Senator Straight Talk Won’t Go on the Record with Project Vote Smart

With no response from John McCain on its survey of issue positions after nine months, the voter-education nonprofit is poised to boot the Arizona senator off its board.

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For an advocate of straight talk and government transparency, John McCain has been less than clear with a voter-education nonprofit, on whose board he serves, about why he hasn’t responded to its survey of issue positions. Now, after nine months, 17 phone calls, and 8 emails asking McCain to state exactly where he stands on key issues, Montana-based Project Vote Smart is poised to kick McCain off its board later this week.

McCain has served on PVS’s board since the late 1990s, when he replaced a different Arizona Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater, after Goldwater’s death. Richard Kimball, the group’s president and, incidentally, the Democrat who ran against McCain during his first race for Senate, says the Arizona senator has filled out the survey, called the Political Courage Test, in every campaign since its inception in 1992. (Kimball counts McCain as a friend, and has tried to reach the Arizona senator personally three times.)

According to call records provided by PVS, the organization first contacted McCain’s presidential campaign regarding the test late last June. After the senator failed to return the survey, PVS staffers were told that due to tumult within the campaign—money was running low and staff turnover was high—the test had gotten lost in the shuffle.

Since then, however, 16 more phone calls have been made to the campaign, the most recent in late February, and eight emails have been sent. Currently, this message appears when you look for McCain’s response to the Political Courage Test on the PVS website:

Senator John Sidney McCain III repeatedly refused to provide any responses to citizens on the issues through the 2008 Political Courage Test when asked to do so by national leaders of the political parties, prominent members of the media, Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball, and Project Vote Smart staff.

The Political Courage Test tries to pin down candidates to hard and fast answers about critical issues. Among other things, it asks them to state whether they aim to support funding increases or cuts, and to what degree, on a variety of spending issues, from defense to the arts to highway infrastructure. It is sent to state and federal candidates every time they run for office. The point of the exercise is to push candidates to be as detailed in their answers as possible—a prospect that may be unnerving to many politicians who like to preserve wiggle room for future political maneuvering.

According to Kimball, PVS has a rule that prohibits any nonrespondents from serving on its board. And, after more than seven months with no response from McCain, the organization’s executive committee voted in February to remove the senator from the board on April 9 unless he submits his answers to the survey or a fellow board member objects to his removal by that date. “Assuming that John McCain doesn’t change his mind or there’s not some objection from board members, which hasn’t happened, effectively on April 9 he will not be a member of our board,” says Kimball.

Kimball has known McCain since he ran against him in 1986. “It wasn’t a very pleasant race for either us,” he says. “But we became friends after that. He was always a big supporter of the Project. It’s personally very disappointing to me. I was surprised that he didn’t do it.”

Board members have been removed for this reason before. Former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) served on PVS’s board until 2000, when he ran for president and refused to fill out the survey. Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has also been removed for not responding.

Among the remaining presidential candidates, McCain is not alone in snubbing the Political Courage Test. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have done the same. Kimball says that ignoring the survey is a worsening trend. “Every year we have measured that candidates are less and less likely to provide information out of their pollster-approved safety boxes,” he says. “Since we started keeping close track of [the response rate] in 1996, it started with 72 percent of the candidates for Congress taking it and most of the candidates for president taking it. Every year it has gone down a few percentage points, with a slight aberration in 2002. Currently, it’s down to 48 percent.”

The McCain campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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