September 23rd, 2010
10:56 AM ET

Political Theater: The long strange trip of Scott Lee Cohen

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

(CNN) - Political campaigns, like battlefields, are constantly changing. Claims and assumptions made today may not be true tomorrow. Endorsements that make headlines on Friday may be quietly withdrawn on Monday. So keeping your political ads strictly on the up and up in that environment can be tricky.

A case in point: a pair of commercials by Illinois gubernatorial candidate, Scott Lee Cohen. He has made the hosting of job fairs a central feature in his campaign, and he pledges to continue the practice when and if he settles into the governor’s chair.

He used one of these events as the backdrop for an ad custom made for recessionary times.

Announcer: “Only one candidate for Governor is holding job fairs in Illinois: Independent Scott Lee Cohen.”
Job fair participant: “I know a lot of people were getting laid off. I didn’t think I’d be one of them.”
Candidate, Scott Lee Cohen: “We can not wait until after the election to help people find good paying jobs in Illinois. We have got to act now!’
Job fair participant: “And I ended up getting a job with one of America’s biggest cable television companies.”
Announcer: While others talk about the economy, Scott is doing something about it.
Job fair participant: “My name is Jason Kyle and I am voting for Scott Lee Cohen.”

Seems like a clone of any other political commercial, right? Well, this one may be a little more clonish than voters realize in the Land of Lincoln.

The job fair in this ad took place well before Mr. Cohen began his independent bid for the governor’s office. In fact, this same commercial was used in his campaign for Lieutenant Governor as a Democrat. Same video, same faces, same edits, same happy Jason Kyle saying he’s voting for Mr. Cohen. The only changes appear to be the insertion of the word “Independent” instead of “Democrat,” and “Governor” instead of “Lieutenant Governor.” At one point, you can even see a “Lieutenant Governor” campaign sign in the background during his Scott Lee Cohen for Governor ad.

Watching the two commercials side by side is almost like looking at one of those puzzles in a magazine: What’s different about these two pictures?

But what you can’t see in the ads is also intriguing. For starters, Mr. Kyle was paid $300 dollars for his appearance. The campaign says he was not coerced or coached about what to say; the money was purely to compensate him for his time and cover any expenses he might incur by missing work.

There is also nothing to indicate that the job Mr. Kyle is so happy about lasted. Because it didn’t. We reached him by phone and he confirmed that it was a door-to-door sales job. The weather grew cold, he missed some quotas, and in ten months he was out of work again.

At one point, things were not going so well for Mr. Cohen either. He withdrew from the Lieutenant Governor’s race under a cloud of scandal over a very messy private life including allegations of domestic battery (charges were filed and later dropped,) and admitted steroid use. (He’s a body builder.)

But after withdrawing and thinking things over, he decided he belonged back in the hunt, and with the party no longer in his corner, he decided to run as an independent for Governor.

Is there anything wrong in any of this? From a factual standpoint…well, no. I guess. Mr. Cohen is still holding jobs fairs. People are still coming to them in big numbers. He is a candidate just as he claims he is. And oh, by the way, we asked Mr. Kyle after all he’s been through and all the allegations against the candidate, would he still vote for Scott Lee Cohen? His answer: If the accusations were proven true, he definitely would not. But he suspects they were just trumped up by the political opposition. Yes, he told the campaign when they called him to see if he wants to be in a new ad, I would vote for Mr. Cohen.

There are a lot of odd twists in this tale, a lot of unusual paths taken to arrive as this ad’s end, but the message is simply that Scott Lee Cohen is running for office, he believes holding jobs fairs can help the citizens of his state, and Jason Kyle, for one, appreciates it. That was true when Cohen first aired this ad, and it’s still true in the recycled version. So for all its strangeness, this commercial is Right On.

–CNN's Emily Smith contributed to this report.

Filed under: Raw Politics • Tom Foreman
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Kaner09

    what's the story here? He's hosting job fairs and getting people jobs. What's the current governor doing??? crickets....

    So what, he didn't buy a new commercial. I know he has a new one up now (the brids & bees ad) and it's one of the most entertaining ads I've seen this season.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  2. Edith

    I have heard about Illinois being one of the lowest states in job growth. I would think that someone putting his/her own money into job fairs is s great thing for that State! I looked at Mr Cohen's website and he is planning even more job fairs. If I lived in IL I would vote for this refreshing candidate! Good Luck Mr Cohen!

    September 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
  3. sturagga24

    Hey Tom, what was this article for? Are you really going to bash Cohen for finding this kid work and then hold him responsible for this kids ability to unsuccessfully meet a quota? Bottom line, without Cohen's help this kid would be unemployed. Also if he wasnt going to do the job he shouldnt have accepted the offer. Its not Cohen's fault this kid cant keep a job.Its not like any of the other candidates are taking time out of their busy campaign schedule to hold job fairs, or help the community in general.....

    September 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  4. New Illiois

    Come on – quit reaching. Just because Jason Kyle didn't keep his job doesn't mean Mr. Cohen's job fair didn't help him get it in the first place. You can only do so much for people. So if this reporter is in any way blaming Scott Lee Cohen for Jason Kyle being laid off once again, then I suggest you print a retraction. You can lead a horse to water...

    And really? Complaining that Scott Lee Cohen used a recycled commercial? I think there are better uses for his campaign money...rather than making a shiny new commercial, he's putting his money where it's needed – holding four more job fairs for the unemployed people of Illinois. I think that's a little more useful.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:09 pm |