Party in any official capacity, nobody doubts that the efforts of these groups — such as the real America Votes, which works together with America Coming Together (ACT) and the Media Fund — are meant to bolster Kerry in November. So how is Sproul’s work different? Why is it wrong when Sproul asks its workers to focus on Republicans in the same way that America Votes might ask its workers to canvass a historically Democratic neighborhood?
Those are the questions the RNC asks in attacking Democrats “whose selective outrage does not apply to Democrat aligned groups like ACT, ACORN and others despite widespread allegations of systematic voter registration fraud.” And in fact, the Republicans are right that some progressive groups have been accused of registration mischief. On Oct. 11, for instance, a local television news show in Denver reported that employees for ACORN, a group that has focused on registering low-income minorities, say they’ve been registering the same people multiple times in order to get paid more than once. (ACORN says that it’s investigating the claims and notes that, logically, it doesn’t have an interest in paying employees extra for registering the same people more than once.)
But former employees and others who’ve dealt with Sproul say its efforts go beyond the line of acceptable party boosterism sometimes seen in voter registration efforts. The firm’s tactics are systematically deceptive, they say; lying seems to be part of its normal business plan. When you tell people you’re doing a poll but you aren’t really doing a poll, you’re lying to them. The established left-leaning groups say they’d never engage in such a practice — and so far, there’s no evidence they have engaged in it.
The yarn that Sproul concocted for librarians around the country during the summer is another example of the company’s uneasy relationship with truth. One of these librarians is Meghan O’Flaherty, the central library manager of the Jackson County Library in Oregon, who received a solicitation letter from Sproul in early September. “Our firm has been contracted to help coordinate a national non-partisan voter registration drive, America Votes!, in several states across the nation,” the letter began. It went on to ask permission to have “1 to 2 people assigned to register voters” outside the library.
When she got the letter, O’Flaherty looked online for more information about America Votes, and after calling the group she discovered that the real America Votes wasn’t connected with Sproul’s firm. “I do feel they were trying to deceive me,” she says now. Flaherty posted her findings on a librarian’s listserv, and when her story was reported in the local paper on Sept. 21, Nathan Sproul professed innocence. “We were not trying to copy their name,” he told the paper, saying that he’d never before heard of the large, well-funded America Votes.
Holly McCullough, the special assistant to the director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, also received a solicitation from Sproul & Associates in September. McCullough and other librarians in the region initially let the firm conduct registration at the libraries. When library patrons began complaining about the Sproul workers’ tactics, though, she called the company and complained. In response, the firm told her some outlandish stories.
Sproul first said that workers had been asking people their political affiliations “because they were doing some market analysis in the area,” McCullough says. “I told them they were only supposed to be doing registrations, not market analysis. So then they said they were having trouble with temp agency they were using: the temp workers weren’t working according to the rules. In my last conversation with them I asked them who they’re associated with — are you really with America Votes? They put me on hold. Then they came back and said, ‘We’ve always represented that we were Sproul, and America Votes is a non-partisan group we’re working with.’ But then they said, ‘There is another, partisan America Votes, and we’re not affiliated with them.’” McCullough asked the firm to cease its operations at her library.
Despite the recent chatter among librarians and some former employees about Sproul’s practices, the various threads of the Sproul story weren’t pulled together until Eric Russell, a 26-year-old in Las Vegas, came forward last week with his explosive account. Russell, who has acknowledged a beef with the firm over pay, told his local CBS affiliate that supervisors at the company routinely discarded Democratic registration forms. The station, KLAS 8, managed to fish some from the trash, and when it contacted the affected voters they were, understandably, shocked.
Republicans have responded by questioning Russell’s motives and his political affiliation. “There’s no way to prove what he says either way. He’s a disgruntled employee who had access to those forms. There’s no way to prove he didn’t tear them up,” says Brian Scroggins, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party. “I was told he had a prime seat at the Michael Moore event the other day,” Scroggins added. According to a report in the Arizona Republic on Friday, Nathan Sproul responded to Russell’s allegations by filing a defamation lawsuit against him. “The lawsuit claims that after Russell was fired, he returned to the office holding what appeared to be voter registration forms and told workers he would claim that he saw a supervisor tear up the forms unless he was paid what he wanted,” the paper said.
Sproul also told the Arizona Republic that his firm has turned in more than 1,000 Democratic registration forms in Nevada, and many others elsewhere; he has no policy against registering Democrats, he said. This was confirmed for Salon by elections officials in the regions where Sproul has been known to work; many said that Sproul’s workers did indeed turn in Democratic forms. But the Democratic forms were far outnumbered by the Republican forms, officials said, as you’d expect to occur with the kind of dishonest tactics Sproul was using.
Russell’s attorney declined Salon’s request to interview his client, citing the distress caused by the many attacks Russell has faced since he came forward. But the attorney, Michael Mushkin, says that his client has not been served with any lawsuit.
Russell has been interviewed by the FBI, according to media reports. But if his story proves true, action by law enforcement may not make much difference; the damage may have already been done, at least for the many Democrats who registered to vote with Sproul’s workers who are unsure whether their forms were turned in. In Nevada, the Democratic Party asked a judge last week to open voter registration for one additional day to accommodate the disenfranchised. The request was denied on Friday afternoon.
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Democrats in Arizona who claim to see a connection between Nathan Sproul and the efforts of the state and national Republican Party point to this fact: Sproul’s Phoenix office is located at 4715 N. 32nd St., Suite 107. The offices of Gordon C. James Public Relations, a Republican political firm run by a former member of the advance team for George H.W. Bush, and his wife Lisa, the head of the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign in Arizona, are located at 4715 N. 32nd St., Suite 104. At least geographically, then, Nathan Sproul is very close to a few of the most well-connected, powerful GOP politicos in the state.
But do the connections go beyond the physical? Gordon James says no; he and his wife don’t have a working relationship with Nathan Sproul, he said. “We don’t do any business together,” James said. “I’ve been with the Bush family for 26 years. I barely know Nathan. We both happen to be Republicans.” Before she began working on the Bush-Cheney campaign, though, Lisa James did head a group called No Taxpayer Money for Politicians, formed in the spring by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to pass a ballot initiative that would have essentially repealed Arizona’s Clean Elections campaign finance system. Sproul, a former head of the Arizona Republican Party, was hired by No Taxpayer Money for Politicians to conduct a signature drive to get the anti-Clean Elections bill on the ballot.
Sproul was phenomenally successful at his task. In Arizona, the Clean Elections system, which provides public campaign dollars to candidates who agree to forgo private funds, is broadly popular with voters, who approved the system in 1998. It’s supported by some of the state’s leading politicians, including Gov. Janet Napolitano and Sen. John McCain. But Sproul managed to get 280,000 signatures to repeal the bill. How did he do it?
Democrats in the state say his people weren’t playing fair. Sarah Rosen, spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party, recalls talking to some of the anti-Clean Elections canvassers while they were out looking for signatures. “What they would do is come up to you and say, ‘You know all those commercials on TV, those negative ads by politicians? All those are financed by your taxpayer dollars. Isn’t that just awful? I want to get rid of that, you should too. Sign this petition, no taxpayer dollars for politicians.’”
The claim, Rosen notes, was false; the Clean Elections law doesn’t provide enough money for many politicians to run TV ads, and anyway it prohibits a broad range of negative ads. But that didn’t matter to Sproul’s canvassers. Others in the state say that the petitioners would routinely just lie about the nature of the bill they were hawking. Even though their measure repealed Clean Elections, canvassers would say either that the measure didn’t alter Clean Elections in any way, or that it actually helped Clean Elections. Bob Grossfeld, the Democratic political consultant, secretly videotaped one canvasser peddling this lie. In the video, Grossfeld, pretending to be an interested voter, repeatedly asks Sproul’s canvasser how the bill in question would affect the Clean Elections bill.
“Would this help Clean Elections?” Grossfeld asks.
“I like the Clean Elections concept — would this be OK with that?”
“Yeah … this is for Clean Elections.”
“This is for Clean Elections?”
“Yes, it is.”
Despite the signatures Sproul raised, the anti-Clean Elections bill was struck from the Arizona ballot this year by a court that concluded that the proposition’s wording violated a state election law. But that wasn’t Sproul’s fault; his effort in the campaign, the signature drive, was a hit, and it’s perhaps based on that record that the RNC decided to hire him for its voter registration efforts.
Doesn’t the Republican Party fear being associated so closely with a man, and a firm, whose record is less than fully aboveboard? That’s not clear; generally, Republicans say that many of the accusations of voter fraud being leveled at them by Democrats right now are not substantive, that they’re part of a campaign to cast doubt over the election before it occurs, in order to contest the results if Kerry loses.
But this theory isn’t credible; it’s hard to look at what Nathan Sproul’s firm has done, and what it’s accused of doing, and conclude that the controversy is all part of a Democratic campaign. Clearly, Sproul’s firm coached employees to lie to voters. “That’s not how the country operates,” Grossfeld says. “Trying to suppress registration is antithetical to what this country’s about. For all of the flag waving that comes out of folks like that, to engage in that kind of behavior is just disgusting.”
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)